About twenty minutes into her new standup special, “Stage Fright,” which débuted last week, on Netflix, the comedian and author Jenny Slate takes a field trip into her grandmother’s walk-in closet. The pristine dressing room is full of neatly folded sweaters that smell of Shalimar and talcum powder, and features a row of pink vintage dresses and an Oscar de la Renta nightgown. Slate’s grandmother, whom she calls Nana Connie, is in her nineties and still cloaks herself in the snappy uniform of a lady who lunches: boxy bouclé jackets, throat-hugging pearls, a perfect crimson manicure. She often calls Slate on the phone to tell her, in a gravelly Massachusetts drawl, that she is “goo-er-geous.”
Slate, who is thirty-seven, includes Nana Connie in “Stage Fright,” which is not so much an hour of punch lines (though it has plenty) as it is a daffy window into Slate’s influences and anxieties and appetites, a way to show viewers exactly where she came from. Her particular brand of comedy, which is a potpourri of diaristic confessions, slapstick physicality, and absurdist setups that can feel more like Borges stories than like compact bits, never shies away from the fact that she is a woman moving through the world. If anything, Slate leans into her femininity—as she learned it from slipping on her grandmother’s high heels—as a way to dissect it. She holds up a magnifying glass to the push-pull tensions that come with loving clothes while also wanting to reject the male gaze or the need to conform to any specific beauty standard. In exploring her deep familial ties to fashion, she wants to both celebrate and interrogate her obsession with pretty, swishy things.
“For women, there is often a lot of anxiety around getting dressed, and a lot of anticipation,” Slate told me by phone from Massachusetts, where she has been living for the past year. She told me that she was sitting on her bed, looking out over a river, watching a man do doughnuts in a motorboat. “There’s this feeling that you are not really alone when you are getting dressed, because you are choosing your garments for acceptance in the world. I wanted to show that I come from a different place in that respect. . . . I’m a woman who shows up as pretty typically femme, and there are deep roots in that, and a lot of the joy of getting dressed that I feel comes from watching my grandmother get dressed.”
The joy of getting dressed is clearly a running theme of “Stage Fright,” even from the first moment Slate steps up to the microphone, dancing to a Robyn song in a sleek black satin ensemble that quickly became fodder for gushy tweets. Still, Slate tells me, she almost did not wear the Nili Lotan outfit—a pair of high-waisted, pleated pants, and a slinky button-up blouse—but changed her mind at the last minute. Initially, she had wanted to wear a taffeta Rachel Comey suit with a bandeau bathing-suit top underneath. “I really liked the idea of being a little bit undressed,” she said. But her director and longtime collaborator Gillian Robespierre told her that the suit’s wild print was “not picture-safe. It would have looked like the taffeta was animated.” The next option was a short dress printed all over with tiny cherries—“somewhere between like Gwen Stefani in the ‘Just a Girl’ video and Bettie Page,” Slate said. It wasn’t something she would normally wear. “All of a sudden, I realized that’s what I would wear if I believed in my doubt,” she said. “It sends such a heavy message, like, I’m cute! I’m sweet! I’m on-brand! Or whatever that means. And I just felt, like, this is a huge mistake. . . . It made me feel like a chump.”
She settled on the satin pants suit—unbuttoned just enough to show a sliver of her own lacy Samantha Chang bra—because it offered just “a tremor of sexuality.”
“There’s sort of this fake humble denial of one’s sexuality, at least in patriarchy and misogyny,” she said. “But I’m completely in control. And guess what? I’m into myself. So here is half of my breast. It’s a gift to you.”
One of Slate’s monologues in “Stage Fright” centers on her name. “I just feel that, because I’m Jenny, which is a bouncy, nickname-y name, I have sort of a personality that is, like, sproing-doing, who cares, everybody poops in their pants.” Had she been named Susan, she’d enter every room with a karate kick and a power stance. For Slate, the black outfit was both Jenny and Susan, or, rather, what a Jenny who wants to be a Susan might wear.
I found it so refreshing to speak to Slate, a person who clearly thinks about clothes the way I do—as performance, as self-pleasure, as a way to train your eye, as cinematic costuming for whatever self you show up as in the morning. She told me that she is terrible at packing because she tries to shove in as many options as she can, that she needs to change her outfit a few times a day. (While we were on the phone, I changed sweaters twice, so I get it.) There is a sense of play in how she approaches fashion, and a sense of freedom. In her upcoming memoir, “Little Weirds,” which publishes on November 5th, Slate has a short chapter about her wardrobe, called “Clothes Flying On/Day Flying Open,” which details the delight she takes in putting on a cream-colored skirt: “The skirt is the tone of a slightly warm dessert-drink hiding in a cup, a secret gentle creamy treat for me while everyone else drinks a darker, more serious, scalding thing.”
I can think of no better way to describe “Stage Fright” than as a secret, gentle, creamy treat for those who love and think deeply about clothing. At one point, Slate puts on several of her Nana Connie’s dresses, including a hot-pink evening gown with cape sleeves, which her grandmother wore to her mother’s wedding. She swans around in a mirror while two generations of women that came before her look on. The scene is a poignant valentine to her matrilineage and to how she was shaped by the embellishments that came before. “To keep things from the past isn’t just to memorialize the past,” she said to me. “But that there’s kind of a strange spiritual corridor that you get to walk down, if you put those garments on.”