The Clothes Whisperer

Autobiography of a Wardrobe
By Elizabeth Kendall
Pantheon Books, 223 pages, $20

Elizabeth Kendall has written a memoir in the voice and guise of her own wardrobe. Individual garments, or outfits, star in each of her 47 short chapters, and then come an epilogue, an appendix—where to shop!—and a bibliography.

Only in the epilogue does the writer I know from her articles and her other books surface. The rest is a disguise, an ingenious way to view her young self, until age 30. The wardrobe is a device, a conceit: "I am B’s wardrobe, her ever-evolving second skin. She is My inhabitant. My partner, My Body—My B."

 

A way to sneak past the ego, to the id. Beginning with a swaddling blanket, this wardrobe is a psychiatrist who sees its wearer naked. And the wearer sees the wardrobe. For what do we see more often then our clothes, except our hands? At first we see what’s chosen for us to wear, and later, what we choose for ourselves, or allow to be chosen for us. (The surplice, the cassock, the wimple, the crown.) Often we find our wardrobes in old photographs, and those images begin to take precedence, supplanting memory. But memory can be recovered.

 

Ms. Kendall’s Autobiography of a Wardrobe begins, improbably, in a "Sensitivity Training" class at Harvard, where she was pursuing a graduate degree in education.

"The teacher told them," the wardrobe writes, "to close their eyes, and imagine, in their hands, a book. The book was their own autobiography. …" Ms. Kendall closes her eyes, and remembers "something she had no idea she remembered." Herself, getting dressed, in "small red corduroy overalls." (Corduroy, so common now, but once, in its original French, "the cloth of kings.") Later, Ms. Kendall’s recursive narrative will take us back to the red overalls, but for now, this is her beginning.

And ours, too, because this book serves, incidentally but powerfully, as a how-to. Sensitivity training for the reader. Impossible not to remember your own clothes—what you wore, and where, and when.

You will find yourself remembering occasion outfits, obsessively worn outfits, travel outfits, and then, towards the end, your closets, which guard your outfits. (You ought to lock your closet, really. Anyone who peeks in there can see you naked.) If you wore the kinds of clothes Ms. Kendall wore, or something like, you will be her fellow traveler. And if you’ve seen the author around town, you’ll have met her wardrobe. An outfit Ms. Kendall wore to give a talk at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Crisp blue button-down shirt, man tailored. Short brown leather skirt. And, improbably and surprisingly, black fishnet hose. Flat shoes. Slender legs. Shiny bobbed hair.

Another Kendall outfit, at a downtown book party: black jersey dress, limpid, clinging, longish. Dark hose, dark shoes, dark eyes, dark hair, pale skin: Isak Dinesen meets Claudette Colbert. She is—not after all, but first of all—a writer and a historian. Her first book, Where She Danced (1979), was about Isadora Duncan and her early modern sisters. Her second, a film history, was The Runaway Bride (1990). Her own memoir (not her wardrobe’s) is American Daughter (2000), and if you’ve read it, you know the terrible moment that all her life seems to lead to, and away from: The death of her mother, in a car, in the rain, on a bridge, with Ms. Kendall at the wheel, and her brothers and sisters in the back seat.

It’s no wonder she chooses to write about herself obliquely this time, her prose well-armed with poetic devices. The wardrobe calls her mother "the mother." Not Mommy, not Mother. The wardrobe is dispassionate about everything except clothing.

"I, a spirit, was much freer than she. …"

The wardrobe is all ego. It has no guilt. It’s impatient, it’s accusing. It is, naturally, superficial. And yet—not. At the front of her book, Elizabeth Kendall quotes Edith Wharton, Eugenia Ginzburg, Emily Dickinson. Three women writers also provide the quotations on the back cover. Women writers. This is a feminine text, no matter the occasional androgyny of the wardrobe, with its strong impulse to "resist the demure, the nice, the girly." Ms. Kendall is a woman, and all her clothes are, ipso facto, womanly.

"I am magic and the possibility of transformation," says the wardrobe.

But that’s a fairy tale, along with the pumpkin coach, the rodent footmen, the glass slipper, and the prince. It’s writing—and reading—that is magic, and possibly, transformative. We know this. And so does Elizabeth Kendall.

Nancy Dalva reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at ndalva@observer.com.