Women in Clothes, 1

I recently read a book called Women in Clothes (find it here), which was wonderful. It was essentially a collection of thoughts and reflections on clothing, fashion, style, and the like from hundreds of women, and some men, of all ages, from all over the world. These writings were responses to a list of questions sent out by the three co-editors; they were compiled over the course of several years. Check out this book if you want some insight on the way women feel about their clothes and how that translates into their feelings on their bodies, themselves, their families, their cultures, and pretty much everything else.

Over several blog posts, I will be offering my own take on some of these questions; I encourage you to comment with your answer or even to write something of your own! 

In what way did your mother’s clothing or fashion choices affect yours?

The simple answer to this question is that, through my mother’s choices, I learned not to let what is external and temporal hide what is internal and eternal.

But this is my blog, so I’m going to give you a complicated answer.

As a child, I intuitively glommed onto my mother. I was fascinated by, and cherished by, my father, but–whether by merit of being the baby or the sheer comfiness of my mother or something else, I’m not sure–from as early as my memory goes, I remember looking at each member of my family, letting my eyes linger on my mother, and thinking She’s the one I’m like. Everyone else seemed more like my dad’s side—WASPy, athletic (or at least outdoorsy, which is pretty much the same thing to someone who is neither), creative and imaginative, travel-oriented, worldly, and brave in a way that I am not. (Don’t get me wrong—I think my mother is very brave, but it’s a subtler take on the word. If one could say that I am brave—and I’m not sure that anyone could—it would be an even more subtle take.) I suppose that as a child, I noted my mother’s and my physical similarity, and the ways in which we were physically different from the rest of the family, and chalked that up as an explanation of why I was also so different in temperament.

Our actual wardrobe choices differ in many ways: what she feels is too tight is often too loose for my taste (and she weighs less than I do, so it’s not because of our relative size); I once bought myself a toe ring, and my mother thought it was silly; when I got my nose pierced in college, she told me it was the prettiest revolting thing she’d ever seen; I aspire to own ALL. THE. LEGGINGS., whereas I’ve seen one pair of leggings on her, and I couldn’t get over the shock of seeing her in something so different.

Any similarities that we do have in our personal styles come from the fact that neither one of us is trendy. At all. I didn’t know what a peplum top was until about six seconds ago (and I don’t know that I used it right just now—is it peplum top, or is the word “top” implied in the word “peplum?”). Until my last baby was born (and the podiatric swelling had gone down), I had worn an old pair of navy blue Birkenstocks exactly 364 out of the previous 365 days. With the exception of two fits of mania, I have had the same hairstyle since I was 15 years old (that’s 16 years, guys, and I still love it. It’s just long and straight. That’s it.). I am at my most comfortable in leggings or a long skirt paired with a tank top. (Apparently I’m on the wrong side of history in the Great Leggings Debate, because they are definitely pants to me.)

When I came to the South for college, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d grown up listening to my sister talk about her college days, at Reed in Portland, OR. She talked about staying up all night (I had it in my mind that she and her friends were discussing the Big Subjects, but really, they could have been up to anything) and thus, being too exhausted in the morning to do anything but roll out of bed and walk to class in pajama pants and a t-shirt. People went around barefoot, she said. No one cared what anyone else was wearing; the talk was the important thing. (Looking back, it’s possible that I cherry-picked certain parts of her monologues that gave me the most comfort. Maybe Reedies are as shallow as the rest of us. Anything’s possible.) When I heard this, I could not wait for college. I probably put more thought into what pajamas I would wear on my first day of class than most people put into a normal outfit. I wanted to convey to all those upperclassmen my seriousness, my above-it-allness, my cool.

I left a few minutes later than I’d meant to that morning, so the Dell (Lynchburg College’s version of a quad) was mostly empty as I walked over to Hopwood Hall. I ascended the massive brick staircase, walked between the century-old columns, and opened the door onto my first collegiate academic experience. I was tingling. I’ve made it, I thought to myself, as I walked down the hall and up the stairs. I’m in college.

I found the right room, opened the door, and was faced with…

Twenty of the most put-together creatures I’d ever seen in my life.

The women were gorgeous. Mostly blond, all thin, all tan, and all color-coordinated. I didn’t even know it was possible to coordinate clothing with accessories until I saw them, but there they were. The more ambitious ones had even coordinated their makeup to the rest of their outfits. I slunk to the first empty seat I could find, face flaming, and realized I was waaaaaaay out of my league. Forget about the schoolwork–just getting dressed in college was going to be a lot harder than I’d ever imagined.

× × ×

I tried on a lot of skins in my first two years of college. I went grunge, I went goth, I went hippie, I went slutty, I went ultra-conservative. I couldn’t figure out who I was. What did I want to portray? People already thought I was weird enough, the Jew from Maine. Did I want to exaggerate that weirdness, or did I want to give them at least some reason to think I was normal? I couldn’t decide.

By the second semester of my sophomore year, I had come to understand a handful of the style rules, and I had a pretty stylish bout of four months or so. I’d had a year and a half of influence from my best friend, a preternaturally stylish woman who always knows what to wear, how to wear it, and where to find it cheap, and I’d just gotten contacts, so I could buy sunglasses off the rack. The emblematic moment is walking through the Charlotte airport on my way back to said friend’s house after Christmas break. I was wearing heels, tight jeans, a striped v-neck, big earrings, and lots of bangles. I’d gotten a haircut during break, and I had my sunglasses pushed up on my head. I felt tall, thin, and powerful. A man passed me and looked back over his shoulder, and I smiled to myself as I pretended not to notice. (I should note that there was no real indication that he was looking at me, but I think a 19-year-old can be forgiven the occasional bout of self-absorption.)

