Sometimes, I see a single image and all of my previously latent desires are suddenly articulated, obvious, and urgent. I’m not talking here about world-historical photojournalism or even Facebook pictures of loved ones. I’m talking clothes. Photos of clothes.
I didn’t even know I wanted a slim-fitting, knee-length, single-breasted camel coat with zero embellishments of any kind until about a year-and-half ago. Who would? But once I knew it, I really knew it. And it was like I’d always known it. I needed one—immediately.
The image in question, the one that subsequently consumed my thoughts and perverted my short-term goals, was—predictably enough—of a model. But not just any model: an off-duty Anna Selezneva ! She’s my favorite, and always has been. I like how cruel she looks, with her violently chiseled cheekbones, sharp-cornered mouth, and freakishly light ice-blue eyes. I can imagine her backstage, sipping vodka and brushing people away. Plees, take zis pictures fast so I can leaf. I haf beezy night. Never before have I been so taken by female beauty; I literally gasped the first time I saw her picture. And there she was in all her severe, post-Soviet glory, looking like the penultimate stage in an Animorphs book cover: like a beautiful woman with just a hint of Abyssinian cat. In the picture, she’s accessorized with a blurry Blackberry, high-top sneakers, ombré aviators, and a black purse. None of this mattered to me. All I could see was the coat.
I was working in a coffee shop when I clicked that fortuitous click. By the time the page loaded, I was mid-epiphany. ‘Wait a second,’ I thought to myself. ‘Might this actually be the ONLY material item I’ve ever wanted? Has every single purchase up until this moment been an unconscious act of vulgar and imprecise approximation?!' The answer, I felt, was yes.
The certainty was enhanced, unconsciously though indisputably, by few key factors. The first was Selezneva’s complexion, which is not so unlike my own. Though I’d describe her as 'tawny' and myself as 'sallow' or even sometimes 'jaundiced,' we are both more yellow than we are pink. I suppose this made the coat itself, which is roughly the same hue, easy to imagine on my own body, up against my own face. The second factor was that this coat was one that might have plausibly been worn by Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, who, as I’ve said before, I hold highest in my mental hierarchy of Who To Copy. (There is no denying the crude, physiological nature of these aspirations; it’s no mystery why I’ve only ever been aesthetically inspired by women with light hair and oversized noses. This is all retroactive theorizing, though. At the time, it was the coat—not the women—on my mind.)
I had been stricken by similar—though milder—fixations in the past: patent leather pumps like the one “Mother” wears on the last page of Cat in the Hat; Chloë Sevigny’s Jane Birkin-like blue jeans; a tiny green Il Bisonte purse carried by a woman I saw on the Upper West Side one summer; a larger version of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s Selima Optique sunglasses. But this coat was another beast.
I was prepared to squirrel away money for years if that’s what it took. I was prepared to walk into Prada and drop more cash than I ever had on anything. What happened though was this: for eleven months I spent a humiliating amount of time on eBay every day, time that, even if I billed minimum-wage for, was worth way more than any Prada coat. But with the shoes and sunglasses of yore egging me on, I kept doggedly clicking on. Day after day, I searched, suffering optical fatigue, guilt, and nausea. I was ashamed. I shut browser tabs when my boyfriend walked by; I never told my friends. But the self-inflicted sickness finally paid off.
My slim-fitting, knee-length, single-breasted camel coat with zero embellishments of any kind cost $30 and it was made in 1998 by United Colors of Benetton. I did not allow the item’s appallingly SEO-ed eBay listing (“MINIMALIST Slim Fit Car Coat//walking coat//light camel color//elegant chic jacket”) to deter me. Buying it was more cathartic than I care to admit, and it made my future brighter: with the purchase came a flood of free time, to use for working, reading, walking—anything but scanning shades of beige. I was free!
It arrived in the mail a week later from suburban Dallas, and it was perfect. It matched my skin and my hair almost too well, making me look more like a svelte arctic rodent than Selezneva, but I didn’t care. I like a monochromatic look: it’s dignified, but anonymous; conscientious, but casual.
The best coats are not fussy. Like a well-edited selection of daily makeup products, they imperceptibly enhance your appearance rather than distract from it. The best coats don’t have belts or buckles or straps or epaulets or external pockets. They are certainly not patterned. They fit perfectly, hit just above the knee, and make you appear richer, smarter, and thinner than you are. Maybe they even make you feel a little famous. But most importantly? When you’re wearing a very good coat, you are not thinking about coats.