The Laconic Verses

Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 BY Natasha Stagg. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 256 pages. $17.

It is probably unfashionable to begin a review with a reference to Sex and the City, but Natasha Stagg has given me tacit permission to do so—she cites the show in the first sentence of her new book, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019. In a short essay titled “Cafeteria,” which was originally published in Spike Art Quarterly in 2016, Stagg writes about observing a cadre of diners meeting for brunch in Chelsea:

They meet at Cafeteria because the characters in Sex and the City did that. The New York of that era is not the same as the New York of today, but even while the show aired, viewers argued that it wasn’t of a real New York. So the collective city—the idea that became known as another main character, which was New York in quotes, or female friendship, or whatever was under your nose the whole time—is as real as anything on TV, and therefore hasn’t changed.

Stagg’s New York—which she landed in almost a decade ago, after completing a creative writing MFA in her native Arizona—never quite solidifies into a real place. Her city is one of filters, mediations, diffuse light fuzzed out at far distances. Most people think of New York as a vertical city, all jutting edges and gleaming cornices and honking urgencies; Stagg’s New York tends to be flat, matte, simmering at a low temperature—it always seems to be two in the afternoon or two in the morning. She’s both here and not, both in the thick of it and watching it all float past. Of course things bother her—writerly jealousy, people in ill-fitting clothing, skeevy older men who abuse their power and never see the consequences—but mostly her experience of the city feels mitochondrial. She is an observant body carried along by the slipstream, noticing the textures and debris and connective tissue along the way. She is ambivalent about metropolitan living but also invested enough to notice and point out its incongruities, like a world-weary docent in need of a cigarette break. For Stagg—as for many other oversaturated minds of her generation—receptive passivity is preferable to eager engagement. Dissociation is always better than desperation. “More important than gaining followers or views,” she writes in an essay about her soul-sucking job marketing an app, “was avoiding looking desperate for followers or views.”

Sleeveless contains twenty-four short dispatches from Stagg’s past eight years, broken up into four sections: Public Relations, Fashion, Celebrity, and Engagement. (The book, as she writes in her introduction, is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, though she never reveals which pieces are invented.) As I read, I couldn’t help but think of another character from Sex and the City: the jaded, outrageously dressed party girl Lexi Featherston, played by Kristen Johnston, who does a bump of high-quality blow in a high-rise bathroom before telling an entire cocktail party full of pretentious aesthetes that she is “so bored I could die” and promptly falling out of an open window, lit cigarette in hand. What she barks at the crowd sounds like a suicide note, but she is desperate to live. It is only because of her sartorial hubris and carcinogenic vice that her tragedy quickly veers into farce.

That type of laconic bravado—party girls lecturing poseurs—was a privilege that belonged to New Yorkers long before Stagg arrived, if it ever really did. By the time she got here, she writes, the city already felt dull. If Lexi oozed with impassioned dismay, Stagg’s vibe is more that of a resigned numbness and low-humming anxiety, the trademark mood of a generation raised on chat rooms and search engines, mingling and smoking outside parties where no one truly understands or worries about the boundaries between branding and authenticity. Stagg’s writerly affect is not so much so bored she could die; it’s so bored and still very much alive, and well, that is just how everything feels now.

I know where she’s coming from. Like Stagg, I am from the desert Southwest, and there is nothing like seeing actual tumbleweeds blow past your window to develop an eye for atrophy. The desert is a deeply anxious place, and it breeds anxious people. Still, for a transplant, one might hope that the pace of New York City could shake some of that loose. Stagg’s contention is that there are not a lot of shiny pennies rattling around the city anymore—it is an island of chain drugstores, restaurants that all look the same. At one point, she describes a “pink neon-lit party, during which my friends and I took pictures of our new free phones with our old ones, drank free cocktails, and ate hors d’oeuvres you had to work for.” For Stagg, this party is a metaphor for the whole city: Everyone is always swerving into ennui in a dark room, enjoying the free perks while they last.

