The M Dash

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How I Found My Uniform: The Novelist Edition

June 16, 2017 | Filed in: Your Closet

When the late, great writer David Foster Wallace started doing readings with a bandana wrapped around his temple, he said it was because he was a heavy sweater, and the bandana kept perspiration from dropping onto the pages of his book. Later—once the bandana became a signature, a thing that David Foster Wallace “did”—he admitted that it had become a security blanket, something that made him feel like he was keeping it together, that he was going to make it through another reading, another month-long tour.

I first learned about the reasons behind the bandana-wearing in the movie The End of the Tour, which documents the five-day interview a Rolling Stone reporter did with Wallace during his tour for Infinite Jest. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Wallace fan, but I leap to his defense when people say the bandana was an artifice. I feel sympathetic toward him for wearing that nasty thing around. Because here’s the thing that authors aren’t supposed to tell you: Book tours are really, really hard. Yes, absolutely, they are a privilege and a rarity these days, and those of us who get to go on them are extremely lucky. But the plumpest hotel pillow won’t protect your body from the lymphatic ravages of three flights in one day, won’t keep the older man in the signing line from announcing that he doesn’t know anything about your work, but can you get him published? If wearing a ratty piece of fabric around your noggin makes you feel presentable and moderately sane, then let’s give it up for the emotional support bandana, I say.

I have a relationship with fashion. I’ve worked in publicity for different fashion designers, and I’ve worked for the trend forecasters who influenced their designs. I’ve worked with women who subscribed to a career uniform (monotone blacks or grays, bullet-proof haircuts, take-no-shit boots), and I’ve worked with women who were paid to show up at an event wearing one outfit, and leave wearing another. That kind of chameleon-ing always struck me as exhausting; plus, you need to be famous enough to have someone chasing you around with a bunch of different shoes. But the truth is, I’ve always liked dressing as the mood strikes me, trying out different aesthetics, treating fashion as play. As much as the Virgo in me admires the diligence and self-awareness it requires, I’ve never been a uniform girl.

Courtney wears the Rachel dress in black.

Courtney wears the Rachel dress in black.

That’s why, for my first-ever book tour in 2014, I crammed a checked bag full of outfits that complimented my then-aesthetic, a diaphanous attempt at nonchalance that was three parts resort and one part reluctant-socialite-in-rehab: Picture Lucille Bluth in a caftan.

But when you’re changing cities daily, checked luggage is a pain. And it turns out the gauze-y chiffon maxi dress that worked so well in Los Angeles leaves you cold and silly-looking in Chicago. And another thing (which brings me back to why I respect Wallace’s bandana): When you are truly feeling at loose ends, and you’ve been traveling alone for weeks (albeit in a very public way), and you have literally been talking about nothing but yourself and this thing you have done for days and days and days even though the world is on fire all around you, you don’t want something that’s as distended and formless as you’re feeling—you want to wear something that’s tight.

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Courtney wears the Crawford top in galaxy blue and the Mulberry skirt in persimmon.

Enter the Alexa dress* from MM.LaFleur. When I found out that I was touring for my second novel, Touch, I got right down to business. No more bohemian cacophony billowing from my suitcase. I was going to take a carry-on, and I was going to look polished. I was going to find an outfit that made me feel like I had it together, even if I was falling apart. I was going to wear a uniform.

The minute I slipped into the Alexa dress, I knew I’d found my match. First of all, it was navy, a color that can do business and pleasure with panache. Navy is going to show up at the corporate retreat’s umpteenth PowerPoint presentation like a good little soldier, and promptly sneak out for a drink with another navy friend.

The dress was fitted, but it wasn’t desperate for attention. It could turn on a dime and be playful, but it also commanded respect. I took it for a spin during my week-long pre-publication tour, and it refused to wrinkle. When I put it lovingly back into my suitcase after another happy night of wearing it, I felt like I was basking in the fond glance of a friend.

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Courtney wears the Zulma dress in viridian.

The Alexa wants what’s best for me. She quite literally has my back. The Alexa knows I didn’t sleep last night, that a crappy review was just published, and that I only sold two copies of my novel at a reading that was supposed to be jam-packed. But Alexa is proud of me: she knows I can keep going. Put on some under-eye concealer and a pair of peep-toes and let’s do this! my anthromorphized dress says. Afterwards, she promises we’ll gossip about that jerk-off in the signing line.

But a girl can’t wear the same dress day in and out forever. I know because I’ve tried. So halfway through the tour, I called for backup, and MM met me in New York with a fresh infusion. In the Rachel, I found a dress as confidence-boosting as the Alexa, but in a lighter fabric for summer. Another favorite item is the Atwood top—the most grown-up article of clothing I’ve ever owned, a literary-inspired marvel that’s ethereal but sensible—a Grecian tunic for a working girl.

In these cherished pieces, I feel feminine but in control, softly armored and ready to battle the empty audience chairs, lyrical one-star Amazon reviews, and other turbulent surprises of the writing life. Onward!

*Note: The Alexa dress is currently sold out—but it will be back!

Photos by Maria Karas.


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Courtney Maum is an author based in Litchfield County, CT. Her most recent novel, Touch, is available now. Read more of Courtney's posts.


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