The first item of clothing I ever bought for myself was a pair of jeans from the wholesaler my friends and I visited in a neighborhood under the train tracks we were never supposed to set foot in. Inside a storefront that resembled a storage locker, the floor was covered with stacks of jeans. The three men standing among them had the weathered faces and sinewy arms of construction workers, though they were dressed in spotless white T-shirts and perfectly creased jeans. We asked for Levi’s bootcut in what we thought were our waist sizes. The men looked us over—four middle-school girls in cotton blouses and summer skirts—rummaged through the stacks, and peeled off a pair for each.
If what we got wasn’t the size we’d requested, the scowls on their faces made clear that we were to say nothing. We squeezed into a tiny closet full of unopened boxes, shed the skirts we were wearing, and put on the jeans. We had never, in our lives, changed our clothes a few feet away from strange men, separated only by a plywood wall.
The men were yelling at us to hurry up. We stumbled out, trying not to trip on the piles on the floor. One by one, we got the jeans pinned up by the gruffest of the three men. Unlike the seamstresses we’d visited with our mothers, he did not compliment us on our ability to stand still or ask us, once the hem was pinned, if the result was to our liking. There was no mirror for us to see how the jeans looked on us anyway.
We crowded back into the closet, changed into our skirts, rushed out, and handed the pinned-up jeans to one of the other men, who had stationed himself at the counter. He set aside the jeans, took our money, gave us each a tiny ticket that he tore in half, and told us to come back in a week. Since he didn’t ask our names or phone numbers or write receipts, the torn ticket—smaller than our pinky fingers and utterly illegible—was all we had. But when we returned, the same three men were there and they remembered who we were and which jeans belonged to whom.
We took a cab to Hiroko’s house and sequestered ourselves in her bedroom. Each pair of jeans fit perfectly. Encased in denim, our legs looked more three-dimensional than when they were sticking out from our gym shorts. Hiroko, Sachiko, Miya, and I had met on our school’s volleyball team. We could jump higher and run faster than most girls our age, but we hadn’t given much thought to the muscles behind our physical prowess. Taking turns in front of the mirror on the closet door, we marveled at our transformation. With legs like these, we could leap over any obstacle. No wonder everyone from cowboys to rock stars wore Levi’s.
We were the only seventh-graders with the coveted Levi’s from under the tracks, our city’s Garment District where the braver high school girls had scoped out a dozen hole-in-the-wall places. Although our hometown, Kobe, was an international port city, the year was 1969 and the downtown boutiques our mothers took us to, or those we were beginning to visit on our own, didn’t stock blue jeans, which were still being referred to as “GI pants” by the majority of Japanese people who were not, like us, avid readers of teenage fashion magazines. After one of the high school girls bragged to her younger sister—our Sachiko—about the authentic American jeans she and her friends had purchased at a wholesale store, we had to go too. The four of us had only been at the same school for a few months. That shopping trip sealed our friendship.
In the next six years, we returned to the neighborhood under the tracks to buy more jeans (bell bottoms a few months later), costume jewelry, hats, and decorative buttons we sewed onto our jackets. With a dozen other classmates, we spent Saturday afternoons in the downtown commercial district, stopping at boutiques and department stores attended by middle-aged ladies who were the complete opposite of the wholesale men. Like librarians, though better dressed, the shop ladies left us alone to browse and try on whatever we wanted because—I know now—they could see that we were Ojosan, daughters of “good families,” whose rebellion went only so far.
Our private all-girls’ school admitted 150 students every year to start the seventh grade, and the cohort stayed together for six years until high school graduation. Ours was the only secondary school in Kobe, or just about all of Japan, where students were not required to wear the dark blue buttoned-up uniform modeled after nineteenth-century European naval dress. We had no dress code in the 1970s, when our American counterparts were being sent home for showing up to their classes in jeans or mini-skirts. Our school was also known for its bilingual education and its steep tuition, paid by our fathers for the prestige of sending us there. Spending our monthly allowance on books, records, movies, and clothes, we believed we were flouting convention by dressing like the American rock stars we worshipped, memorizing and reciting the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and keeping journals we hoped, someday, to publish like Anais Nin, who had love affairs with scores of famous men she wrote about and then discarded.
