Whose Clothes Are These?

A few days back I arrived in Barcelona after living out of a suitcase for seven weeks. The hotel had very nicely stored my cruise suitcase for me the entire time. Getting it back was the beginning of a very strange time as I adjust to the change in my life that these suitcases represent.

I thought two things, as I neared the end of my road trip. The first was that I wanted to take the handful of clothing I had worn day after day straight to a dumpster. The second was that I couldn’t wait to get into my other suitcase and get out something different to wear, something that didn’t have the dinge of hand washing and (I am being charitable here) a persistent hint of Eau de Laurel.

It wasn’t like that. I spent several days in Barcelona, staring from my bed at the second, larger suitcase over there in the corner of the room. I just didn’t want to deal with it. I kept wearing the old clothes, because they were available and familiar, and I think largely because I still felt like the person who wore those, not the person who would in the future wear what was inside the other bag.

When I got on board the ship and actually unpacked, I got a glimmering that I have another life that requires a different presentation of myself. Of course by now, the third day on board, have worn mostly things that were in that other suitcase, but it is still an odd, liminal state I feel myself in, as if the clothes I am wearing aren’t really mine. Right now as I type this, despite having loads of options, I am in pants and a top from the travel suitcase (washed by now in a real machine at least).

So what’s going on here? Why is this so different from what I predicted? I think part of it is that there are many subtle, unexpected differences between having and not having a permanent home. Then, my life switched back and forth from home to traveling. Now it switches from one form of impermanence to another. I guess I thought opening that suitcase would be like throwing open my closet door after a long trip and reveling in my options, and it wasn’t. I still live out of a suitcase. The only difference is that now it is a bigger, currently unpacked one.

But, more important, when I was traveling on my own, I was stripped down to a self who felt no qualms about going out with wet hair, and putting on what I wore yesterday because there it was, draped so conveniently on the chair. Now I have this interior monologue going on about what would be appropriate, what image I want to project. Now I have to manage expectations. Now other people matter. And maybe I’m just not all that enthusiastic about that.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I brought forward something in myself through my solo journey that I want to keep front and center—the me that says what I wear is just not that important. And then again, it is. I have a role to play on the ship. How I look matters. So okay, I can play. I can do dress-up Laurel (see dinner photo below) and professional speaker Laurel, but I have a clearer sense now that they are projections, self-inventions. More than costumes but less than authenticity.

In Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the protagonist, Isabel Archer, gets in an argument with Madame Merle, about whether clothes are the measure of a person. Her mentor says that clothes are very much a statement about who one is, but Isabel argues that clothes are simply things other people have designed that she wears according to social expectations and that they are not a measure of her as a person at all. I guess Madame Merle and Isabel are warring in my head right now. The battle of the suitcases has changed my thinking about how I present myself to the world, and though it is fine with me to do what is expected, I have a clearer sense of a me I really like who is hiding inside the me others see.

2 thoughts on “Whose Clothes Are These?”

  1. Dylan says:

    Love this, Laurel!

  2. Carol Devisser says:

    I agree with having a tiny suitcase of clothes to wear again and again. When I return from a trip the other clothes, and decisions, are too much hard work.

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