Monday, March 17, 2014

Bloomin' Bicycling, Barefoot Little Heathen, and There Shall Be A Multitude of Hats

Though the transcription here (from the digized copy of an old newspaper clipping, included on the same page as an image) suffers, the points made by the writers of letters to an editor asking “Should women wear bloomers?” in the Los Angeles Herald, circa 1895) are worth winkling out – that clothing defines far more than the statement of an individual, but their affiliations within their societies, their communities, their expectations of themselves (and others … should those critics mired in the depths of vulgarity see and judge).

(Quotations left with transcription errors intact.)

The ill health of American women has long been deplored by all who have thought on the subject and all agree that lack of vigorous out-door exercise has been the chief reason for that Ul health. The bicycle promises to be the greteat boon to health that American women have known. It should oh that accoont he welcomed by men and women alike,for men suffer quite as much from tbe Ul health of women ns women themselves. Tbe continued newspaper comments on tbe suoject frighten tbe nervous, timid women wbo would be most helped physically by tbe use of the bicycle, and wbo would, but for this constant criticism, be using tbe health-giv-ing wbeel.

Tbat tbeie ia anything immoral to be feared from its adoption it the argument pf a sensualist, and shows the depth of vulgarity to wbich criticism may descend.

I have words of censure for the immodest exposures of person tbat every ball room furnishes, and for tbe extravagance of style which dictates tbat yards of material aball be put into sleeves serving no purpose but to jostle tbeir owner into prominence, and force her upon the attention of every passer-by. I abhor the untidiness of the long skirt on the street, and I deplore the wickednessof the tightly corseted waist, but for tbe bloomers, which make out-door exercise for women a fascinating delight, I nave only commendation and admiration.  ...  

My profile says “I contain multitudes” and one of the central ways this has always been expressed in my life is through the way I dress.

When I was a little girl, I was MAD for “twirly skirts.”  There are a LOT of you reading right now who are immediately nodding; you know precisely the garment I’m describing, and you remember exactly the appeal of a dress or a skirt, cut full, which either belled or entirely fanned out when you spun in a circle, round and round.  I can’t say how many conversations I’ve had in which fond memories of The Twirly Skirt arose, but it’s something many of us recall as being a fond and fun, and very particular part of childhood.  I have memories, too, of a certain flame-haired imp I know, not so very far past these years (perhaps not at all), the sight of whose vivid coloring, in a bright pink tutu skirt, capering across the green of a lawn only the Pacific Northwest could produce – who might nod as gravely as any old lady my age might, understanding the joys of twirling across the grass, barefoot, in a properly designed flounce, with a properly calibrated spin …;

But I wore many things other than twirly skirts, as most of us did.  Shorts were fun, and bathing suits, and – oh joy! – the new Mary Jane patent leather shoes every year, in time for Easter.  Because – there was Sunday Best, and then there was EASTER Sunday Best.  White tights, a pale green dress with a pink satin flower, or yellow bow – and patent leather shoes.

You didn’t get to wear Sunday Best every day, and so it held both the excitement of a luxury held in some reserve, but also the powerful association of pretty things with A Sense of Occasion.  To this day, I still dress up for church, though it’s by no means necessary to do so in my congregation.  Dressing on a Sunday morning carries with it the memory of family bustle, the feeling that you present yourself at your best for G-d and the gathering.  Dressing on a Sunday morning – wearing those things I wasn’t allowed to wear “just” for school – had all the sartorial anticipation, beauty, and pleasure of a party dress.  Dressing on a Sunday morning was probably half the means by which I could be persuaded into two hours (Sunday school, then the church service itself) to behave at all like a civilized child and go to church at all.  If I went to boring-old-church, at least I got to do so all decked out.

And yet, after church, coming home and changing into play clothes was exhilarating, too.  I learned the utility and comfort of different clothes early – and so, I learned early, that as much fun as it is to get dressed up, there is also reward in “boring” every day clothes, in which I could curl up and read, or run around outside, or hang off my mom’s elbow, whining about how there’s nothing in the world at all to do.  (It is a sad truth that the latter of these comprised perhaps the bulk of my childhood …)

Clothing imparts a rhythm to life.  Sundays had this heightened activity in terms of wardrobe; weekdays, I’d come home from school and almost certainly not change until time for beddy-bye and a nightgown.  Going out to supper with my family, we’d dress up a bit, but not like for church.  If family or friends were coming over, we may not change, but there’d be a hair-combing and a bit of a wash on tap (yes – har) for us, after a quick but effective inspection.  The energy my mom imparted, from more attention or frustration for those occasions calling for more formality or visibility, set the energy for given events.

