Read Surveys (By Author)
Aria Beth Sloss
1. When do you feel at your most attractive?
I never could have imagined giving this answer -- much easier to imagine myself snickering if I heard someone else give it. But I've never felt as beautiful as I did in the days after giving birth to my daughter. It sounds like the worst kind of cliche (and a misogynistic one, too) to say that after going through the most painful experience of my life I felt my most beautiful. But there you have it. Beauty is complicated by all kinds of contradictions. And I realize as I write this, too, that the question uses the word 'attractive' rather than 'beautiful': if I'd answered the question correctly, I would have answered differently. I didn't feel 'attractive' after giving birth. I didn't want anyone but my daughter touching me. But living those animal hours brought me to a new edge: I felt transformed. I'd also never felt more myself. So much about feeling beautiful revolves around transformation -- different clothes, different hairstyle, different man. But I think the real thrill lies in recognition. When I became a mother, I didn't become someone else. I just encountered a version of myself that had been hidden from me until my daughter arrived and blew the world wide open.
2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?
I love looking at women. It's gotten so I hardly notice men: they're like those special lights hung over paintings at museums, meant to illuminate the interesting stuff. I used to notice women who looked perfectly pulled-together -- neat hair, beautifully-tailored clothing, nice adult pocketbook -- but now, it's the women who just exude that honest, unapologetic sense of themselves who draw my eye. Women who clearly enjoy being in their own skin. Sometimes I think my life so far has just been one long struggle trying to feel that sense of pleasure and comfort being in my own body.
3. What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves?
It's that sense of honesty. The women I know whose style I admire the most are all women who don't hide behind anything -- the way they dress is the way they are: forthright, creative, thoughtful human beings. You don't see as much of that in younger women, I don't think. At least I didn't. I don't remember anyone from college or my early twenties whose style struck me as singular -- OK, maybe one or two. But I think the concept of clothing as artifice becomes less interesting as you get older -- not that you're not creating a persona, because of course you are, but that that persona represents something true about you. Often when I see women in their twenties on the streets of New York, I want to go over to them and throw a jacket over their naked shoulders and say "sweetie, how about a sweater? And some long pants? Maybe a nice muu-muu?" Maybe that's because I have a daughter now, but it pains me, it really does, to see women dressing themselves the way they think men want to see them.
4. Was there a moment in your life when something “clicked” for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What? Why did it happen then, do you think?
This is a kind of opposite click, the anti-click, but I remember very clearly the first time I realized my body didn't look the way I wanted it to look, and that that meant I couldn't wear something I wanted to wear. It was 1988, I was ten, and my best friend Eliza -- petite, blonde -- started wearing pegged jeans (she always knew the trends before anyone else did). I begged my mom for weeks, she finally relented and bought me the requisite slim-fit jeans with zippers at the bottom. I dutifully hauled them onto my body and pegged them. Looked in the mirror and...no. Definitively, without a question, no. 1988 was fifth grade, and fifth grade was the year I grew so fast I got something called Osgood-Schlatter's disease, which happens to kids who play sports during those big growth spurt years and can cause, in my case, excruciating pain in your legs. Anyway, I was tall, skinny, but still sporadically padded with baby fat. I just remember that feeling of looking in the mirror and understanding I wasn't Eliza, I probably never would be, and that there was going to be a certain amount of heartbreak in my life because of that fact. I was right.
7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?
Slightly embarrassed to say this happened within the last few months. I had a giant try-on with Leanne, where she brought out various items of clothing I'd never in a million years have selected for myself, and we went through them one by one and I saw myself, in the mirror, literally being made into different versions of myself. It was fascinating. I went home with a few things, went out that weekend and happened to pass one of my favorite consignment shops. I was out with my daughter, so I had limited time and energy, but I happened to pull out a dress I never would have pulled out before that session with Leanne -- a kind of stiff, A-line jumper. I was standing there staring at it, trying to figure out what had changed -- what I saw differently now, what had changed in me that I would pull something like that out -- and it hit me: it's all about silhouette! I think I called her immediately to tell her, I was so excited. It really felt like an epiphany. For so long, I'd thought dressing was about my body -- what it looked good in, what made it look its best. But it's about the line the clothing creates. It's like sculpture. That changed everything for me.
9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?
