Womanhood By Way of Paint By Numbers

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Growing up, I found Joan Didion’s packing list in her collection The White Album to be so poignant that it became the framework from which I shaped my identity as a woman. It’s simply a short, emergency packing list that the author though...

Growing up, I found Joan Didion’s packing list in her collection The White Album to be so poignant that it became the framework from which I shaped my identity as a woman. It’s simply a short, emergency packing list that the author thought up and kept safely taped in the closet at her home in Hollywood for whenever she need to pack in an absolute hurry. It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity-- “2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards, 1 pullover sweater… bourbon, cigarettes, face cream…”

But if it’s just a mundane list laden with “deliberate anonymity,” then why did I feel as a young woman that it was the equivalent of a holy text?

I suppose that as a girl I had no conception of what a woman should be like. What one should say, wear, do, think. I got by well enough keeping to myself and burying myself in books far above my reading level, casting sideway glances at my petite peers as they sashayed about the playground. They frightened me primarily because I did not understand them. I could not conceptualize their imaginary games or unwritten set of rules. Once I tried to assimilate, become a student of their practices, my life morphed into a series of poor decisions strewn together by the naivete of adolescence. Trial by fire did not bode well for me.

But that packing list gave me a tangible way to gauge where I was in my progression to adulthood. If I could have all of the listed items an arm’s length away or, even better, pre-packed in a weekend bag then everything would be okay. I would turn out fine, a fully functional member of society. I would be ready for whatever life threw at me. It was womanhood by way of paint by numbers.

“For Joan Didion, a style icon (both literary and sartorial, though the latter was never her aim) whose packing list was immortalized in the title essay of her beloved 1979 collection of essays, The White Album, it meant a sort of feminine armor, donned for the act of reporting in any variety of 1970’s Californian scenes. This was not a woman who wore a flak jacket (at least not in San Francisco), this was a woman who drove a Corvette Stingray, who hid her delicate bone-structure behind oversize sunglasses and who had early childhood dreams of wrapping herself in swathes of sable, who understood the telegraphed distinctions between different hem lengths and the mood-altering powers of several yards of theatrical yellow silk. This was a woman who was at one time a Vogue editor, for Pete’s sake. And this was the list that, for years, she kept taped inside her closet door, for when she had to leave town at a moment’s notice. So in the spirit of summer travels (whether for travels spent working or more pleasurably inclined), we’ve decided to take the iconic packing list for a spin—nothing too drastic, just a little update, and one we like to think that Didion would appreciate, if only for making some other young female professional’s life a little easier. (Not that she’s likely to ever admit it.)”-- An excerpt from Alessandra Codinha’s Vogue article “Why We’re Packing Our Bag Like Joan Didion Did in 1979,” as published June 16, 2014.

TO PACK AND WEAR:

2 skirts

2 jerseys or leotards

1 pullover sweater

2 pair shoes

stockings

bra

nightgown, robe, slippers

cigarettes

bourbon

bag with: shampoo

toothbrush and paste

Basis soap, razor

deodorant

aspirin

prescriptions

Tampax

face cream

powder

baby oil

TO CARRY:

mohair throw

typewriter

2 legal pads and pens

files

house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

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