Eventually, though, the energy of keeping up that look wore me out. I hated sticking my fingers into my eyes, so I dropped the contacts. I couldn’t afford to get regular trims, so I let my hair grow back out. The heels hurt my ankles, so I went back to my flip-flops (which, of course, do more damage to your ankles than heels ever could, but anyway), and getting up in time to apply makeup before class meant sacrificing either sleep or breakfast, neither of which I was willing to do. Perhaps most importantly, I met a man who (assuming he’s been telling me the truth for the last ten years) really doesn’t like makeup, styled hair, trendy clothes, and the like. I was so comfortable so soon with him that I had no qualms about blurting out on our first date, “I did my makeup all by myself tonight!” (He was appropriately impressed, but then it might have been the best makeup job of my life, before or since. I worked on it for a long time. I really liked him.)

As I struggled to figure out how to navigate this new world of fashion (wrapped up, as it was, in the new worlds of college, the South, burgeoning adulthood, newfound independence and self-discovery), my mother was becoming steadily healthier and svelte-er. Every time I saw her, she had shed another layer of what I came to recognize as her disguise. She had always dressed beautifully and tastefully, but shapelessly, as if to hide herself. As she lost weight, her clothing became more and more fitted, almost as a celebration. Seeing the new way that she was presenting herself to the world was very moving for me. I was dismayed by how surprised I was that she desired to look good. I’d always kind of looked at her as if she’d had her day in the sun, and now she was an upper-middle-aged mother of four. She just looked so maternal. When I saw her beginning to take more notice of herself and the way she dressed, it made me wonder what else I had lived 20-plus years without ever seeing.

One particular event comes to mind. It was a couple of months before my wedding, and my mother had reached a major weight loss milestone. We went out to dinner to celebrate with her closest friend, the one who had coached her through almost the entire journey, and her friend’s daughter, a close friend of mine. We pigged out at Olive Garden, and then we went to Kohl’s to buy my mother’s mother-of-the-bride outfit.

Neither my mom nor I are big shoppers. I thought we would spend twenty minutes, find something perfectly acceptable, and be on our way. However, my mother’s friend wouldn’t let her off that easy. My mother had drastically changed her health, her body, and her shape, and it was time to celebrate. Not only that, but, in addition to the wedding, my parents were leaving that weekend for a major family trip to Boston which included a couple of nights at a romantic B&B. According to my mother’s friend, she needed something that would wow my father.

All told, we spent probably two hours in that store, and my mother probably tried on thirty outfits. She ended up buying almost an entire wardrobe, all of which was cute, fun, flirty, and fitted. It was all so entirely different from anything I’d ever seen her in—it was all so celebratory. About halfway through, when we were sitting on the floor of the dressing room, covered in clothes, I started to cry. At that point in my life–about to be married, preparing to leave behind my family of origin–there was nothing terribly noteworthy about me bursting into tears for no reason in a public place and in mixed company, but my mother was kind enough to ask me what was wrong anyway. I can’t remember what I said to her–I don’t know if I had the words yet to explain why I was crying. But I have revisited that night many times in the ensuing eight years, and every time, I’m struck by the fact that this night was the first time in my life that I had ever seen my mother have so much fun indulging herself. I had never seen my mother try on clothing in a store. I had never seen her in clothing that she so clearly loved. I had never seen her twirl in front of a mirror. I had never seen her giggle with her friends. I had never seen her blush at the mention of her husband. I had never seen her being so girly. Part of it, obviously, was the influence of her friend–she is very much a girl’s girl, and she’s very fun. But a bigger part of it was that my mother had quite possibly never seen something worth giggling or blushing or twirling for when she’d looked into the mirror. I realized I didn’t know if I had ever told her she was beautiful. I didn’t know if I had ever known that she was beautiful. She was always just my mom.

Was there a part of me that had been using clothing as a self-defense mechanism? Was there a part of me that had not seen a person worth celebrating when I looked in the mirror? Absolutely, yes. I realized that night (and again, when my first daughter was born, and again-again, when my second daughter was born) that I was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to see this new giddiness in my mom. It was a wholly new way for me to experience her. But I was also sad. In 23 years, I had never seen this. Would my daughters have to become adults before they ever saw their mother fully engage and inhabit her body, just the way it was made? I had always had some idea that I was above it all when it came to clothing. Worrying so much about clothes is for people who don’t have enough going on in their brains, I’d always rationalized. But that’s not fair, and it’s not true. The clothes we wear make a profound impact on the way we move through the world. I have a different rhythm on days when I know I look good–don’t we all?

In the almost-decade since, my style has gone from new southerner, trying to figure out what gene everyone else is born with that makes them capable of looking good ALL. THE. TIME., to new mom, whose clothes don’t fit and are covered with bodily fluids (some of which are mine, some of which are the baby’s), to not-so-new mom under the social influence of even less-new moms who are like the girls I always wanted to be in high school: cool, confident, funny, secure. I still plan my outfits like a middle schooler on her first day of school. I still don’t really know what I want the world to see when I go out for the day. I don’t even particularly know what I want my daughters to see, although I do know I want it to be some mix of going my own way and following the trail set before me.

I have come to see fashion as an important ingredient in our self-portrayal. We think about our posture, our tone of voice, our choice of words, our facial expressions–these things do not comprise our whole being, but they are signals to the outside world that we are this way or we are that way. Fashion is no different. I wouldn’t be caught dead now wearing a midriff-baring top or combat boots. My life is different, who I am is different; the choices I make are, by necessity, different, too.