Sex And The Sweater Girl
Layer Vs. Luxury, Haley Mlotek
Stays Loyal To Her Knits
- Text: Haley Mlotek
Nudity has more in common with climate and other forms of culture than it does with erotics. Those who experience seasonal weather—for as long as there still are seasons—will feel one way about fucking in July, and another way about fucking in January. Angela Carter, in her book The Sadeian Woman, writes that the “primal nakedness of lovers is a phenomenon of the middle-class in cold climates; in northern winters, naked lovers must be able to afford to heat their bedrooms.” But in the same way thinking of cold has us thinking of heat, a sweater reminds us of sex because of the contradictions. What we shouldn’t want will always be wanted more than what we have. Are you cold? as a question is usually asked for one of two reasons: to offer a sweater, or to suggest getting closer.
The crewneck sweater, first made by fisherman’s wives to protect husbands from their wet workplaces, is not so obviously sexual. It’s often associated with wool, and like most natural materials it has a high risk and reward factor. If it’s made well it’ll feel soft, but if it’s made cheaply it’ll scratch. It lacks the promise of silk (so smooth) or the perverseness of fur (so wrong). Unlike lingerie, it does not put the body on display; unlike high heels, it does not seduce the eye into seeing legs.
The shape of a sweater was made sexual in the 1940s and 1950s. Like our mothers promised, it’s what was underneath that counted, though this was probably not what they meant. The sweaters were emphasizing the “Bullet Bra,” lingerie with an exaggerated pointedness that took a maximalist approach to the concept of the hourglass figure. Sometimes known as the “cone bra,” a contemporary comparison would be Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s interpretation for the “Blonde Ambition” tour in the 1990s (though she didn’t bother with the sweater). In 1937, Lana Turner was named “The Sweater Girl” for her short scene in They Won’t Forget. A sharp figure required a soft exterior. Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, and Marilyn Monroe—the icons of this era in Hollywood were photographed and shot in tight sweaters, a style that fashion and beauty writer Marie Lodi refers to as elemental to both the “girl-next-door-pinup” and her counterpart, the “bad girl gang.” Miu Miu has mastered this prim wink contained in a sweater, wools and knits that always look more coy than shy. When Phoebe Philo stepped away from Céline, I read every elegy I could, holding on to the way her women looked like they knew sweaters should be worn for or given to a lover.
The texture of these sweaters, when seen on screen or in a photo, can’t be touched by an audience but must be desired by them. Wool, cashmere, mohair—fabrics with a light fuzz—make the visual seem tactile. When considering how I want to be on a winter day at home, I often think of that one photo of Sade where she sits with her forehead leaning against her fist, slightly glossy red lips and slightly shiny silver hoop earrings, a loosely knit white mockneck sweater radiating its own halo. There’s a photo of Eartha Kitt in the late 1950s wearing a buttoned-up sweater cardigan and capris, a wool coat lined with leopard print draped behind her head, sitting with her knees pulled up in the very corner of a coach; in my imagination this is a look for nights and weekends, after-hours but before bedtime. When considering how I want to be seen on a cool Sunday afternoon in the sun I think of Sharon Stone’s neutral palette in Basic Instinct (I am always thinking about Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct), wrapped in a camel cardigan just a shade darker than the sand surrounding her beachfront property.
Other sweaters show the idea of a body, mapping it like territory. The Carven Grid Stripe Sweater is a matrix for the torso, crossing lines in contrasting threads. It exaggerates by way of illusion, in the same way sweaters too small or too big trick the mind into daydreams. A Cher Horowitz type will always want a cropped sweater, a silhouette for playing at adulthood on the campus quad and to ward off the air-conditioning at the mall. An Ariana Grande type, as ELLE.com writer Estelle Tang said, will want the lampshade effect of a large hoodie and bare legs with thigh-high boots. “The top is the shade,” Tang explained in her week-long diary of trying the look for herself, “and your li’l legs are the lampstand.” These looks are teenage dreams for a reason—a commitment to outfits impractical for any kind of weather and incongruous with the body underneath, their paradoxes make perfect sense to those in the know. A bare leg with a thick sweater makes desire seem proportional, rational: one at a time.
