This is After a Fashion, Esmé Weijun Wang’s monthly column examining articles of clothing she owns, and the stories behind them.
Yesterday I bought the fifth in a line of five near-identical caftans. Three of the five are identical (black); one is deep green; one’s the hue of a darkening sky. Most days, I wear one because they’re comfortable, and because hardly anyone sees me—chronic illness keeps me at home, if not in bed, and far from critical eyes. Five caftans are almost enough for me to wear a fresh one every day of the week. If I’m experiencing a bad flare, I might wear the same one for days while my hair darkens and hidden bones start to press against my skin. Meanwhile, I browse Edwardian gowns and 1930s day dresses on my phone from online shops with names like Adored Vintage. The hall closet remains stuffed with my favorite pieces from my mid-to-late twenties: pink chiffon dresses, fur-trimmed jackets, silk gowns with metal zippers, and genuine flapper dresses too delicate to wear.
Pinterest pins and lifehacking blogs heartily advocate for capsule collections—put simply, a person’s commitment to a limited wardrobe. With a dedicated uniform, so the idea goes, the individual saves money and valuable brain space; Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, for example, replicated Steve Jobs’s customary turtlenecks ( though not, it seems, his success ). Capsule collections are the sartorial arm of a general trend toward minimalism, which gestures toward anti-capitalism and simplification.
I am not, and never have been, a minimalist. New visitors to our home comment on the proliferation of knickknacks—I like to be surrounded by sentimental objects and mementos, whether a tattered 1920s pillow or a pair of Playbills. My aesthetic leans toward things that are old and crumbling, which was also the feel of the fashion blog I started in late 2007: Called Fashion for Writers , it was initially an excuse to take and publish Outfit of the Day (OOTD) photos while I waited to leave my job as a lab manager. Unlike the capsule-collection dresser, the fashion blogger’s job is to entertain via novelty and newness. And so I acquired vintage clothing through eBay—Etsy was still finding its feet at the time—for a growing readership and a swelling closet.
In 2008, I left California to study for an MFA at the University of Michigan, where I learned that the Midwest was, compared to San Francisco, a goldmine of affordable vintage clothing. Chiffon and silk were my favorite fabrics, and I refused to believe in the notion of overdressing—classmates called out to me, laughing, late one night while I took out the garbage in an enormous faux-fur coat. Despite the snowstorms and occasionally below-zero temperatures, I maintained a “no-pants-all-skirts” philosophy with the help of impenetrable leggings and clunky snow boots. The owner of the local vintage shop knew my tastes by heart; I was the Asian American girl who loved ‘30s day dresses, which she’d set aside for me in between visits. Eventually I asked my college friend Jenny Zhang, who was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the time, if she wanted to take part in the blog. (“Are you checking her out?” a mutual friend once asked at a party. I’d actually been admiring Jenny’s black knee-high stockings.) Later I’d hand Fashion for Writers over to her completely, and then she’d move on to become one of the first, and most beloved, writers at Rookie.
My time as a fashion blogger was, in many ways, the most confident I’ve ever been. I believed in my writing and its potential. I liked the way I looked—I even did a bit of local modeling. Through my writing program, and for the first time in my life, I had a best friend who felt like a sister. All of this is, of course, heavily idealized, and overlooks periods in which I was convinced the landlord had installed cameras in my shower, or the bouts of self-harm I used to drown out depression or anxiety.
Still, I wasn’t physically sick. I could write for hours fueled by coffee or tipsy on gin and tonics. I went to the gym in below-freezing weather. I wrote my thesis, which then became my debut novel, and then I moved back to California to be with my partner, whom I’d married in between my first and second years at Michigan. The hobby that was my fashion blog helped land me a full-time, postgraduate job at a retail start-up, where the company’s vintage-meets-modern aesthetic was reflected in what the employees wore, and where no one was ever accused of overdressing.
But I became sick with a mysterious physical illness in 2013, and then I left my job because I was too ill to work. My retail habit seemed senseless after that—I was barely making money via what little freelance work I could cobble together, and how good I looked seemed preposterous while I was going from EEG to CT scan to MRI in a search of a diagnosis. Around this time, my parents visited from Taiwan; my mother helped to store my wardrobe while I lay in bed. I wore the same few dresses again and again, and even after the diagnosis came—chronic Lyme disease—in 2015, I was still too sick to care about fashion. As someone who had become persistently uncomfortable in her own body, I’d also become insistent on wearing what was comfortable.
Right now, what’s comfortable are the five caftans. I bought one and wore it out of the store, exhilarated by its roomy pockets and silky-soft fabric. Over time, I went back and bought another, and then another, because these dresses, made by a local boutique, are created in limited runs, and the last time I bought three identical, perfect dresses from them, I wore one of them to irredeemable tatters.
My dream of remission includes what I’ll wear when I’m able to be reliably out and about again. A few months ago, I went to a party for members of the San Francisco Opera as my husband’s date; the party’s theme was the 1920s, and I wore a long, beaded dress that hadn’t seen the outside of a closet in years. Feeling well enough to attend was a victory, though I was wobbly on my feet and worried about how long I’d be able to stay—which was half an hour, in the end, and mostly spent sitting in a chair while I drank half a glass of wine. In the car on the way home, my husband said, “I’m glad you could come,” and I said, “Me too,” while already yearning to be in bed. I still buy dresses from online vintage shops for no occasions in particular; sometimes I don’t even slip them on before I hang them on a rod or along the walls. I have an entire wardrobe for that other, healthier life. They await my return.