I eventually lost touch with my friends, after leaving the country to study at an American college. If I’d stayed, I, too, would have gotten married soon after college to a man chosen by my family—a business executive like our fathers, but with a global career trajectory certain to include a few years abroad to acquire an American MBA or manage a European branch of their company. By our last year in high school, my friends and I were aware that the hidden purpose of our bilingual education was to transform us into our generation’s version of Yoi Tsuma, Tsuma no Haha—Good Wife, Wise Mother—interpreter, schedule-coordinator, problem-solver, and general manager who would ensure the happiness of our future husbands and children, no matter where in the world our husbands’ careers took us.
The last time I saw Hiroko was when we were in our late twenties in Chicago, where her husband was studying for an MBA. I drove down from the small Wisconsin town where I was teaching to meet her at the Art Institute. We viewed their collection of American quilts—Hiroko had taken up quilting and embroidery while preparing for her marriage—and had lunch before she had to run errands, make dinner, and translate and transcribe a lecture her husband had recorded because he only understood a fraction of what he heard. She fretted about how busy she was just with him. What would she do when they had children? We reminisced about the year we became friends and laughed about how terrified we had been of those three men at the jeans store. But as we walked up Michigan Avenue toward the restaurant where Hiroko had made a reservation, there was no time to stop at any of the stores we passed along the famous “miracle mile” for shoppers. Although Hiroko was in Chicago for two years, I never saw her again.
We might have grown apart even if I had stayed in Kobe. My friends and I didn’t understand, as teenagers, that we would never again have entire afternoons to spend together visiting boutiques and record stores, watching double-feature matinees and drinking endless cups of coffee. Our mothers didn’t meet up in public places unless it was for a special occasion like a class reunion. Good wives and wise mothers didn’t traipse around town amusing themselves. If they were lucky enough to have women friends who were also neighbors, they could visit one another’s houses to sew, bake, or cook together. A married woman did not leave her neighborhood except to run errands for her family or help with her children’s education.
A few weeks before I started attending the private school, my mother had killed herself. I knew she’d chosen to die because she had no one but me—a child of twelve—to spend time with. She was stuck in a marriage with a philanderer; she didn’t have friends in the neighborhood we had moved to. Although she and her two sisters talked on the phone, they lived hours away and she wasn’t given to confiding in them, or anyone, about her unhappiness. None of us were in the 1960s and 1970s in Japan. But my mother would have survived if she’d had a group of women friends to go out with, or even just to sit together with over needlework and tea, as she and her neighbors had done at our old house. It wasn’t deep conversation that Takako was longing for; leisurely afternoons among friends with crafts and laughter would have saved her.
Serious talk is overrated. In all the hours we spent playing volleyball, trying on clothes, listening to music and watching movies, I never told my friends about my mother’s suicide or the continued trouble at home after my father married one of his girlfriends. We argued about whether the deep-fried ice cream our classmates were raving about was worth taking the train to Osaka for and whether Miss Matsumoto, our beautiful math teacher, was still unmarried because she was stuck up, shy, or just too smart. We agonized over the changing skirt lengths: the mini, the maxi, and the midi featured in our favorite fashion magazines in the same year. I might not have survived my adolescence without my friends. It’s the light, shallow conversation that sustains us from day to day.
In Washington DC where I live now and in other American cities I travel to, my closest friends are the women with whom I can go shopping. Back in Kobe, our group of four had met up with other pairs, trios, or quartets of girls who were best friends with one another, and the entire group had moved from store to store like a mixed flock of warblers during fall migration. For special secret missions like the trip to the wholesaler, however, it had to be just Hiroko, Sachiko, Miya, and me. Although we didn’t think of it that way, our shopping trips were a measure of our friendships and alliances.
