At what age does one outgrow the belief that a new coat will change one’s life? The belief that somehow, the you who wears this costume will grow worthy of it, will stride around a rosy future with a different sound track entirely? Plenty of garments can acquire this magical allure, but because a coat is something one wears every day—something everyone sees, something that has to serve a function and therefore has moral fiber as well as fabric—gives it extra importance.
And they’re expensive.
An obsession with a new coat is not always pleasant. A crush is fun; unrequited love is miserable. You start to think, resentfully, If I had that coat … The you in the coat is never awkward, never annoying. Somehow the you in the coat has it cleaned and repaired regularly and never lets it get covered in animal hair, because the hypothetical you in that coat is worthy of it. This hypothetical you also has limitless funds to purchase such a coat. In this scenario, it is not important to have actually tried on the coat; there is no question that it would not merely fit but flatter.
No one captured this feeling better than Junior Miss author Sally Benson, whose thirteen-year-old heroine, Judy Graves, becomes obsessed with a girls’ coat advertised in the paper. The story ran in an October 1939 New Yorker:
She leaned over her mother’s shoulder to read the advertisement. “Coat of feathery wool tweed, gossamer soft, with lambs’-wool interlining, dashing squirrel collar which buttons snugly under the chin, and fitted waist to give you the new Continental look. Comes in colors as gay as the autumn woods. Brown, grape, leaf-red, and henna. Sizes 7–14. Price—$29.50.”
“Well, do you like it?” Mrs. Graves asked.
“Like it!” Judy repeated. “It’s perfect! Oh, Mother!”
In the weeks that follow, Judy fantasizes about the new coat and the sophistication it will confer. “She wore her old coat tolerantly to school each day and treated it with disrespect, throwing it on the floor of the coatroom and kicking it into the closet of her room at night.”
This seems to get at the heart of the issue: One imagines not just something worth cherishing but a person who is capable of cherishing it, someone who deserves something precious. And who will love it—or him, or her—forever. Judy is thirteen in that story, but in some ways this quality of hers endures well into adulthood. It is the triumph of hope over experience.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.