Stagg is a staunch realist about the city, although her New York is decidedly more glamorous than the one most people inhabit. She worked as an editor at the fashion magazine V and interacted regularly with celebrities, via both interviewing them and running into them at downtown events. Her friends, as she describes them in the book, are curators, painters, publicists, designers, and models with loft apartments, popular Instagram accounts, and unspoken sources of income. Stagg’s proximity and appreciation for the gloss of the fashion world make her eager to skewer it; she truly loves it, so she is allowed to fully hate it.

Boots from Vetements Fall/Winter 2018–19 collection. Vetements/Matches Fashion

So it makes sense that the strongest section of Sleeveless is Stagg’s collected fashion writing; few people are able to wring so much cultural critique and history out of individual items of clothing. She takes fashion seriously: In the essay “Bellwether Boots,” Stagg charts the trend of red boots from the Vetements runway back to Communist Russia, noting the “nineties’ fascination with the ugly and the beautiful, or the Baba Yaga and the sexy spy Natasha.” In “Good-looking People,” she writes about her teenage fascination with Abercrombie & Fitch and her blithe, symmetrically featured popular classmates who sported the brand, despite its racist and sexist T-shirt slogans and patrician elitism. In “Fashion Film,” an essay about how runway fashion is becoming obsolete and how tech-led fashion is promoting surveillance, she writes a paragraph that perfectly sums up the push-pull mind-scramble of trying to be a person in the age of incessant distraction:

And what defines our time, generally? We are celebrity-obsessed and all celebrity candidates; we are being surveyed and surveilled, our opinions exploited via our own narcissistic tendencies; we are afraid of attacks and paranoid about the ways these attacks are being explained to us; and we are, as always, hoping to appear sexier than we feel.

Of course, this is not the way the world is for everyone. But Stagg is honest—sometimes to a fearsome degree—about the fact that she longs to be desired, and she’s sometimes disturbed by the lengths to which she will go, and the games she will play, to get attention. She once dated a Staten Island garbageman, she writes, mostly for the thrill of it—and then lost him, she says, “I guess because I’m self-involved.” Once, after he attended one of her readings at a museum, she lamented that only a few people had purchased her book afterward. “It was this game I kept playing, letting him know that he should be impressed by me and then letting him know that I considered my own success negligible, which probably made him feel like nothing.”

Stagg mentions Chris Kraus, the author of I Love Dick and coeditor of Semiotext(e) (the publisher of Sleeveless and Stagg’s first book, the novel Surveys), as a mentor and major influence. You can definitely see the lineage—in the analytic and often obsessive prose of her unfiltered monologue about female sexual desire, in her willingness to skewer herself in order to display the artistic swagger more regularly associated with Great Men who have the privilege and power to ignore their critics. But this brutal honesty can lead to some dark places; of the #MeToo movement, Stagg writes, “My fear was that guilt would destroy the classics and there’d be no one left to fuck. All movies would be as low-budget and puritanical as the stuff they play on Lifetime, all of New York would look like a Target ad, every book or article would be a cathartic tell-all, and I’d be sexually frustrated but too ashamed to hook up with assholes, or even to watch porn.”

Stagg is clearly trying to provoke here. Whether she is trying to provoke her reader, which would be a more actively antagonistic stance, or just to provoke and humor herself out of a nihilistic spiral, like touching an exposed wire just to feel something, is not clear. She is trying to chronicle a period of decadence and folly—and also anesthetic paranoia—from the jaded edges of the party. Her voice is certainly a faithful reflection of at least one corner of the fashion and media landscape of the past decade. And yet her rootless internal monologue can also simply give way to frustration. There is still a lot to care about in the world, and still a lot to do, even as Stagg muses that her generation and those that follow are sliding into paralysis like a warm bath.

Rachel Syme lives in New York City. She writes the “On and Off the Avenue” fashion column for the New Yorker.