In "My Year of Rest and Relaxation," Clothing is a Battleground for Selfhood
Through the dislocation between the narrator’s conscious and subconscious clothing choices, Ottessa Moshfegh interrogates our current obsession with vanity, materialism, and consumerism
“Vanity IS the enemy” is written on a note and stuck to the writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s window. “That’s exactly what will ruin your life,” she explained in an interview with her fiancé. Moshfegh also recently modeled in the Proenza Schouler White Label Pre-Spring 2020 Campaign. This apparent paradox is something that Moshfegh dissects and pokes fun at throughout her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Moshfegh’s novel is set in the year 2000 and focusses on a young woman’s experiment with narcotic hibernation. The nameless narrator has old money privilege, residing in an Upper East Side apartment paid for by her inheritance (as is everything else in her life). She says: “I looked like a model, had money I hadn’t earned, wore real designer clothing,” but “being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else.” This is the world she attempts to shift away from with a year-long drug-induced sleep. Changing the way she dresses is intrinsic to this hibernation, and is used throughout the narrative to signal her fluctuations between consciousness and unconsciousness.
The narrator is at once incredibly vain, but also hyper aware of the importance of clothing and appearance to her success. She knows she can use it to her advantage, she sees her beauty and privilege almost like a joke that no one else is in on: “I was hot shit. People were always telling me I looked like Amber Valletta.” She eye-rolls at the absurd way in which others place her on a pedestal. At an interview for a graduate job, she can only recall how she was dressed: “I barely remember our conversation, but I know I wore a cream silk blouse, tight black jeans, flats.” She is offered the job on the spot — what she said was irrelevant to the interviewer.
Moshfegh paints a world of cynical and abject materialism, consumed by the social cues that clothing elicits. Clothing reveals the fissures that exist within all of the characters and the society they inhabit. The narrator’s alleged best friend, Reva, is envious of the narrator’s waning weight and has an obsession with comparing her own appearance with the narrators: “She liked to look through my closet, turning over price tags, checking the sizes of all the clothes I’d bought with the money I’d inherited. Her obsession with the material world pulled me out of whatever existential wormhole I’d wandered into.”
Trevor, the narrator’s revolting, abusive ex-boyfriend is objectively awful and yet she’d “choose him a million times over the hipster nerds” who wore “zip-up hoodies, navy blue peacoats or army green parkas, New Balance sneakers, knit hats, canvas tote bags, small hands, hairy knuckles, maybe a deer head tattooed across a flabby bicep.” Trevor, meanwhile, is a “suave” banker at the “World Trade Center, wore tailored suits” and “always smelled like a department store.” The narrator is aware of how superficial these judgements are and yet she cant help but be implicit.
“I was hot shit. People were always telling me I looked like Amber Valletta.”
All her life she had “vacillated between wanting to look like the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was and should have been if I’d had any courage.” Her new hibernation garb echoes this “bum” that she wants to be, ditching the designer clothing in favour of “pilly hats” and “brown suede” slippers stained with “white crusts.” Yet despite her attempts to disengage, her subconscious is eager to remain a part of her previous materialistic, appearance-driven life.
One of the drugs that she is prescribed produce blackouts in which she goes “sleepshopping on the computer.” She impulse buys everything in this haze of prescription drugs, consuming commodities without thought or desire: “my online purchasing of lingerie and designer jeans began in earnest. It seemed that while I was sleeping, some superficial part of me was taking aim at a life of beauty and sex appeal. […] someone I used to think I was supposed to be.” The clothes she unconsciously purchases she wears to glamorous parties that she has no recollection of apart from the bizarre outfits she wakes up in: “Nude fishnet stockings” a belted “white fur coat,” under which all she wears is a “flesh-coloured bustier bodysuit.”
Through this dislocation between the narrator’s conscious clothing choices and those that her subconscious makes, Moshfegh interrogates our current obsession with vanity and consumerism. The drugged sleepshopping haze echoes the way in which we now consume clothing, and the way in which so many thoughtlessly take their style cues from social media influencers and sponsored advertisements. We wear what we are told to wear through this subconscious absorption of whatever is on the screen before us. Else we risk not being successful, not being viewed as beautiful, not getting that job, that banker boyfriend. In 2000 it would seem strange that person would want to sleep through life, but in 2019, that desire doesn’t seem so absurd.
At one point, the narrator becomes exasperated with Reva’s desperate desire to look a certain way in order to achieve success. “It’s not a contest.” the narrator tells Reva. To which Reva rebuts: “Yes, it is. you just cant see it because you’ve always been the winner.” Moshfegh positions clothing and vanity as a dangerous game in our current world, one with winners and losers, with the losers being defeated at the game of life.