FRESH YARN presents:

Fashion Quest
By Francesca Lia Block

When I was about ten years old I discovered the transformational power of fashion magazines. I would sit in my rather dim, hot room with the scent from the lemon tree coming through the window, feverishly going through the same issues over and over again. It was the early seventies and there were a lot of black and white photos of models in bejeweled sweaters and knits infused with shimmery threads. There were the short fur jackets called "chubbies." Sonia Rykiel's pale cashmere tops and wide-leg pants. Words like "luxe" and "chic" seemed to shine on the page, almost as enticing as the photographs they accompanied. Yves Saint Laurent was the king with the face of a poet and a certain regal kindness. I remember one photo in particular of a model dancing across the page in a chiffon YSL confection covered with roses. In some way that I would not have admitted to anyone, I imagined my hair cascading around my face like hers, my nose a delicately constructed thing, my body tall and graceful, my skin like peaches a la mode. When I got my hands on some British issues, I was smitten in the same way by the very young and wraith-thin Marisa Berenson vacationing on the Greek isles and resembling nothing less than a goddess who had wandered up the beach. Her dark, unusual beauty was a tiny bit closer to my own looks and I fell in love with her. In another issue, I remember the blue-eyed, black-haired model being photographed at the homes of the featured designers. She was sipping wine with them or reclining on their beds like a real-life muse, borne full-blown from their imaginations, outfitted endlessly in their satin men's wear suits and taffeta gowns. Nothing could have seemed more delectable to me.

Yes, it was almost a visceral hunger that these images satisfied; a hunger for the obvious beauty and luxury that graced the pages, but also for the woman who was hiding inside of me. I knew she had long dark hair, wore faded jeans, white shirts and beautiful shoes all day, and stunning gowns at sundown. I knew she was a writer and lived with her husband and two children in a small, charming house with a terraced garden. I knew that she read fashion magazines faithfully, wrote articles for them occasionally and even appeared on a few best-dressed lists.

When I turned thirteen, any dreams of this kind quickly faded. I cut my hair on a whim, losing my second-best feature in a few snips. My skin broke out. I was so depressed that even the shopping sprees my mother was kind enough to take me on did not cheer me up. And reading my favorite magazines became a painful experience instead of a heady fantasy ride.

As an older teen in the early 1980s, I discovered a way to express myself through fashion that did not make me feel defeated-punk. The now-chic trend was considered an off-putting deviation to most then but I adored it with the same passion I had once felt for those YSL gowns. There was so much beauty in a five dollar thrift shop dress, made of silk that looked as if it had been painted with watercolors, worn with a pair of men's black steel-toed engineer boots! I donned this ensemble and went to dark, smoky clubs where I thrashed around to ear-ringing, heart-stopping music. I cut my hair short and bleached it as close to platinum as I could. It was not flattering but it was, to me, the true essence of cool. In dusty Salvation Army bins I found a pair of aqua blue satin pumps with the sharpest points I had ever squeezed my toes into. I found a pink raw silk jacket with covered buttons, a soft leopard vest and a cream wool shell covered with opalescent sequins and beads. Not only could I afford these unique treasures, I could wear them and not compare myself to anyone else. The beautiful people of the day were interested in designers I no longer coveted and could not even name.

This punk phase was strengthening and fun but it was followed by years and years of fashion depression. I didn't know where to begin to create the image I wanted so I didn't even try. Instead, I wrote. I published about one book per year and struggled along and had a few relationships and finally met my husband and got married.

My wedding dress marked the beginning of a change. I had never spent so much money on anything and I had never owned anything so glamorous. It is a floor-length, body-skimming, sleeveless gown, slit to the thigh, and is covered, every square inch, in tiny pearls. It slithers like a mermaid when you touch it and even five years later I take it out just to feel its considerable weight and hear the soft clicking sounds it makes. The dress, worn with a floor length veil, did not transform me overnight but it was the beginning, as the perfect dress can be, of a new way of seeing myself. There were also a number of people who were instrumental in this process.

Paul was one of them. He had been a cutting edge New York designer in the early eighties. We became friends after he designed and sewed my wedding veil and bag adorned with silk flowers. In a slightly bitchy tone he eyed my cheap purse and talked about the importance of a "real" bag: "You won't believe how different it will make you feel." He looked askance at my choice of pink suede, cork wedge platform sandals and talked about "real" shoes. He waxed rhapsodic about the joys of vintage Pucci and Chanel. He irritated me repeatedly but I knew he was right. I started to listen. I renewed my subscription to my magazines.