As an adult, I usually go shopping with one woman at a time and we visit one store, our mutual favorite. An outing with a large group, whether to a shopping mall or to a bar, is a ritual my friends and I outgrew by the time we were thirty, when what we had thought of as energy began to feel more like chaos. I now cannot imagine going shopping with all of the dozen close friends I spend time with one on one. Even so, shopping together remains a measure of friendship. The girls I flocked with at school were smart but quirky, unafraid to act silly or frivolous in one another’s company. My close friends now are smart and ambitious women who are willing to spend an afternoon away from their careers or political causes in order to indulge in clothes, gossip, and other small luxuries.
My friends don’t all live in the same city or have the same tastes, so there is a different mutual favorite spot where I meet each one. Every meeting place, though, is essentially the same: a small independent boutique—the size of a living room—so chock-full of clothes that we have to look through each rack two or three times to make sure we have actually seen everything. In each store, the clothes are displayed using the same or similar logic: separate racks for tops, dresses, pants, skirts organized according to color, fabric, cut, designer, or level of formality. The fitting rooms are in the back, with curtains or doors for privacy. In the middle of the store is a large mirror and a cluster of comfortable furniture, such as a velvet-covered couch or a stuffed chair, where you can sit down, close your eyes, and mentally go through your closet at home to figure out how the items you just tried on would complement what you already own.
At a boutique, there is a lot that each person has to process on her own, even while spending time together. Upon arrival, my friend and I choose different racks to start browsing. There isn’t enough space for two people to stand manipulating the hangers back and forth. Besides, it’s rude to hover. About ten minutes in, after each of us has found a dozen of items to try on, we can call out, “Hey, did you see this dress? It looks like the ones you have, but also different.” “Did you say you were looking for another long skirt? How about this one?” “Do you want to try it on?” If it turns out—as it often does—that your friend has already picked out that item, you’re both pleased that you know each other’s taste. If it was something she didn’t see, she’s glad that you did. Either way, browsing the racks separately allows you to ease into your time together, unlike starting at a coffee shop where, seated across a tiny and often wobbly table, you are forced to dive in with ominously intrusive questions such as “How’ve you been?” “What have you been up to?”
Eventually, my friend and I go to the fitting rooms, each with an armload of clothes. This is my favorite part: putting on the clothes, coming out of the private fitting room into the common area with the furniture and the large mirror, waiting to see the outfit my friend has put on and hear what she thinks of my choice. Because I only shop with women who love dressing up and have a discerning eye, I’m genuinely interested in their opinion and advice. But the truth is, most of the time, I already know. I can tell when an item of clothing looks really special, very good, good but not that special, or okay but boring, whether it’s on me or on someone else, and my friends know it too.
Still, as with most other decisions, I seek a trusted friend’s advice, hoping to be told what I already know. I want to be encouraged, even pushed, to buy the bold, daring, or slightly unconventional dress that I fell in love with, or dissuaded from getting another blouse that looks good but unremarkable or another black skirt that’s just like the dozen I own. (Of course, some things one already has, such as a pencil skirt or pair of wide-legged pants that fit perfectly, are worth having in duplicate or triplicate, as a close friend knows.)
Looking at clothes with a friend is like being in a writing workshop. By the time we’re willing to show it to readers we respect, the draft has gotten past its expression of inchoate aspiration or dissatisfaction, the useless navel-gazing. Anything that totally bombed wouldn’t have made it to the workshop. Similarly, the tiny cubicle where each of us tries on the clothes: the lighting isn’t great; the mirror is small. But it’s enough to let us see when the pants are too tight or too baggy, the color of the blouse doesn’t flatter us, or the flapper-style dress is downright ridiculous. We only walk out into the public area when the outfit looks good enough to examine in better light, where other people (the friend we came with, and sometimes, the shop lady and other shoppers) can comment on it.
