Curated for the Club: The Art of Packing with Isabelle Truman

Words by Isabelle Truman
Photo by Chaumont-Zaerpour

Teresa Tote in Brun Suede

There’s a section of Joan Didion’s The White Album, the writer’s famed 1979 collection of nonfiction, that I have spoken about often with friends. Its words were copied into the notes app on my phone years ago when I first picked up the book and confirmed it as still saved there during a cursory check today. Though I’d like to pretend it was some profound prose about life and death or even, simply, a sentence about the Los Angeles sky, instead it is Didion’s travel list, which was taped inside the closet door of her home in Hollywood during the years when she was travelling constantly for her reporting.

Alongside skirts, jerseys or leotards—a thoughtfully considered and deliberately anonymous costume so Didion could “pass on either side of the culture”—were cigarettes, bourbon and a mohair throw for motel rooms in which the air conditioning could not be turned off, and short flights where blankets weren’t provided. Analysing it today, I realise Didion didn’t pack a single pair of jeans, when, ahead of my last two-week trip to London, I was toying between bringing two or three—each, in my defence, a slightly different wash and cut. I notice how vague her “two pairs of shoes” inclusion is and wonder if she exercised when away on trips and whether one of those shoes was formal and heeled, while the other was more casual. I begin Google searching images of her to look specifically at her footwear—often barely-there sandals. I think about how many of those she could fit without taking up any space at all.

I wonder now what it was about this list that drew me to it. Didion was a brilliant writer, sure, and dressed well, but even by her own account her system was flawed. It lacked at least one key essential (other than denim): a watch. Each trip, Didion would call the hotel reception asking for the time, before, embarrassed of the frequency of her inquiries, doing the same to her husband back in L.A. The list felt, in some way, like a cheat code: a solution to the stresses of having to consider events, weather and, oftentimes, multiple outfits per day. But in reality, there aren’t many comparable situations to Didion travelling bistate for reporting—trips that can’t have lasted more than a night or two given the inclusion of just a single bra—in the ‘80s to today.

Its lasting beauty lies in its simplicity. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve walked through an airport dragging an overweight suitcase sweltering from wearing a coat just because it wouldn’t fit, with my computer, books, and usually another jumper in a tote on my arm alongside my handbag (also full to the brim with toiletries and magazines I bring but never read on the flight).

Each time this happens, I swear I won’t do it again. I fantasise about how luxurious it would be to be sweat-free in that moment, with a simple suitcase rolling gently beside me. I take the coat off and throw that, too, over my shoulder. The security man sighs when he sees me coming.

The next time I go to pack, it’s with the airport trauma in mind. Things start off well: a few T-shirts, one pair of jeans, a jumper, and a skirt. But soon the familiar chaos begins. If I pack this dress, it only works with a specific shoe. I want my loafers, but they’re chunky and heavy. I need shoes that are good for walking but aren’t my exercise sneakers.

My toiletries alone, with a six-step Rationale regime, are tripping me up. Eventually, I buy a pack of small travel-sized bottles from Amazon. They’re pastel and ugly, but they do the trick. I wonder if back in the ‘80s there were fewer events to go to, or whether they were just less visible and documented. Did Didion wear her skirt and leotard all day and into the night? And the next day, too? The idea reeks of chic when it’s her we’re speaking of and my imagination goes straight to Celine and Chanel and cashmere, but I know, personally, by 7 pm I’d be feeling less than desirable.

On a smaller scale, this issue manifests itself daily. Almost every time I go downstairs to open my apartment building door, I realise I don’t have the use of a second hand to turn the lock and pull the handle at the same time. My arms are full: a coffee cup in hand, a tote containing my diary, a water bottle, my laptop and, if I’m organised, lunch. Plus a handbag that, today, was so overloaded with hand cream, eye drops, keys, and my wallet that I gave up trying to pry lip balm out of it during a meeting.

Sometimes, I’ll attempt to balance things on my knee, lifting it into the air as I manoeuvre the lock. More than once, everything has spilled out onto the floor. It sounds disorganised, but I think, in some ways, it’s the opposite: it’s bringing gym gear in case I have time to go between meetings, a jumper if the weather turns. I wonder if Didion ever had a spontaneous invitation to a party and found she had no dress to wear. I feel smug for a second, though mostly mine go unworn.

In January, I boarded a flight from London to Los Angeles with two large checked bags to move most of my belongings to the city. One suitcase made it. The other disappeared forever. What felt like hours upon hours of endless calls resulted in the airline giving me $2,000 USD to make up for the loss of almost half of my favourite things: an impossible-to-find vintage Balenciaga top I bought in a Paris, my favourite pair of knee-high Nodaleto boots, and almost all of my coats were among the pieces never to be seen again. It was Didion’s simplicity enforced by American Airlines. It reminded me of why valuables, even in the form of Balenciaga going out tops, always go in a carry-on, proved that AirTags are essential, and made me consider that perhaps a list of my own—one containing at least one pair of jeans and a few more pairs of shoes—could suffice.

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