Theresa is a director who was hoping to create a film version of my first novel WEETZIE BAT. She is probably the most gorgeous woman I have seen up close—a tall, slim blonde with a sensual fairy face who was chosen to adorn VOGUE's best-dressed list one year. These are the outfits she wore when I met with her—a baby blue trench coat with jeans and snakeskin boots and a Louis Vitton bag; a dark green T-shirt, camouflage print mini-skirt with frayed hem, high-heeled sandals and rimless sunglasses; faded Levi's and a short-sleeved red and white peasant blouse and red Dr. Scholl sandals. I also saw a picture of her as a bleached-blond punk teenager wearing dark eyeliner and a shirt that looked as if it was made of chain metal. When I told my agent Lydia (a fashion icon and shoe fetishist in her own right) about how Theresa intimidated me, she told me that she thought I had my own unique personal style. I began to think—I am not young, tall, blonde, beautiful, but I can write things that very stylish people admire. I have a creative mind and a fit body, even after giving birth to two babies who look at me lovingly no matter what I am schlubbing around in.

My babies are, surprisingly, my other guides on the path to find my inner fashion goddess. Of course, you wouldn't think so on the surface. As a mom I have even less chance to dress up. On the one occasion when I was daring enough to wear white while sitting on my front porch, freshly manicured and pedicured, reading fashion magazines, feeling incredibly glamorous, my nursing baby splattered poo all over me. But in spite of this incident, my children inspire me. They both have blue eyes full of mystery and sturdy strong little bodies and luminous skin and heart-wrenching chuckles. Their beauty makes me feel truly beautiful for the first time. The wonder of them makes me feel truly worthy at last. I nurture them with my milk; they came from this body. It deserves, at least, to be adorned accordingly.

And there isn't all that much time. Upon seeing an article entitled, "Elegant At Any Age," in one of my favorite magazines, I was struck by the short duration of each decade we are given. I realized that I had lost my opportunity to express myself through fashion in my twenties and my thirties. My forties will be gone in a blink, too. Seize the day—or the Dolce, or the Dior!

Once I was dining with my dear friend and editor, Joanna, at the elegant hotel where she was staying. We were talking about our struggles with issues of beauty and I was telling her about the changes I am trying to implement in the way I see myself and about how important a bag can be in my life now. As I said this I noticed a gorgeous handbag walking past. It was attached to a petite dark-haired woman in a pink and green Pucci top and white pants. The woman flitted over and began to compliment me on the embroidered silk jacket I was wearing. She told us about a book she had written, THE POWER OF BEAUTY, and offered to send us free make-up, which she did! Her charm was like a perfume you savor. I realized later—the fairy of adornment. And she has blessed us.

Well I did find a gorgeous watermelon pink bag on sale a few weeks later, not to mention matching pointed mules with buckles. And I just woke up at four in the morning after a night of nursing to write this in its entirety.

But do you know who else helped me with this piece of writing, this culmination, or should I say launching of my quest? Taylor Thorne and Hedwig.

In college I was introduced to a friend's friend, a short, cute, hirsute writer named L. who drank too much. I liked him but nothing came of the encounter and we lost touch. Years later I received a package from a mysterious someone named Taylor Thorne. Inside was a manuscript, a journal by Taylor, who was once a married man and is on her way to becoming a full-fledged woman in New Orleans. As a woman, Taylor's writing is even better than anything I had ever read when she was L., and so is her hair. But what I loved most about her funny, touching journal is that Taylor knows what she loves and who she is and she is going to become that, even if it means giving up everything. She will try to sell her book and make money to have electrolysis over most of her body. I would like to try to help her find a publisher. She has helped me learn to work with what it is I've got.

In HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, the hero/ine Hedwig says, when her lover finally reaches down to fondle her wounded body, "It's what I've got to work with, honey." And work it she does. In a plethora of platinum wigs, sexy fishnetty glam costumes and lavish red glitter lips. Adornment saves the beautiful, heart-broken Hedwig from despair. At first. But then she needs more; she needs her music. And when she fully owns that, she can be naked and wigless, wandering off into the world, at peace. For Hedwig, becoming meant stripping down and I love her for it. For me, it means dressing up.

I love clothes, okay? I love them so much that I salivate over Dolce Gabana ads as if I am a dieting woman staring into a confectioner's shop window. I lie awake at night thinking of satin trench coats belted with studied ease, elegant white leather bags with heavy metal hardware and Lucite stilettos. I imagine finding the Chanel suit of my dreams in a resale shop. And I hope, before I die, to have at least one original YSL in homage to that great man who once said that any woman can look elegant dressed in a black skirt, a black sweater and on the arm of the man she loves.

Call me superficial. But when my soul is fully expressed by my body, she can leave her dark room, sing her stories out loud and fearlessly dance.

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