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You Can’t Shop Your Way to a New Life

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When I moved to a brand new city, I thought I needed a brand new wardrobe.

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

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About a week after moving to Asheville, North Carolina, the barista I’d deemed “kind of surly” — as a compliment — told me she liked my dress.

It was a long, light blue, flow-y thing I’d bought on super sale from Need Supply the year before. I hadn’t worn it much when I lived in Brooklyn because it was a little too “I’m a Grecian urn, but a person” for city life, but it was comfortable and respectably pretty, and throwing it on that morning felt surprisingly right. Working remotely, which was now a thing I did, meant that I could ignore all of my even slightly restrictive clothing, but the boyfriend jeans and old T-shirts I’d spent the last few days in were starting to bum me out — and they hadn’t gotten any nice comments. Now here I was, having a whole conversation with someone who wasn’t my boyfriend about this dress. Well, maybe not a “whole conversation,” but a gratifying word exchange, at least.

Thirty minutes later I was at home, on the website where I’d bought it, trying to buy more of the same.

One thing about living for a very short time in a new place where you don’t know anyone and don’t go into an office is that you should definitely feel extremely terrible all the time about not having close friends yet. That’s what I did, and I would recommend it to anyone — it makes you very fun and approachable. When the barista, who wasn’t as instantly warm as other people in the South and therefore the most appropriate target for my friendship, said that she liked my dress, I naturally, normally, and maturely started to picture a life built entirely around it.

“Flow-y” would be the perfect aesthetic for Imaginary Asheville Meredith, a yet-fictitious, intensely cool woman who grabs drinks at outdoor breweries and hosts get-togethers in her backyard and hangs out by the river while people with still-blurry faces laugh at her great jokes. Sure, she doesn’t go into an office in a stuffy suit (I’ve never worn a suit), but she wears long, casual, throw-em-on dresses — she’s laid-back! While still cute! She never shaves her legs anymore but it works for her! Flow-y!

But since I’m 5’1” and maxi dresses aren’t made for me, I didn’t have a closet designed to help launch my new, overwhelmingly chill, all-good-vibes self. I needed to start shopping.

The Day of the Coffee Shop Compliment, I only ordered one dress. When it arrived, I realized it was a tad formal for the actually existing part of my life: being at home alone. And besides, owning a total of two flow-y dresses? That wouldn’t even get a self-styled social butterfly with no local friends through a whole three-day weekend.

I needed more long dresses, and I needed them to be home-friendly. An email for a house dress arrived in my inbox, and the Dwell and Slumber era (previously covered on this website) was born: I was certain that giant, shapeless smocks aimed at moms, belted, would be the answer to my personality. I’d be the perfect low-key, capable, beach-y California Instagram mama the ads promised — only childless, and in North Carolina.

And for a while, I was! I bought three in quick succession and wore them until they started to get ratty and feel, well, matronly. Sure, I was home all day, but maybe I needed more than glorified pajamas. Sometimes I go places! Like the coffee shop! (When I told the barista these had pockets, she seemed impressed.)

I logged back on, still determined to nail this look. But the thing about shopping for comfort without touching anything or trying it on is that it doesn’t work very well at all.

Nothing quite landed: The Anthropologie jumpsuit that looks like a dress is a little boob-y on me for anything but a night out. The eShakti Offred-inspired piece that I bought while editing a story about The Handmaid’s Tale actually garnered me two compliments from teen girls on the streets of Asheville (ahem, No 1. Racked commenter PamB, I’m just saying), but it’s pretty heavy for summer, and okay, yeah, I do feel like a sister-wife when I wear it. This Madewell gown seems great, but I’ve been dragging my feet on getting it hemmed.

And of course, all these new dresses needed new sandals, new purses, new jewelry. That stuff isn’t cheap. Moving out of New York was supposed to help my boyfriend and I save money, but you couldn’t tell that to my credit card bill. And despite my substantial financial investment, I have in no way become more chill as a person, no matter how much fabric is swishing around my ankles.

I’m starting to think — and please first stop the presses and then take a seat, because this is tough news — that you might not be able to style and purchase your way to a healthy adult social life, despite the glorious promises of capitalism. You cannot make yourself into your own mythical French Girl: vaguely hippie American South edition.

That said, after three months of living here, besides a wardrobe overhaul to show for it, my boyfriend and I have made a few friends. They’re new, not yet extremely close, but it’s nice. And the dresses actually did help. While the barista isn’t someone we meet out at breweries (yet), my seamstress (hi Juli!) is.

We first met when she tailored a bridesmaid’s dress for me (two of the other bridesmaids’ dresses were ruined by tailors, but I made a friend). My constant need to have flow-y things shortened meant more time talking and hanging, and eventually we started doing these things on purpose without exchanging money. Although I still need to bring her that dang Madewell dress.