The Boyfriend Effect: Can a Long-Term Relationship Ruin Your Style?


Illustrator Bruno Grizzo depicts the stages of style devolution—a reverse fashion Darwinism.

One chilly evening in late october, I got dressed up for a fancy evening out with my boyfriend, and it didn’t go as planned.

“Planned,” I say, because getting dressed up is now something that occupies an isolated spot on my calendar. The boyfriend and I have been together now for almost a year, and we’ve drifted into a cocooning phase. For me, that’s entailed an almost complete letting go of the smartly dressed lady who was once the public version of me.

I’ve been living and working alone at home as a style writer since 2001. So even before the boyfriend, I mostly existed as Private Me, a mound of unwashed hair and equally unwashed camisoles, able to terraform into a pair of old jeans should the need for local errands arise. But I used to trot Public Me out often enough, for interviews or lunches or dinners, that I at least identified with her.

Now, I’m so out of practice that in those moments when Public Me has to come out, for meetings, mostly, or on that fancy night out, shopping my closet has taken on a whole new meaning—I honestly haven’t beheld a fair amount of what I find in there in a long time. And, after I sat out last season with deadlines and travel, fashion week is coming up again, so I need Public Me back. But I’ve changed since she was last really in effect. She is like old software on a new machine. I need to reboot.

Before I moved to Paris in 2006, when I was still living in New York and socializing with most of my colleagues, my outward projection was a semi-in-control gal with a preference for complicated Marni prints and a dash of Alexander McQueen. A bit unkempt, to maintain the air that she could take or leave whatever, but unquestionably fashionable, with colorful Marc Jacobs shoes and various bags that would actually rotate.

She was also mostly single, so she took care. Then, last year, I met someone. It was during a phase of fairly concentrated Internet first-dating, so I was usually in skinny jeans, black stiletto-heeled boots and a vintage ’80s blouse-and-blazer combo that sort of hinted at overall interesting fashion awareness but wouldn’t scare the natives.

The weather was cold during that courtship period, so as the boyfriend and I became a couple he also got a few doses of Margot Tenenbaum–ish vintage fur, the occasional pencil skirt with tights and flats, and the odd circle skirt. But the peach Martin Margiela shell with the extra armhole and the sharp, black leather-trimmed McQueen were at this point dim memories of mine, and total strangers to him.

Soon things were serious, and we started spending a lot of nights in. I’m not complaining: He’s a fabulous cook and we have important Scandinavian crime shows to catch up on. But this has reorganized the Me’s, Public and Private. I have kind of merged them, and in so doing, my expectations for myself have lowered. Like: I bathe most of the time. That’s not bad! But I have given up on makeup except on rare occasions. At home with him, the look is a caftan I bought in Morocco in 2005, or, if he’s lucky, a pair of Banana Republic cords, an oversize J.Crew cashmere sweatshirt and sensible mid-heeled Margiela booties in a tempting shade of beige.

Since I’m no longer looking to attract random strangers when I’m out in the world, that’s also become my uniform when we’re out of the house. The boyfriend has kids aged nine and seven, and we spend half our time with them. I need things I’m not going to ruin with cookie batter or an accidentally spilled Coke.

So, along comes last fall, when the two of us were getting ready for our big night out. It was my birthday, and he had surprised me with tickets to the Paris Opera Ballet, where, later that night, we would spot Mikhail Baryshnikov in the audience and I would transform into a puddle of geek. But back astride my closet before we left the house, aware that I was extraordinarily out of practice, I reached into the way-back machine for things I remembered feeling good in: an asymmetrically pleated, navy blue Marni shift with ragged-edged cap sleeves and a black 1960s vintage coat with a swingy trapeze back. I put it on, thinking, hey, boyfriend, look at your formidable lady! You never met her, but you are going to be so impressed! And the boyfriend looked at me quizzically and said, in French, “That’s funny.”

“Funny,” even when said in the dulcet tones of the world’s most beautiful language, is not the word you want to get in response to your date-night outfit. And this man is not a shabby dresser himself, with a solid supply of A.P.C. separates he discovered all on his own, without any makeover prodding from me. So the moment gave me pause. Was the old Public Me now a projection of another time, an unnatural avatar? That’s a fairly horrible thought, because I liked Public Me 1.0.

Instead, I decided to see this situation as a factor of maturity, when I let the exuberant statements of my past—be they confusing tops or teenage communism or what have you—fade to a mid-heeled beige. I do have a new life and lifestyle, and 2.0 needs to reflect that, without capitulating to mom jeans, because if that ever happens, just … no. I need to embrace not only what I find inspiring and interesting as an idea, which used to be enough for 1.0, but what is going to live with two kids half the time, and not be a violent transition from the caftan.

So when, at the start of the year, I got an e-mail announcing the unveiling of the latest men’s collection at COS, H&M’s big-sister brand, I suggested a little shopping trip, ostensibly for the boyfriend, but also for me. 2.0 needed to be put to the test, in the very company of the man who will spend the most time with her. I wasn’t necessarily looking for his approval; it was more like, how better to know what will fit into an ongoing life with this man than by having a reminder of him, in the form of him, in the same room with me, flipping through racks on the other side of the room?

At the store, I gravitated toward man-tailoring and dark colors, dignified solids more than prints, high-waisted trousers and white collarless button-up shirts. (The boyfriend’s brother now teases me that I have started dressing like a priest, but the sharply tailored navy blue topcoat with the thin lapels gets a thumbs-up from both me and the boyfriend every time I wear it, which is insanely a lot.) Needing a dress that can take 2.0 to work parties, I went for a sort of ’50s silhouette in navy blue that I found flattering and comprehensible. But, to reassure the ghost of 1.0 that she hasn’t been entirely forgotten, it’s in an ever-so-slightly off-putting techno fabric. The original Public Me is not going down without a fight.

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