The oversized sweatshirt has another kind of adolescent purpose, the years when you stop considering clothes to be something you’ll grow out of. Last year, every afternoon where weather permitted I reached for a pale purple sweater I had bought on sale and on impulse. I’ve washed and worn it so much the collar has faded unevenly into what looks like a tie-dyed pink, the cuffs loose from being pulled up and down to the tune of my weekday anxieties. On the times I took it outside the house I would run my headphones up underneath, the way I saw Kristen Stewart do in the 2016 film Personal Shopper, slouched on the train and waiting for a ghost to text her back. Her sweaters in the film gave her the look of stylists and shoppers I’ve met in real life, when I worked in retail and learned to talk to the women in the business of second glances. On first glance a good sweater always speaks of effortlessness, which is not the same as thoughtlessness. It is knowing that the right sweater will look best when it feels right.
I’m reminded, too, of the sweatshirts I got in high school for participating in extracurriculars, the only reason to do so. Wearing them made it clear where you belonged, or at least how you spent afternoons after class. Gucci, in recent years, has made clothes for the hyper-romantic collegiate on campus, the prep who gets A’s so their parents don’t ask where they spend their nights, while the Raf Simon “Drugs” Regular Fit Sweatshirt is for showing what books you read outside of the curriculum—Cookie Mueller instead of Jane Austen. My former classmates and I have kept up our collection of loyalty sweatshirts, accruing a wardrobe with our employer’s names. The ADER Error Splice Logo Sweater recalls a high-quality version of what a high-tech company might give workers after a promising quarterly all-hands meeting; the Gucci Paramount Pictures Sweatshirt, meanwhile, is for the girl who graduated film school and just finished her first production assistant job, anticipating arriving at the festivals where she’ll need to dress warm for the Sundance snow or the Canadian cold. Of course, all of this name-dropping has its limits. Fran Lebowitz once said she couldn’t understand shirts with messages on them: “If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?” The same probably applies to job prospects. You can dress for the job you want, but you can’t wear your resumé on your sleeve.
Where you belong is another way of saying where your heritage lies and your heart is; wearing a sweater claimed by someone else is another way of expressing warmth, of wanting. In The Folded Clock, a diary written in non-linear order that I’ve read enough times to wear the pages down, Heidi Julavits tells the story of becoming friends with a teacher’s assistant on a semester abroad. Julavits remembers her as being older, prettier, cooler than any other student. When she lets Julavits wear her best sweater it means something about their closeness—about being worthy of this pretty girl’s attention:
That she’d awarded it to me was the equivalent, if we were still at our American college, of an older boyfriend giving a girl his torn and stained canvas jacket to wear, the one everyone knew, by the unique pattern of destruction, was his. In my mother’s generation, men gave women their school rings, or their varsity jackets, if they were athletes, in order to claim ownership, and women wore them, well, I don’t know why. To prove they were desirable enough to be claimed? When I was in high school, I borrowed and wore my father’s clothing more than I wore my mother’s. At the time I saw my preference for my father’s clothing over my mother’s as a logical extension of a tomboy childhood. But maybe it wasn’t just about that.
I have one sweater I took from a man I loved but no longer speak to. I keep it in a drawer, out of sight, and I think of it often. It would be a tell-tale heart except it only beats wool and not blood. When I wear it I feel like a person I no longer am, which is not necessarily a bad feeling. Another sweater from another man was a gift—a color I never would have chosen for myself, I hang it where I can see it every day. When I wear it I feel more like the woman he wants me to be. This, too, feels nice, though only as a rarity. Like a break from myself.
In the last few weeks I’ve spent many days filling and abandoning online shopping carts with sweaters and sweatshirts of all styles, imagining occasions to wear them and promising myself that if I do buy them I won’t just drop them on the floor at the end of the night. I’ll hang them up, fold them in drawers with cedar sachets, treat them with care. I’ll be the person who can seduce without showing any skin. I’ll wait patiently for days with the right sweater temperature, for as long as such days exist. Perhaps as sweater weather becomes increasingly rarified, a sweater becomes less of a layer than a luxury. We take advantage of wind chills and cool sunrises while we can, looking for what it means to want something just because it doesn’t make sense. Maybe as we reveal more about ourselves we want to cover up. It is all these oppositions at once that make them the symbol of my most fixated obsessions. Out of all my fears about climate change, the lowest on the list is easiest to think first: I’m really going to miss sweaters.
Haley Mlotek’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, The Globe and Mail, and Hazlitt, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.
- Text: Haley Mlotek