This essay is part of Fashion in Isolation, a special issue on the intimate, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationship we have to what we wear.
In 1999, I went to Germany for two months. I was nineteen, and it was my first time traveling alone and also my first time in Germany, where I, at least during this period, believed myself to have some ancestry (I’ve since learned that the line in question was Lithuanian). I went mostly on account of a job. I wrote for a travel guide, but—because I was nineteen and because I had but a single semester of “Deutsch I” under my belt—this was a nonstandard operation. The guide had started as a mimeographed pamphlet that accompanied young Americans on their transatlantic backpacking forays during the glorious 1960s and had since become a juggernaut run by successive generations of prematurely professionalizing undergrads. I had an editor (he was twenty) who remained stateside, while I canvased the minor cities of Schleswig-Holstein, verifying sausage prices and anecdotes about disco bartenders who had long since moved on.
The internet was rapidly obviating my work, such as it was, which was a good thing, not only because my German was trash but because I was morbidly shy. The expedition was only saved from utter triviality by the fact that I had been assigned to fact-check half of Berlin, where things improved. Although I was only in town for a pair of weeks I managed to make out with a number of adorables (Liz, if you’re out there?) and drop acid in the suburbs during Love Parade. And I bought some new pants.
In fact, it was in Berlin that I obtained what is perhaps the single most significant garment of my life. It wasn’t that these pants were particularly good. They were, in a sense, extremely bad. But they were so extraordinarily bad that they somehow transcended to a new category, becoming, in the process, a wardrobe staple. The purchase occurred at a boutique in the East that sold a lot of items made of hemp (I know, I know) and the pants were a deep, mossy, thick, almost alarmingly verdant: green. Green pants! They were cut the traditional sailor way, with wide legs and two sets of fabric-covered buttons in front. When I got back to the US I was always getting them caught in the gears of my bicycle, and I was just about to throw them away one day when one of my roommates referred to them as “your fashion pants.” And that, as they say, was where it began.
The pants continued on, appearing at least twice a month in my garment rotation, marking me out as a non-conforming wearer of potentially unattractive clothing that somehow (I think?) looked sort of good. They were only relinquished some eight years later, in rural Japan, after they had become moldy in storage during a particularly damp and snowy winter. But I often think, even now: What if I had kept them? Would I put them on sometimes, to teach a class or go for a grocery run? They are my clearest memory of how confusing and sometimes exhilarating it was back then, liking unusual forms of beauty and being very young.