Long ago in the 1990s, when I was a freelance magazine writer, I never had enough of anything — money, love, other people, and of course, clothing.
I worked alone in my West Village apartment and most of my reporting was done by telephone. I rigorously scheduled social engagements at night, from dates to drinks with a friend, or a book party or reading or a real party or a fake PR party at a handbag store. If I didn’t speak to a real person face to face at least once a day, I felt myself fading from the human race.
It was a time of living between no money, some money and family-begged money. I was actually fairly successful as a writer, but felt like an abject, obvious failure. I was consumed with fear that I would never meet a man whom I could marry and who would marry me. The latter was the bigger fear. It was a terribly lonely and scary stretch of years, despite the many, many parties.
It was good, I guess, that I worked at home because I had nothing to wear. I was and remain a person who doesn’t like to think about my own appearance. You’ll be shocked to learn that I trace this back to my mother, who took a strong interest in whether I was thinner than she was or more stylish, or just younger. In reaction, I behaved as though clothing and makeup and hair color just sort of happened, like rain or state-level politics. I wasn’t in charge of it. I didn’t need to think about it. I couldn’t afford many clothes, and I maintained a steadfast belief that people (men) liked me for my wit and my mind, not for my appearance.
Needless to say, I didn’t look that spiffy. I was actually just terrified to make a stand, to try to simply pick a way to look. Decades of therapy and some amazing books (most recently, Women in Clothes, by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton) have fortified me so I can admit today: I care. I care, desperately, about how I look.
But the credit for bringing me from threadbare, haphazard and delusional to where I am now (which I assure you is glorious), the credit goes to the Bitch and Swap.
My friend Kim’s grandma had invented the practice in New Hampshire decades ago, and Kim brought it to New York. She made me part of her long-running Bitch and Swap crew, composed of journalists, mostly women. Reporters and editors and fact checkers and people from shelter magazines or bridal books all gathered at least three times a year for the Bitches, where we brought clothes we didn’t like and traded them.
We all dove into the Bitch pile, grabbed the thing we really wanted, maybe a few other things but there was some baseline politeness
Here were the rules. Please pay attention. The rules mattered. Every attendee would stand and present every item she had brought, providing context and color. In magazine speak, it went like this: “I wore this TK item to this TK event and TK happened.” If the item appealed to you, you spoke up. If no one else wanted it, you got it, but if someone else wanted it, the item went into the Bitch pile, a heap in the center of the room.
This went on until everyone had showed their clothes. Then it was time for the Bitch pile, the actual Bitch and Swap. We all dove into the Bitch pile, grabbed the thing we really wanted, maybe a few other things but there was some baseline politeness, and you tore off your clothes and you put on that desired item.
Did it look better on you? Maybe not, but maybe you had powerful, vocal friends who would back you up and take your side, and the other person would feel a little small, a little weaselly trying to chisel you out of the thing that looked so much better on not you. Or maybe it was the other way around. People handed stuff to you, you handed stuff to them, we all stared at each other’s asses and evaluated jeans. Shoes were hot tickets. Sometimes a stylist would come and pandemonium would break out as we fought over the really good stuff. There was the night of the leather pants–we all tried them on, and someone else got them. In my memory, it all worked out.
We’d rid ourselves of oppressive stuff (what wasn’t claimed went to charity — the host’s tax deduction). Those events created a surplus of energy and joy, and that, plus a pile of free clothes, carried me through the following months.
But what was so awesomely special about these happenings? It wasn’t the clothes — I barely recall the clothes. It was that the Bitches let me gradually nurture a love of clothing and a desire to own how I looked in clothes. Over the years, clothing and style morphed from a thing that meant confronting my internalized mother (never!) to a problem I could solve. I could watch other women grapple with their clothing issues, and I could borrow their bravery when I lacked it myself, via discarded clothes.
Take, for instance, a fellow Bitch who had and still has enormous breasts. Her clothing was very breast-oriented, as in her shirts retained her silhouette. We talked about her breasts at every Bitch. What do you do with breasts like that? Giant breasts are valuable but they also were sending messages that my friend, their owner, didn’t always pre-approve. Those breasts needed managing, solving, and at every Bitch and Swap, we worked on solving her breasts.
Sometimes the transformation was more basic. For example, this other Bitch—I’m going to call her Olive—showed me that I would have so much more fun if I would just pull the stick out of my bottom. Olive was super successful in a tiny specialized field, and she LOVED sparkly, reptile-print clothes. She was loud, she called everyone BITCH at the swaps and at other events and she was just too much for my ironically-detached self. I didn’t hate her, but I didn’t want to be around her. Then at one Bitch she claimed a packing blanket — a grey, dirty-ish blanket from a Moishe’s Moving van that no one else wanted. A few weeks later Olive turned up at a party wearing the packing blanket as a skirt, a skirt she made herself. I finally saw her as she was, not loud but just exuberant. Her total commitment to her vision seemed inspirational. Eventually she met a guy because they shared a love for sparkly lizard prints and lives in France with him, where she photographs picturesque plumbing pipes (like on an exterior wall) and enjoys herself. Can you believe that? THE BITCHES ARE MAGIC.
Over my decade of Bitches, I inched forward with different looks, different lines, different moods. I discovered that I looked good in wildly-patterned yet muted colored shirts that were very tight. In short, I discovered Vivienne Tam. I learned I loved espadrille wedges, and that dresses fixed more problems than they created. Wearing something someone else had selected and paid for lowered the stakes. Even I could take chances.
An ex-boyfriend said it best about the Bitch magic. Occasionally we swapped men’s clothes, and one night, a friend handed me a men’s orange ribbed turtleneck sweater. “Your boyfriend will love this.” I took it, doubting her, but when my ex put it on, he said:
“This is the way I’d like to think I looked.” He was right.
Bitches, I thank you. I definitely walked away with more than I brought.
(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)