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With a fashion career spanning six decades, Joan Juliet Buck has learned how to step in and out of the style world with ease.

You have to wrestle fashion into submission by calling the shots or it will eat you alive. There’s mastery in being both the made-up dazzler in dangerous heels and a glowing Zac Posen dress and the baffled nun wearing a calf-length sweater over a sports bra and Uggs with ankle socks. Constant perching on heels is bondage; permanent ankle socks are slovenly. If you juggle both personas, you’ve won.

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I think of fashion as a public illusion that I produce to obscure the private truth about the soft, shapeless things that I sleep in, wear throughout the day, and wash only when they’ve become indistinguishable clumps of stretchy matter: yoga pants, hoodies, leotards, leg warmers, sweaters that can house two at a time, a Snuggie. Worn in layers, they’re as welcoming, unpretentious, and horrifying as my Synchilla bathrobe.

But I also love dressing up. At 6, I stuffed balled-up newspapers inside my mother’s scratchy green taffeta skirt to make a crinoline, but the newspapers fell out when I ran. Lesson one: Costume and exertion don’t mix. At 9, I turned my raincoat backwards and tied its belt around my knees to make it into an haute couture sack dress, but I couldn’t walk. Lesson two: Couture and walking don’t mix.

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As a teenager in Swinging London, I embraced vintage gold-braid uniform jackets, flapper dresses, and Egyptian net caftans. In Paris, working as a stylist for the surrealist photographer Guy Bourdin, I wore blue overalls, smeared red powder around my eyes, wrapped my head in a turban, and topped off the ensemble with a knitted floor-length kimono. My father never failed to greet this look with “Here comes downtown Warsaw.”

Then I met real fashion. Years before Karl Lagerfeld went to Chanel, he became my friend through a shared passion for old clothes. When I was 22, he presented me with a perfect black crêpe jacket edged in gold leather curlicues: It was from the 1930s, possibly by Schiaparelli, and gave me a way to unite my passion for the past with the demands of fashion. I wore it to the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, to the opera in 1986, to the Vanity Fair party in 2005, and I wear it still. Diamonds are forever.

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In my life I’ve taken on just about every fashion persona short of Barbie. My look was Dolly Bird in the ’60s (dresses so short that I wore two pairs of panties for decency) and Distressed Peasant in the ’70s (fringed, soiled, suede). In the ’80s, a Chanel ciré raincoat and shoulder-padded superheroine suits landed me in the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. I’m not sure what I was going for in the ’90s; I was editor in chief of Paris Vogue and had to wear so much current fashion that I completely forgot to love my clothes, except for the enormous country sweaters that Martin Margiela made at Hermès.

After I left Paris Vogue in 2001, I moved to Santa Fe, where no one cared what I wore, and at 52, I turned fashion off. But I wasn’t over luxury—I treasured my stash of big Hermès sweaters and found Italian cashmere ankle socks at the mall to complement the luxe-hermit look. I had a book to write. I was being private and economical, so instead of Chanel, Missoni, and Ann Demeulemeester, I bought noisy parkas and nylon inner shells from Arc’teryx and Patagonia. Eventually, I moved back to New York, lugging along the mountaineering gear. You never know when a peak might arise.

Today, unless I have to look sharp to promote my memoir, I dress as if I lived in rural Anatolia. I own some 40 identical hoodies in Polartec—the ecologically sound fleece made from recycled plastic bottles, just as many Uniqlo Heattech underbits, and about 20 pairs of floppy harem pants from Istanbul that I find wildly becoming. I think the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame is trying to eject me. They must have heard about the Polartec.

For more stories like this, pick up Fashionablememories‘s March issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Feb. 10.

Joan Juliet Buck’s memoir, The Price of Illusion, is out now and available here.

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