When I was younger, I wore Lanz of Switzerland flannel nightgowns every night. This was my mom's ritual -- or it was the ritual she made for my sister and me. Every Christmas we each got a new Lanz flannel nightgown, which we wore from that night on through till the next Christmas. They got this really lovely consistency after all that washing, like very thin velvet, or tissue paper. When I got older, I experimented: maybe I was a men's pajamas kind of woman? A T-shirt and underwear woman? One day a college friend showed me a photograph from a family ski vacation: her with her mother and two sisters, the four of them clustered together on a bed, all in identical plain white nightgowns. They were like something out of an Austen novel. I should mention I've always envied this friend her family. They are a quartet of brilliant, creative, beautiful, and exceedingly well put-together women. In a strange way, it took seeing another family's ritual nightgown-wearing to bring me back to my own. I have seven plain white nightgowns and have already bought my daughter three, for various stages. I plan to buy us matching ones as soon as she's old enough.
11. Is there any fashion trend you’ve refused to participate in and why?
Millions. I don't think I'm every particularly up on trends, but you see them roll through New York like bad weather: the mullet skirt, gladiator sandals, lethal spike heels...I don't know. I don't dress to stand out from the crowd, not by a long shot, but neither do I ever feel any desire to look just like everyone else.
16. Please describe your body.
A friend of mine who had a baby at the same time as I did described her body, after, as being "useful". I love that. My body is useful now.
17. Please describe your mind.
My mind is not so useful. It is often crowded in there, and overloaded, and tired, and irritated that there's not more time to read. I used to think I knew everything; now I know there's very little I know anything about at all.
19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?
One of the kindest things I ever did for myself was buy, in preparation for a spinal surgery I had to have a few years ago, a beautiful bathrobe. I just figured - what the hell, I deserve it. It's thin, soft cotton, with a nice muted floral pattern all over it, like my grandmother's china. I am wearing it now, as I wear it most mornings and nights, when my daughter is asleep: those are the only times I can truly relax.
20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?
I used to be one of those women who was very dismissive of fashion, and of clothing, and appearances in general. I think when you're a bookish girl, and you grow up reading a lot and working hard in school and working hard to be praised for all your reading and working hard, it can be difficult to admit that you want to be noticed for looking good, too. But it's not even about looking good anymore, or just a little about that. Mostly, now, I think about who I want to be in the world, and who I want my daughter to see when she looks at me, wonderingly, the way she does every day. And that person is happy with who she is, and dresses in a way that reflects that. I don't want to be a supermodel anymore (I did, as a teenager, desperately). I just want to be someone who enjoys being the owner of her bones.
21. With whom do you talk about clothes?
Nearly all of my female friends. Some of my male friends. My husband, who is incredibly particular about what he wears and who was one of the first people I ever really went shopping with. My daughter. Every morning, I say to her: "Who do you want to be today?"
23. Do you think you have taste or style? Which one is more important? What do these words mean to you?
I think I have good taste. I wish I had better style. I think I can pick out things that look nice, things that are cut well and made of nice fabrics, but I don't think I have a particularly strong sense of how things go together in surprising or unexpected ways. That's what I think of as style: the ability to combine disparate elements in a way that reveals the singularity of your mind.
24. Do you remember the biggest waste of money you ever made on an item of clothing?
I've always considered myself pretty level-headed about clothing, but when it came time to find a wedding dress I found myself flooded by girlish desires. Part of this I blame on history. Or I blame it on my relationship to history. My mother got married in a floor-length white silk dress, white gloves, veil, the whole nine yards; I used to just pore over the pictures of her from her wedding day. I couldn't stop looking at them. She was twenty-one. Her dress said everything about her youth, her family, the time and place into which she was born. I was thirty-two the afternoon I met a friend at Bergdorf's -- "just for fun!" -- and ended up trying on an Oscar de la Renta dress that pierced some central line of longing. The dress was strapless white silk, knee-length, with a full skirt: beautiful, and not rigidly traditional, but still quite...wedding-y. I wore hot-pink shoes and a black ribbon around my waist, but I wasn't fooling anyone. When I look at pictures from our wedding day, I see a woman who isn't quite sure who she is. In a fit of remorse a year later I had the dress dyed dark grey, thinking I'd wear it again and staunch some of the financial bleeding. Of course I haven't worn it once. I can't imagine I ever will.
27. Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?
