“I decorate with American girls in mind!” my host mother had said when I arrived in Paris. A teddy bear smiled inanimately from the shelf of an otherwise empty bookcase. I stared at the lime-green curtains, butterfly-patterned carpet, and twin-size bed with its rainbow-polka-dotted duvet. The room filled me with malaise — one of the few French words I could pronounce three months after my arrival in Paris, despite my efforts in Elementary French I. (Other phrases I could say included “Avez vous le mot de passe du wifi?” — “What is the Wi-Fi password?” — and “Je voudrais un sandwich” — “I would like a sandwich.”) For the 84th night in a row, the teddy bear’s plastic gaze met mine. I had to escape.
The means for my reprieve were obvious: I needed to buy a sweater. The thickly woven, simply cut, and undeniably tasteful sweater that had caught my eye earlier that week. It was so quintessentially French that I knew, with a conviction as deep as the knit’s rich shade of navy, that purchasing it would cure my angst. I checked the time on my boxy international Nokia cell phone. It was 18:45, which by 18:46 I understood to mean 6:45 p.m. There were fifteen minutes to the store’s close, and if I ran I could make it. Like a character in a bizarre cross between Mission: Impossible and The Dreamers, I pulled on a long wool coat and sneaked out into the misty Paris night, breaking into a sprint across the slick cobblestones. Sweat glazed my forehead like the sugar coating on a tarte aux framboises. I checked my phone every few strides — 18:51, 18:52, 18:53. Finally, at 18:54, my destination came into view. A big window, golden-lit, a tall woman in all black hanging items on a rack. Three glowing letters designated my panacea: COS.
I burst through the glass doors, ran to the back of the store, and grabbed the sweater I had been thinking about for days. The heavy wool felt substantial in my clammy American hands, and as I handed the sweater to a chic cashier, my months-long case of melancholy lifted, if only for a moment. Sturdy paper shopping bag in hand, the tissue-wrapped sweater within, I emerged from COS unsure of how to get back to my home stay. But it didn’t matter. My purchase was a triumph: for 50 euros I bought a respite from homesickness, an item that would appreciate in nostalgic value over years to come. One day, I calculated, it would symbolize the wonderful time I had waltzing through the streets of Paris, speaking French easily, eating baguettes and drinking bottles of wine by the Seine, all the while dressed the part of the American girl in Paris.
Seven years later, I still have the sweater. I remember the absurd evening I ran to buy it, and — as pathetic as it seems to me now — enjoy recalling the delusion that a sweater had the power to make me feel more French and less homesick.
As I’ve started to put my summer clothes away for the year, I’ve been thinking about the fantasies that fall clothing can conjure. Try as the J. Peterman copywriters may, a pair of shorts will never have the nostalgic value of a favorite sweater or coat. After months of bikinis, putting on fall clothing is a bit like donning a costume. The herringbone blazer that’s been hanging in the back of my closet becomes the necessary ensemble for a day spent studiously writing in the stately Dewitt Wallace Room at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. The black pleated leather miniskirt, unworn since February, is the right after-work outfit change for getting martinis at the Odeon. While these items don’t display the extravagance typically associated with costumes, they’re the perfect end-of-summer pieces for channeling a more cinematic version of myself; they infuse mundane daily activities with a sense of dramatic potential.