Part Armor and Part Theater: Kyle Lucia Wu on Curating Sartorial Courage
Introducing When I’m Not Writing, a Series About Writers and Their Hobbies
Welcome to When I’m Not Writing, a new series in which we invite writers to tell us about the things they do when they’re not, you know, writing. Writers are not, as idyllically pictured, always tucked away in their garret, typing. They are out in the world, skinning their knees and putting their hands in the soil. And don’t you want to know about it? From lifelong passions to newfound pandemic hobbies to creative productive procrastination methods, the obsessions gathered here run the gamut, but they all pull back the curtain a bit and let us be a fly on the wall of extraordinary daily living.
The first time I wanted to wear someone else’s clothes, I was nine months old and my mom was promising my brother Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles underwear if he would finish up being toilet-trained and get rid of his diapers forever. These are only for really special big kids, she said seriously. But I overheard her and wanted them too. She likes this story, how she put a ladder to the toilet so I could step up, how when she went back to buy me a pair there were none for my age and none for my gender, but she likes it most that I’d do anything to be more like my older brother. I would wear what he wore, because it made me feel like him: someone who liked all the right things, someone who knew everything I didn’t, someone who’d already figured out how to exist in the world. Clothing has been part armor and part theater to me ever since.
Try to make me clean out my closet, as brave friends have, and you’ll be made captive for hours, stories in all the threads dangling off each hanger. If there isn’t a story, I can part with it; if there is, it’ll be carted from apartment to apartment forever, proof of my lived moments. As a Cancer, I’m naturally nostalgic, but I have never felt trusting of photographs, the way they pause moments unnaturally, the way someone else’s lens skewers the perception. I have an interest in documenting my life, like many writers and water signs do, but I like it especially in this wordless way, the gossamer memory of fabric. It doesn’t just tell me what I wore, but how I perceived the event beforehand and prepared myself for entry; it doesn’t just tell me what I bought, but who I wanted to be.
I have an interest in documenting my life, like many writers and water signs do, but I like it especially in this wordless way, the gossamer memory of fabric.
It was the first month of eighth grade when I took the train by myself into New York City to Search and Destroy on St. Mark’s Place. The owner, Jimmy, white hair and chain-zipped pants, rung me up for a black Sex Pistols tee because the Iggy Pop one didn’t come in my size. It’s the size of a postage stamp now but I still shimmy it on when I want to feel brave. I was living with strangers after college when I spent a weekend’s worth of catering tips on a white silk kimono with hand-painted cherry blossoms down the back. I’d never wear something so decadent in my shared basement apartment, but I bought it for the day that I might, and when I pair it with jeans and walk around the city I still feel like I’m floating around on a velvet chaise.
I was nineteen when my H&M coat was stolen at a bar. I walked around lower Manhattan looking for one in the exact budget of money my dad had sent me, wandering into a thrift store where I saw a belted suede jacket with a hood rimmed by a mangy yellow fur, like a sleeping lion. The salesgirl told me to wear it outside so I could test its warmth, and I looked at my reflection in the store window and felt like I wanted to be her, a woman who had a disheveled mane rimming her head and could be warm in an unbuttoned coat. So I took it home and I became her.
Put together all of my more beloved items and there would be a sort of story to not just how I came of age, but how I survived, collaged and hanging in my closet. Though I’m interested in collecting fashion, I don’t shop very much. Vintage sizes are not like current ones; when you find something that fits perfectly, it’s like the piece chose you—though in a way, it’s all choice, one divorced from advertisements and algorithms. New clothes feel too synthetic to protect me the way that my long-kept or vintage ones do. If I have to go to a party where I don’t know anyone, I’d never wear something new; how could it hold my hand?
It was a week before my first book came out when I saw a dress on Instagram: pink-purple ombre taffeta to the floor, ruffled and tied in the back with a large loopy bow. The next day I traveled from one side of the city to the other and all the way back to acquire it from my friend’s vintage store before work. She told me it was owned by a ballroom dancer whose husband bought her a new dress for each dance, and built an entire room for her dresses in their house.
Every weekend they would go ballroom dancing; every weekend a new dress, a new hanger, a new space in the room. After her death, he began selling the dresses. When I touch its candy ruffles, I don’t just remember swinging it out of a bookstore filled with copies of something I wrote, but I also remember the woman who had it first, and how in a way her dress is waltzing us both down Smith Street, all taffeta momentum and a fuchsia spell.