Siri Hustvedt on style: Outside the mirror

The Extract: We use icons of style to define who we are - and who we want to become. From the screen, or page, our future looks back at us

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The Independent Culture

It is a peculiar truth that I see far less of myself than other people do. I can see my fingers typing when I look down at them. I can examine my shoes, the details of a shirt cuff, or admire a pair of new tights on my legs while I am sitting down, but the mirror is the only place where I am whole to myself. Only then do I see my body as others see it. But does my mirror-self really represent my persona in the world? Is that woman who gives herself the once-over, who checks for parsley in incisors to avoid a green smile, who leans close to study new wrinkles or the red blotches that sometimes appear on her rapidly aging countenance a reasonable approximation of what others see?

I do not witness myself as I talk and gesture emphatically to make absolutely sure my point has been made. I do not see myself as I stride down the street, dance, or stumble, nor do I know what I look like when I laugh, grimace, cry, or sneer. This is no doubt a blessing. Were I to see myself in medias res, my critical faculties might never shut down, and I would barely be able to lift a finger without crippling self-consciousness.

Instead of actually seeing ourselves, we walk around with an idea about ourselves. We have a body image or a body identity. This is the conscious notion of what we look like. I'm pretty or ugly, fat or thin, feminine or masculine, old or young.

Everyone knows that we can be wrong about our body image. We have all met thin people who believe they are fat and old people who think they have the bodies of 30-year-olds and dress accordingly. I am sometimes surprised when I regard my own face in photographs. "Good heavens!" I say to myself. "Is that what you look like now? Are you really so old?" At other times, I find myself aging admirably. "You're not so bad for 56. You're hanging in there." But then photographs, those documents of an instant, don't capture a person in motion. They are static, and we are not. Nevertheless, I think my body image sometimes lags behind my real body.

If body image is what we think we look like, style is meant to express who we think we are, and since we spend most of our lives dressed, not naked, clothes can efficiently announce something about a person's character. Whether sober and sleek, humorous, sweet, modest, loud, or dangerous - they serve as an indication of personality. When I put on my clothes, I hope that the dresses and trousers and blouses and coats and shoes and boots and scarves and purses and all the rest of the sartorial paraphernalia I select will speak for me, will suggest to the world an idea I have about myself. It is interesting to ask how these ideas come about. I have learned after almost 30 years of marriage that my husband regards any shirt with a shiny fabric (even the barest sheen) as anathema to his true character. My sister Liv wears a lot of jewellery and she looks wonderful in it. I have sometimes tried to imitate her, but inevitably take it all off and leave on what I always wear - earrings. A lot of jewellery just isn't "me". But what is this me-ness about? Where does it come from?

If every person has an idea about garments that are him or her, most of us also have an ideally dressed self. When it comes to wearing clothes, idea and ideal intersect; the real and the imaginary inevitably come together. In my life, I have mostly found my ideal garments in the movies. I have a great weakness for those gleaming images of manufactured glamour and sophistication filmed on glorious Hollywood sets with monumental white staircases, billowing draperies, and sparkling chandeliers. How I have loved sitting in the dark and watching a world in which every suitcase is weightless and even poor shopgirls are as astutely attired as a chic Frenchwoman on the Champs-Élysées.

I believe it all started with a Walt Disney film, Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills. Based on a revoltingly saccharine best-selling novel published in 1913, this movie captivated me entirely. I was only five when it was first released in 1960, so I think I must have seen it some time later, but not much later. In all events, I identified myself completely with Hayley Mills in her white sailor suit with navy blue trim. (I had no idea then that my mother had spent a good part of her childhood in southern Norway dressed in the very same fashion, de rigueur for middle-class children in the 1920s.) In my young mind, the sailor dress must have been emblematic of the story: a relentlessly cheerful girl sweetens up one sourpuss after another until she has won over an entire town. I pined for a dress like that. I must have believed in it as a vehicle of transformation: in that dress, I too might become like the heroine, adored, simply adored, by every single resident of my own small town.

My fixation on marine garb ended, but my cinematic identifications did not. When I first saw Marlene Dietrich slouching down a stairway in a tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco, I thought I would never wear a dress again, only men's suits and smoking jackets. The sight of Lana Turner in a white turban in The Postman Always Rings Twice made me consider that form of headwear. Although turbans never worked, I do own a tuxedo. I am well aware that I look nothing like Dietrich in it, but I credit her for the inspiration.

Perhaps my favourite films are Hollywood comedies of the Thirties and Forties. In those movies, the heroes and heroines are not only capable of finding their way to the end of an English sentence, they know how to banter. They know how to deliver a barb, fire off a witticism, and send a wry off-handed compliment. Their crackling dialogues are inseparable from their characters, characters that are also expressed, at least in part, by their clothes.