In me, this translated into an ongoing extension of that same sine wave of intensity in my habits of dress.  I don’t get stressy over work clothes, but I do plan what I wear and how I hope to look – in recent times, this has resulted in the careful modulation of Interviewing Clothes worn on days I didn’t want anyone to think too hard about how I was looking, and an adjustment from a fairly formal place of employment to a new job in which I can get away with glittery nail polish – but am still forty-six years old, and not trying to look like a teenager.  I’ve gained a little freedom to indulge the Frowsy Middle-Aged Authorial look around here … but I’ve also lost my key spectator, too.  Because dressing for work is dressing for those friends who’ll ooh-and-aah over the latest new pashmina in my collection, or the great little vintage shoes I bought while out shopping with my friend and former workmate Cute Shoes, or (on rare occasion) showing off that I’ve dropped a pound or two.  Dressing for work is about indulging in seasonal change by indulging in new colors, and pieces that have been in storage for a while.

But dressing for work, I have found, has lost MUCH of its charm since Cute Shoes and I no longer get to work together.  And here we  have the truth of the statement:  that women dress for *each other* …;

After work clothes, for me these days, it’s dog-walking pants.  For shopping trips and errands, it’s jeans and either brisk or bohemian casual tops or sweaters.  For church, still, it’s low heels and dresses or skirts.  I never feel I fit well in my nicer pants these days (and there lies at least one sewing project I’ve been putting off for too long).

There are men and women, I know, who never have to change their mode of dress, or who don’t want to.  TV reality stars seem particularly prone to enslavement to an “image” – heavy makeup/false eyelashes, ridiculous stillettos, and evening and/or cocktail dress no matter the day, time, or occasion.  Certain tatty magazines or shows produce GASPING images of “stars without makeup” as if (a) the stars’ looks reside only in pots of pigment, and/or (b) celebrities actually *sin* by ever appearing in anything but their approved, stylist-generated masks and costumes.  It looks to me exhausting, and surely must take all the fun out of getting dressed up.  Their states of undress are duly recorded and regurgitated for audiences, talking around makeup artists or their stylists or supposed-servants as they are outfitted for some scandals-on-tap scripted fiasco, providing entertainment as we see them how they “really” are (always a minimum of 75% of the way through any given process, so those “no makeup” shockers are actually not to be).

Likewise, there are certain people – famous and not – who formulate a more particular look for themselves early, and somehow end up unable to get out of it or develop it beyond a certain point.  There’s a particular starlet, actually not far from my own age in fact, who’s spent some years rocking the insouciant vintage pinup girl thing, and as we age, I find myself wondering – how is this woman going to be able to grow old?  Even Bettie Page stopped modeling at last – and, though honestly I think she made a very lovely old woman (the photo or two of her in her seventies are difficult to find, but they are out there), she consciously preserved her image by retiring both from it and the public eye, so her actual youth would never be compromised by ever-diminishing returns in the attempting-to-hold-on-to-it department.  One of the truly odd things about that statement, above, that I don’t look my age, is that … it is because I’m not trying to look younger, per se, either.  There isn’t too much jarringly age-inappropriate fadishness drawing attention to how old I really am – yet there isn’t too much holdover-from-when-I-*was*-younger, either.  The clue-catcher 80s bangs don’t give me away, nor the untied LA Gear high-tops and scrunched down socks.  If I look young enough, it’s precisely because I’m not working too hard to do so.

We’ve all seen examples of those who do; the pinups who end up, as Queen Mary was once described as appearing, basically enameled into an image they’ve lost forever.  Epoxied, some of them.  Or those who gracefully let go, and are castigated for ageing.

It goes both ways, of course, with those who can’t/don’t/won’t dress up for any occasion either.  I’ve become acquainted of That One Person who has a matched set of sneakers/hoodies in multiple neon colors.  It happens to be someone I like, and it’d be asinine in the first degree to think this person needs to vary their wardrobe beyond the eyeball-smacking palette.  We don’t all have the same rhythms, and why should my multitudes apply to ANYONE but myself?  As long as we’re all clean and covered to the current mores of society/our friends/our office/whatever, it’d be boring as hell for us all to dress the *same*.  And, of course, the sneaks and hoodies look won’t age poorly; someone in their eighties or whatever is perfectly endearing, running around not letting him or herself become invisible, and blissfully exempt from any uniform of expectations the rest of us may choose to hew to.

… and when I am old, I shall say to heck with wearing purple – or a red hat – I shall wear whatever is comfortable to me in whatever mood I find.  And – bless me – I’m old enough to do that now!  When I am old ... I shall wear *hats*.

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