Culture

I’m in My Costume Era

In a new monthly column for ELLE, R. Eric Thomas sounds off on all things culture. Find out what to read, watch, listen to, and exhaustively talk about right here.


Let me tell you about my Emily Dickinson wallpaper. When the Apple TV+ series Dickinson first came out, I watched it because I was interested in the subject—a pithy, funny reimagining of the teenage life of Emily Dickinson—and because I have sworn an oath to support all of Jane Krakowski’s many endeavors in this life and beyond. While I loved the show, of course, I became fixated on the wallpaper in the Dickinson home. Every wall in the foyer, parlor, staircase, and dining room was covered in the most ornate, Rococo period-appropriate paper. Like everything else about the show, the walls themselves, decorated by Marina Parker, seemed bolder and more vibrant than real life. I began to dream of bold, statement-making wallpaper. I’d shake my fist in rage at the boring ecru paint in my apartment. I’d go to dinner parties and say things like, “Why aren’t we wallpapering anymore? We used to be a proper society!”

Because the algorithms can read our thoughts, I soon began getting Instagram ads for wallpaper. I don’t even know where these ads came from. Was it 1974? Unclear. In any case, one thing led to another which led me to Ellie Cashman Design. Guess what she specializes in? Cashman’s wallpapers—florals, often desaturated, in the style of the Dutch masters—are scalable. So, one can order a design with small, discrete bundles of peonies repeating dozens of times, or scale it up so that an entire wall is taken up by a single bloom. I was enthralled. I bookmarked. I dreamed. I wished.

A year later, Alena Smith, creator and showrunner of Dickinson, invited me to join the writing team for the show’s third season. I tried to contain my excitement about being a small part of Wallpaper Heaven, albeit over Zoom, as we were months into the pandemic at the time. Six months later, my husband and I bought a house, and I used some of my Dickinson money for Dickinson-esque wallpaper from Ellie Cashman.

I’m just out here in these WeWorking streets all regular and unremarkable in my business-casual drag.”

I have never been more thrilled with a purchase in my entire life. I spent the next two years in near-daily Zoom meetings, usually with different people, and every single meeting started with people remarking with awe and wonder at the wall behind me. I realized that I was entering Zoom rooms the way that I wish I could enter the world: as extra as humanly possible. I want people to walk up to me in real life and also go “Wow! What is that? Is that real?” I wish to be perceivable yet unbelievable.

Then, the worst thing happened: we sold our house and I had to leave my Emily Dickinson wallpaper behind. What’s equally bad, many of my meetings started occurring in real life. Can you believe this? I’m just out here in these WeWorking streets all regular and unremarkable in my business-casual drag.

In a world where all of my meetings only captured me from the shoulders up, my maximalist background became my fashion statement, my costume, my self. I’m not interested in going back. I’m only interested in going big. I’m only doing maximalism now. Like, why not? Time’s are hard; let’s be a little loud about it.

Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Baryshnikov amid the wallpaper in the third season of Dickinson.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

So, no to the business casual, yes to the business caftan. Dressing seriously is a scam. One of the things I’ve learned from my friends who have kids is that while they may only take pictures of the kids wearing costumes for this month’s Halloween social media post, any day can turn out to be a costume day. This is the energy I’m trying to put into my life.

I’m in my “Rococo nonsense” era; I’m in my “buy a random asymmetrical jumpsuit from a sketchy Instagram ad” era; I’m in my “statement everything” era. While this is a new personal development, I’m far from the first to reach this space. TikTok and Instagram are full of popular maximalist fashionistas and designers who are doing reverse-Coco Chanels and putting as much on as possible.

Wisdom Kaye, whose TikTok @wisdm8 has 8.2 million followers, melds an impeccable eye for styling with some truly mind-blowing outfit concepts, like a series where he makes streetwear style ensembles themed after various cartoon characters. Never in my life did I think “I want to dress like Gary the Snail from SpongeBob,” but this is a new dawn and a new day. Similarly, the fast-talking and fabulous Carla Rockmore (@carlarockmore) has a closet like Carrie Bradshaw, looks like Stephanie J. Block, and dresses like the most fascinating gallerist you’ll ever meet on a round-the-world cruise. Carla has taught me to love bangles, baubles, bags, and any pair of shoes with a story attached to them. Not only is Carla giving you maximalist looks, but she’s creating ensembles that carry a conversation.

Who doesn’t want to witness another person’s unadulterated enthusiasm?!”

Styling icon Thalia Castro-Vega (@polychrom3) is, as their handle would suggest, a whiz at creating visual feasts of color and pattern. It makes me so happy to see them. They are like an email full of exclamation points, which, I know, many would advise against sending, but which I absolutely love to receive. Who doesn’t want to witness another person’s unadulterated enthusiasm?!

This is the effect that I want to have in the world, I think, scrolling through TikTok and watching Thalia spin in a bold print. It’s the same way I felt when I saw the wallpaper on Dickinson and my own Ellie Cashman wallpaper. It’s the feeling that life itself can be a bit more vivid, more whimsical, more intentional. It’s, to me, a feeling of welcome. When I popped up on the Zoom screen with my massive peonies framing my head I was saying “notice me!” but I was, at least tacitly, inviting a conversation. And if it worked with wallpaper—and it did, every day for years—then it will work on the wallpaper of the body. Now, if Ellie Cashman Design will just start a line of Ellie Caftans, I’ll be truly unstoppable. Watch this space!

A version of this article appears in the October 2022 issue of ELLE.