In the movies, I like to watch clothes in action - the flow of a dress as an actress moves across the floor, dances, or, better yet, runs. Near the end of It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert, no longer a spoiled heiress, but leavened by her adventures on the road with that man of the people, Clark Gable, stands before the minister who is going to marry her to a frivolous playboy, the perfect movie sap, and, when asked if she will take this man to be her lawfully wedded husband, she vigorously shakes her head, hitches up her immense train, and runs, a mile-long veil streaming behind her on the grass. It's a great shot that has the punch of a vividly remembered image from a dream.

Like countless others before and after me, I fell for Katharine Hepburn. I fell for her style. It is hardly news that she was a woman who did not bow to conventional standards, and the way she dressed was a sign of rebellion. There was a masculine quality to whatever she wore, even when she was draped in an evening gown. I remember her in a pair of wide trousers, striding down a golf course with Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike. And I remember her in Holiday, wearing a gloriously simple black dress with a high neck. No froufrou or silliness for her, no peekaboo blouses or big bows or ridiculous shoes.

I was 19 when I first saw Holiday, the 1938 romantic comedy directed by George Cukor and based on the play by Philip Barry. As a freshman in college, I had my second moment of profound identification with a celluloid being: Hepburn's character Linda. What did it matter that she was the offspring of a fantastically wealthy man of business and I the daughter of a not very well-paid professor? What difference did it make that she inhabited a mansion on Park Avenue with an elevator, and I had grown up in a modest house with scenic views of corn and alfalfa fields? Wasn't she misunderstood just as I was? Didn't she wish desperately to escape all that luxury and superficial nonsense? And even if I had no luxury to flee from, didn't I, too, fantasise about another life? This kind of thinking, of course, is an essential aspect of what is referred to as "the magic of the movies".

As I watched entranced, I did not see myself sitting in my seat in my old jeans and sweater, both of which had undoubtedly been purchased on sale. I was not in Minnesota anymore. Some ideal self had been embodied on screen, a character with whom I shared nothing except an emotional reality: a feeling of being trapped and unhappy. I participated in the fable unfolding before me, and as I participated, I imagined myself in those clothes, Linda's clothes, not the ones worn by her snooty, shallow sister, whose expensive wardrobe seemed so fussy in comparison. No, I was in that black evening dress, and I was wearing it just as Linda did, wearing it as if it made no difference to me that it was supremely elegant, because I had other more pressing, more important things on my mind. I was falling in love with another free spirit, played by Cary Grant.

Few people are immune to such enchantments, and they long predate the movies. We enter characters in novels, too, and imagine ourselves into their stories and into what ever habiliments they may have on during their adventures, and it is possible for us because we do not have to look at ourselves while we are doing it. When we are invisible to ourselves, every transformation is possible. Movies give visual form to our myriad waking dreams. The marvellous people on the screen take the place of the mirror for a while, and we see ourselves in them. Mirroring is a physiological and a social phenomenon. We are born with the ability to imitate the expressions of others, but we also become creatures of our culture with its countless images of what is chic and beautiful. When we choose what to wear we don't just choose particular pieces of clothing, we select them because they carry meanings about us, meanings we hope will be understood by other people.

These days, I often find myself buying clothes that look suspiciously like ones I already own. This may sound a little dull and perhaps it is. My body image has changed; I am not the girl of 19 who sat in the movie theatre and watched Holiday anymore. I did leave Minnesota only a few years after seeing that film, and moved to New York City. I broke away from my small town and the constraints of provincial life. It is fair to say that certain movie stars continue to haunt my wardrobe. Katharine Hepburn has been an ideal of tailored beauty whispering in my ear ever since I saw her all those years ago on the screen in that wonderful dress. I eschew frippery and excessive adornment of any kind. I like clothes with a masculine feeling that don't make me look like a man. I like shoes that I can move and dance and even run in if necessary. Towering heels, platforms, complex straps that resemble fetters are not "me". I like clothes that preserve and enhance my dignity, but are not so sober and serious that they make me look humourless. This is what I wish to convey when I get dressed. Whether I succeed or not in this endeavour, I honestly don't know. I don't see myself often enough. Before I leave the house for an evening out, I check myself in the mirror for just a moment and then I go off, happily ignorant of what I look like when I am living my life.

Extracted from 'Living, Thinking, Looking' by Siri Hustvedt, published by Sceptre (£17.99) © 2012 by Siri Hustvedt