In any writing workshop, there is one fellow writer whose opinion we value more than anyone else’s. The friend we shop with is that writer. She tells us what we already knew but were unwilling to admit to ourselves: yes, you should go for that bold choice and expand your repertoire; no, that was a good try but something is missing and the result feels not quite authentic; what you put together looks nice enough but do you really want to keep doing the same thing over and over? Whether it’s a piece of writing or a new outfit, the question we’re asking is the same at its heart. Does this look/read like me? Too much like me? A new me I can become? When a friend answers, “That is so you,” we both know it’s the ultimate compliment.
My friends are after the same thing I am: well-made clothes we can dress up or down, professional attire that is elegant but not conservative, a few special-occasion outfits that are eye-catching but in good taste. Still, we each gravitate toward different styles, colors, fabrics, or cuts, and what we can wear is often determined by our physique. A dress that billows around my lifelong runner’s body looks smashing on a friend who is curvy and statuesque. Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to look like, I think, not unlike when I encounter a great lyric essay and understand its intuitive logic but am still unable to write in a similar fashion. Spending an afternoon at a boutique with a friend takes me outside myself, even as I continue to ponder how I look to others and to myself.
My mother, Takako, was the first woman I went shopping with. Buying clothes was one of the few indulgences a “respectable woman” was allowed. Alone, she would have worried about seeming frivolous or vain, but she could visit boutiques and department stores every month if accompanied by me. People who saw us would assume she was curating a proper wardrobe for her daughter and teaching her how to conduct herself in public.
Takako was by no means the only woman who had figured out this loophole. All the boutiques and department stores in town had an extensive girls’ section adjacent to the women’s section, with the fitting rooms in the middle. Takako and I could go back and forth between the two sections and try on our clothes next to each other.
At six, when the two of us started our monthly excursions, I could dress myself in the fitting room and walk out to show her. I quickly learned to keep track of what I’d tried on and hand over the rejects to the shop ladies when they came around to check on us. I didn’t get impatient watching my mother trying on a dozen dresses that seemed similar because no two dresses looked the same—or even remotely alike—once she put them on. I didn’t realize, till years later, that Takako was teaching me through the running commentary she made about the fit at the shoulders, the placement of the darts, the weight of the fabric, the colors that lit up our faces as opposed to those that drained them. She showed me that some clothes look completely different on the person than on the hanger, for better or for worse. Shopping with my mother was like gardening or baking with her. In the same way, I recognized in the kitchen of my first apartment that I just knew when the bread had been kneaded long enough, or when the pie dough was the right consistency. I understood when clothes fit and suited me and made me feel at once like myself and better than myself. My mother waseducating me; only what she taught me was to take pleasure in the less-than-useful. Dresses, pies, braided loaves of French bread, peonies cut and arranged into vases, things she must have longed to share with friends her own age.
It had been my mother’s idea for me to attend the private school where I could get an education to plot my own future. Even though all my close friends ended up marrying men like our fathers, I was not the sole graduate from our high school to leave the country. In every class of 150 students, there were two or three who went abroad to study and never returned. Ojosan like us could escape our destiny only by becoming exiles.
Takako didn’t reveal her motive for sending me to that school, and the idea of leaving the country forever would have made no sense to me while she was alive. When she first brought up the idea of my applying to the school, she emphasized how I would be able to continue wearing my own clothes as I—and all elementary school children—had done every year of my education so far. I didn’t need much convincing. The thought of sitting in a classroom with a bunch of kids dressed exactly the same was horrifying to me. Most schools had the summer uniform and the winter uniform, one slightly lighter in color and fabric than the other, but otherwise identical. When you outgrew the sailor-style blouse, stiff pleated skirt, and button-up jacket you got in seventh grade, you ordered another set just like it, in a larger size.
If I hadn’t attended the private school my mother had chosen, I wouldn’t have learned about clothes in the company of friends, shopping with them, coming to school in jeans one day and in a maxi skirt the next. I was one of the more adventurous girls, who experimented with different styles, dressing like a boy in jeans and a T-shirt with my hair tucked under a baseball cap and, later the same week, going for an ultra-feminine air with a bell-sleeved blouse and wrap-around skirt. Some of my friends had a favorite look they stuck with for months, but even they went through various phases. We were trying on a multitude of personae, different selves we could become.
