Point Of View: Self And The City

As a young New Yorker, Lauren Elkin learned that the city streets held the inspiration for the woman she wanted to become.

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When I moved to New York to attend Barnard College, one of my biggest concerns—along with “Will I be smart enough for this place?” and “What am I going to do afterward?”—was “What am I going to wear?” My undergraduate years were spent mostly wearing black. But not long after I graduated, I came upon an article by Caitlin Macy in The New York Times Magazine about living in New York City as a scrappy, single twentysomething. It was accompanied by a list, something like “Macy’s Madcap Must-Haves,” and I cut it out and stuck it on my mirror. It was inspiring. Obviously, you needed a little black dress, a matte red lipstick and oversized black sunglasses to hide your hangover, but who knew you also required a pale peach camisole, Chinese pajamas, and a head scarf and a gingham housedress—what the madcap apparently wear to clean?

One by one, I tracked these elements down in my travels around the city. A tiny votive candle in an expensive scent. Seamed stockings. Lots and lots of jangling bracelets. A cashmere throw to wrap myself in while sitting up reading on long nights.

I scavenged in the bits and bobs of clothing and accessories inherited from my grandmother when she passed away the year before. My grandmother was very chic—glamorous but diminutive, Italian va-va-voom mixed with French gamine. I borrowed her kid gloves. I found a velvet Pucci purse in dusty pink and used it until the leather on the oval fastening wore off and also a navy blue Gucci pocket square that retained her scent well into the decade after she’d died. Then there’s the Russian fur hat that makes me feel like I should change my name to Nadja, like André Breton’s heroine, which I still wear today, stalking the streets of Paris, slightly feral.

I came to realize that my madcap New York identity grew out of my love of rummaging around in my grandmother’s closet, and this has been my approach toward cities ever since—as caverns of treasures, full of experiences and impressions and forgotten things waiting to be uncovered. The French film director Agnès Varda calls this accumulation glanerie, from the verb glaner, the act of scavenging what remains after the harvest.

I think this is a form of flâneuserie, from the verb flâner, to wander idly in the city, taking in the urban spectacle. The flâneur is usually a man; the flâneuse, I believe, a kind of willfully subversive woman. A woman who goes where she’s not supposed to and does just what she likes there. A woman who takes what she needs from the city to become the woman she wants to be. We take in the billboards, the store windows, the women we admire, or the men, even a dog. (I saw a ginger Cavalier King Charles Spaniel at a party the other night with an orange Goyard collar and thought “Yes, that collar, on that dog.”) It’s not even necessarily about owning these things; it’s about seeing them, and making them part of your city. The flâneuse is always on the alert, piecing together the woman she wants to be from bits and pieces of the city.

 

Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, which will be published in February by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

 

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