basic instinct

In Praise of Wearing the Same Thing As Everyone Else

Photo: Courtesy of J.Crew

When we were little, my sisters and I liked to play dress-up. Our favorite article of clothing was our mother’s old jacket, a patchwork of different colored fabrics — purple, orange, turquoise, black — with enormous pockets and shoulder pads. It was a strange and spectacular garment, a product of its time: My mom had bought it at Flip, the now-defunct vintage-clothing store on Melrose Avenue, which was a center of fashion in 1980s Los Angeles. Even back then, when the jacket was long enough to graze my knees, I understood it took guts to carry off the look.

Nowadays, my go-to outerwear is the Downtown Field Jacket by J.Crew in a shade of dark olive called “mossy brown.” The name might be meaningless to you, but I guarantee you’ve seen the jacket. It’s been worn by Modern Family’s high-strung mom-of-three Claire Dunphy. It’s appeared twice on Scandal: First Lady Mellie Grant wore it to Camp David; then the former CIA operative and assassin-for-hire Becky Flynn wore it to shoot the president. Rashida Jones, as Ann Perkins, sported it on Parks and Recreation. It even enjoyed a cameo in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. Venture into any city on a not-too-warm day, and you’ll spot a Downtown Field Jacket as often as you do a Starbucks.

The jacket is made of lightweight waxed cotton, which means it’s waterproof if it needs to be, and it boasts a zipper up the front, in addition to a flap lined with gold snaps for extra protection from the elements. The snaps and the many pockets initially give the jacket a raffish military vibe, but there is some alchemy to it that lets you assume any number of identities. Wearing it I feel simultaneously like a badass teenager leaning against a brick wall with a cigarette tucked between my chapped lips, and like a British woman in wellies forging her way across a bog (in my mind, I own the bog).

At $148, it’s priced to own, at least compared to most J.Crew outerwear. I can wear it in the winter in Los Angeles, in the spring in New York, and in the summer in San Francisco. Come fall, I can wear it almost everywhere, and I do. In my mind I’m projecting a cool, careless, masculine femininity. If fashion is utility plus fantasy, then the Downtown Field Jacket fulfills the equation beautifully.

That the jacket would make a believable wardrobe choice for so many women, and for a handful of very different television and film characters, attests to its power. Like the best basic, it doesn’t upstage the body, but empowers it. It emphasizes and complements the wearer’s identity, whatever that may be, while also feeding into the imagined persona its owner secretly delights in. And like the best basic, it’s nearly invisible, rendering its wearer visible.

I myself bought the jacket without realizing my friend already owned one. She had it on when we met, in fact, and although I recall liking her jacket, it didn’t stick in my mind. I remember thinking she seemed tough, but elegant, like a woman who can both change a tire and make a salad dressing from scratch. I recently asked her how she felt in it. She replied, “Like Daniel Craig in Skyfall.”

Whenever I come across another Downtown girl, I smile and nod in acknowledgment. Most return the favor, though a few have looked away, embarrassed, as if we’ve been caught at the prom in identical gowns. I can’t blame them; loving something popular reminds you that you’re not as unique as you’d hoped. While I might have resented the jacket’s widespread appeal when I was younger and preferred to don a one-of-a-kind, vintage faux-fur coat to keep me warm, I’m now happy to be a part of this vast tribe of women, even if our mutual love of a J.Crew basic makes us, well, basic bitches. Who cares?

That term, used to signify those who like what’s mainstream and typical, is also a gendered one. It’s women, not men, whose conformity is deemed inferior. A man’s wardrobe has been a parade of basics for decades, hasn’t it, and yet a pair of khakis, or a well-cut blazer, doesn’t threaten any one man’s individuality, isn’t a reflection of his character or lack thereof. Enough with judging a woman for what she puts on her body, and for what she consumes in service of that body.

Others must agree. In 2014, when it was announced that J.Crew’s profits were floundering, many industry experts and consumers blamed the brand’s refocus on quirky, of-the-moment pieces. I understand the criticism. The shared ardor for one particular easy-to-wear jacket proves that many women rely on, and revel in, basics. Let us all wear the Downtown Field Jacket, we say, let us throw it on without thinking, it goes with everything and looks terrific. There are other, more meaningful differences between us than what we wear.

I’m reminded again of my mother’s jacket. It did take guts to pull off that particular look, but I can’t stop thinking about how short-lived it was, lodged squarely inside of 1984. When my mother asked my father for a divorce and moved out, she didn’t take the jacket with her. Nor did she take her wedding dress. Why would she? Neither garment reflected who she was, or who she wanted to be, and she wouldn’t miss them.

There’s something tragic about last season’s looks. The everyday has the danger of being mundane, but, then again, what isn’t timeless quickly becomes irrelevant. Irrelevance is the last thing a woman needs when getting dressed in the morning.

In Praise of Wearing the Same Thing As Everybody Else