In my early months of widowhood I bought new clothes.
For someone who loves fashion it wasn’t all that fun. This wasn’t a movie montage shopping spree for a complete wardrobe. I was not spinning around Neiman Marcus with crisp shopping bags flung over my shoulder. I was not on my way to the Rotunda to throw back a mid-day martini. This was something else.
The clothes I owned held sorrow. They were worn and faded, full of trips to doctors and pharmacies and playdates where other parents gave me sad looks. I was tired of wearing those clothes.
I wasn’t always this way. Once upon a lifetime I wrote about fashion and learned couture sewing and wore chic vintage tunics. The dresses I sewed for our travels hung untouched, each custom-fit style named after its destination: Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Rome. They became memories of a different life. I didn’t even go in that part of my closet anymore.
When my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in the spring of 2016, I was in the process of growing my resort wear clothing business. My life in fashion promptly stopped, both as a creator and a dresser. I was the full-time caretaker of my five-year-old daughter, my 46-year-old husband and his cancer. Everything I wore was in one of four drawers.
The first time I recognized what I looked like, I was walking my daughter to school. Her father died the first week of first grade. It took time for me to walk her to school on my own. But when I did, I saw myself reflected in a window and couldn’t believe that my outside looked as bad as I felt on the inside. I hadn’t really bought new clothes for a few years. Of course I bought things, but I bought the same things. The same top, the same jeans, the same underpinnings. What started as passably chic basics became dowdy when combined with other faded glories. I had a uniform: a stack of black boatneck tops from Gap purchased 10 at a time and a few pairs of jeans and a few pairs of trousers and a few pairs of clogs. I never wore dresses or scarves or changed my handbag anymore. I was in survival mode.
By necessity most of my grief shopping was done online. There was no way I was going to a boutique. There was no way I could make small talk with sales associates. I looked terrible and I felt terrible. My face hung in a such a way that felt expressionless but actually looked grievous.
After my husband died I wanted armor. My bones felt hollow, drained by all the sadness and grief. My shoulders ached from every piece of anger and anxiety and bullshit flung my way. I craved protection. I bought outerwear.
The first purchase was a desert rose colored camouflage jacket in an athletic style. It seems like such an obvious choice that I bought camo: I wanted to disappear from sight, to hide from potential predators and dangers.
Next I bought a sweater coat. It is the burnt orange of fall leaves and has deep pockets plus tall lapels for hiding behind. The coat presents as a pulled-together look regardless of what is worn underneath (for instance, a night gown tucked into jeans for school drop-off).
The sunglasses were a splurge but serve a purpose. They are big, dark glasses with thick stems — classic widow shades. The are helpful in masking everything from puffy red eyes to my disinterest in eye contact. While I didn’t go as far as a widow’s black lace veil, I comprehend its purpose.
I also shopped in my closet. A hat acquired ages ago finally came of use. For years I would try on the wide-brimmed black felt hat and deem it too funereal. But this time it was just right. I looked the part of a widow. The hat provides privacy, yes, but its wide brim keeps people further away.
The new clothes felt like a new uniform for a new life. My husband was a stylish man and I wanted to honor him (and also me). Somehow I felt safer, wrapped from head to toe in soft armor. No more harsh jabs, just the roiling changes of a new life brought by grief.