I remember being very, very careful about what I wore to my job interviews in my early twenties, when I'd just graduated college, moved to New York, and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The irony is that I was interviewing for waitressing jobs. I kept getting asked if I might want to hostess instead. But I had no desire to dress nicely every day for work whatsoever. I just put on my pencil skirt and silk blouse because I figured I was going out to get A Job, and I had to look the part. I think probably I was just scared: it was New York, and I was twenty-three, and I had no fucking clue what was going to happen to me.
52. Do you consider yourself photogenic?
No. Not a bit. I am so used to friends saying gently "oh no, you don't really look like that" that it doesn't even sting anymore. Maybe just a little.
66. Tell us about something in your closet that you keep but never wear. What is it, why don’t you wear it, and why do you keep it?
That blasted wedding dress!
69. If you had to throw out all your clothes but keep one thing, what would you keep?
The yellow silk Prada coat I bought with my first paycheck at a consignment store when I first moved to NYC. I've worn it maybe five times in the past fifteen years, but it represents everything: hope, youth, a dream of style, a dream of a life...
70. Building up your wardrobe from nothing, what would you do differently this time?
My husband and I talk dreamily about just having five of each clothing item -- five T-shirts (all the same), five pairs of pants (same), five sweaters (ditto), etc. I love that idea. I love the us that would live like that. Like nuns. I think someday when we're really old, we'll just up and do it. I think it could be terrifically romantic.
73. What item of clothing are you still (or have you forever been) on the hunt for?
The perfect shoe: where are you? I have big feet, even bigger now after pregnancy and birth. I also have a bad back, and a certain amount of aches and pains. I sound like I'm 90. But if you live in NYC, you end up walking everywhere, and I have yet to find a shoe that both allows me to walk comfortably all over town AND not look like an aging German hiker.
74. What are your closet and drawers like? Do you keep things neat, etc?
No, horrible. I aspire to neatness. I have purchased items -- drawer separaters, shoe racks, underwear compartments -- in fits of determination, but inevitably everything ends up on the floor. There's a terrific children's book called The Philharmonic Gets Dressed that has all these wonderful ladies struggling into various enormous black dresses and unwieldy sweaters; that's what I look like when I get dressed, and that's how everything ends up everywhere.
75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?
My husband has always had a way of seeing me as far more elegant than I actually am; this is partially why I married him. Very early on in our relationship, he bought me a beautiful YSL dress in Barcelona -- black, silk, with an open back -- that I love so much I keep it at the front of my closet, even though it's fancy enough that I only wear it once or maybe twice, at most, a year. But I love seeing it when I go into my closet. Looking at it reminds me that in the eyes of someone who loves me, I am capable of beauty.
76. Did you ever buy an article of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on? What was the item and what happened?
In ninth grade my best friend Lydia and I purchased the same Calvin Klein black spaghetti-strap tank top. Actually, I think we both bought two. We'd decided we wanted to have something we called "edge". Basically, we wanted style. These tank tops represented the first building block of that style. I wore those tank tops through high school, through college, through my twenties, and still, today, have one I occasionally use for layering. I once looked on the Calvin Klein website to see if they were still making it, but of course they weren't. It's tragic. It really was the perfect black tank.
81. Is there an article of clothing, a piece of make-up, or an accessory that you carry with you or wear every day?
I have two bras. I have never had more than two bras at a time. I wear the same one diligently for five or six days (fine, maybe more), then rotate the other one in. I find it very depressing and keep promising myself that I'll treat myself like the 36 year-old woman I am and purchase a third, a fourth, a fifth! But I do not.
82. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?
Whenever someone says: "Oh, that's so YOU!" about something I'm wearing, I feel absolutely floored. I examine the remark, the speaker, and the article of clothing in question with painful deliberation. Sometimes this is a pleasing exercise, and other times quite deflating. It always feels a little like one of those Greek myths, where the protagonist gets exactly what s/he wants and finds it to be excruciatingly painful. Of course I want to hear how people see me; at the same time, I'd rather pretend they don't see me at all.
What’s your birth date? Where were you born and where do you live now?
April 19th, 1978. Born in Newton, MA, and now live in Manhattan.
What kind of work do you do?
Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?
Married with a daughter, 18 months old.
How do you feel after filling out this survey?
Like my brain has been laminated.
Aria Beth Sloss is the author of Autobiography of Us.