Clothes that are flattering are described as becoming to the wearer, but we also say, “clothes make the man.” There is perennial push-and-pull between the clothing and the wearer. My friends and I had to become who we were before we could figure out what was becoming to us, what suited us so perfectly that we looked like ourselves in the best possible way. But we could only become ourselves by trying on what struck our fancy while standing in front of the mirror in our bedroom or a private fitting room and then coming out to join the group.
My friends and I didn’t dress alike, but when a dozen of us were riding the commuter train or shopping downtown, everyone who saw us knew which school we attended, because the students at all the other schools were required to wear their uniforms in public even when they were not on a school outing and, surprisingly, they complied. The one benefit of uniforms is to envelope the entire group in camouflage so that no single individual stands out. In that sense, having no uniform was our uniform. Surrounded by friends, I was safe to wear whatever I wanted.
I have a smaller range of styles now than when I was a teenager, but among my friends, I am still one of the more adventurous. On any day, I might come to work in leggings (my favorite pair has a flock of birds printed in silhouette), a mini-skirt, and a hoodie from the athleisure store I run by once a week, or in a maroon tailored dress, an A-line with a Mandarin collar like my mother used to wear from the boutique near the White House where I have never seen a customer under fifty. I’m not a person who gravitates toward the new, the unfamiliar. I’ve held the same kind of job, teaching literature and writing, in three cities. The last two apartments I lived in, 400 miles apart, are nearly identical. But my clothes have not looked the same over the years because every season there is something new that tempts me to branch out.
Trying on clothes in the company of other women, I’m willing to see myself differently. I can reimagine myself when my friend and I are once again in our favorite boutique, one we discovered when we were both living in Boston. Now I’m visiting and we are standing in the middle of the store, near the old couch, in sleeveless dresses from the company that is our go-to for summer frocks. The dress we’ve chosen, the same one in different patterns, is longer than last year’s and has a higher neckline, though still cut narrow in the way we both like and made of rayon that drapes well. My friend understands so much more than either of us can say: she understands me, she understands clothes, she understands what it means to be a woman, and that is just a start. We take turns looking in the mirror, just as Hiroko, Sachiko, Miya, and I had so long ago.
My friend is slim and only a little taller than I am, but no one ever describes her as tiny or petite. She isn’t just beautiful: she is a beauty, with a mane of blue-black hair. On her, the dress is sexy and glamorous, revealing her elongated hour-glass figure. I’m more skinny than slim, straight up and down with no figure; the tailor we go to, a no-nonsense Korean-American, looked me over, shook her head, and pronounced, “You have no chest.” But the dress is flattering on me, too, hanging simple and straight in an elegant way. My friend’s dress is dark with a subtle geometrical print; mine has red umbrellas scattered all over it. No one would think we’re wearing the same dress because each one looks like it was made just for us.
But is her dress too tight? Is mine too bright?
We stand back from the mirror. Then we step toward it. We squeeze in side by side so we’re both reflected.
Is this really us? Who are we anyway? Can this be our new look?
Our first outing as friends, twenty years ago, was to this boutique, where we bought the first of the identical dresess that look entirely different on us. We can only shop together a couple of times every year now that we live 400 miles apart, but thanks to the advancement in cell phone technology, we can take pictures of our clothes and text them to each other to compare the new styles—different silhouettes, unusual colors—we’ve added to our repertoire. We know each other’s wardrobes as well now as when we lived a few miles apart. Where will we be in twenty years? Will we ever live in the same city again? Who will we be in the 2040s? There are stylish women twenty years older than we are now—her mother is one of them. Maybe getting older wouldn’t be so bad if we could keep trying on and talking about new clothes every season.
Yes, we nod to each other in the mirror. We’ve had numerous serious talks over the years about our writing, our jobs, our families; she is the person I would call if I was in trouble. Even so, this is the most important thing we do together. We are here again, continuing to become ourselves.