an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

You Are What You Wore: Personal Indulgences No.16

It isn’t easy, trying to buy clothes now that the years have beset the body with flaws. You can’t find garments that cover all of them except, of course, a shroud. But not yet. Sometimes I think I should wear one of those Asian or African or Indian outfits that simply swathe you in fabulous fabric. Then all I’d have to do is develop an undulating walk for allure.

The clothes of my childhood were a different matter. Some of them were memorable for the pleasure they gave me, others because they–I really mean this–left permanent aesthetic scars.

THE BEAUTIES

From the ages of about 11 to 14 I had successive dresses (I was still growing, you see) to wear to my cousins’ and friends’ bar mitzvahs. Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies, commonly followed by a secular party–happened at age 13, and, before decorum died, bar mitzvah dresses were invariably executed in navy taffeta, the color being sober, as befitted a religious occasion, but not black, which would have indicated mourning rather than celebration. One of mine had a lavish underskirt of pale pink net. It didn’t show, of course, unless the party’s dancing included a hectic move or two that made the overskirt flare up. But I knew it was there, and wearing that dress was a double sensory experience: I felt the wish of the tulle against my legs and heard the chatter of the crisp, rustling taffeta. I loved that dress inordinately and dwelled on it with secret delight while the rabbi was speaking about far graver matters in which I had scant belief.

Younger, I had a blue and white dotted swiss summer dress. Dotted swiss is a gauzy material with tiny raised dots as if each one had been embroidered separately. The dress had capelet sleeves like a small pair of fairy’s wings that fluttered as you moved or just stood still in a June breeze. Its image is incised on my memory so vividly, at times I think I could go to my closet and find it there still, unchanged, though I have changed so much.

Prepubescent, I had a nubbly wool winter coat in aubergine (you know–deep eggplant purple) that sported big, round, faux-leopard skin buttons and, at the neck, a bow tie in the same leonine fabric. The bow tie was a bit much and my mother and I soon agreed to remove it, but the coat–odd and striking, in its own peculiar way wonderful, a coat fit for the daughter of an artist–was typical of my mother’s taste. My mother’s “profession” was housewifery, but she had the soul of an aesthete. I felt uneasy about the coat at the age I wore it. Only later did I realize it was unusual–even stunning.

Though she produced a daughter who can barely sew on a button, my mom had a phenomenal gift for adorning a plainly cut, monotonal jacket or skirt with her own vibrant designs, which incorporated appliqués, bead work, and embroidery. When ordinary girls were indulging in poodle skirts, a popular cliché that, in its store-bought version, sported a single felt poodle attached to a leash meandering to the waistband, (curling like the telephone cords we had back then), my mother produced a ravishing concoction for me. It was a radiantly colored and ornamented garden of bright blooms that went all the way around a widely flared skirt without once repeating itself.

Before that came the fad of Mexican jackets that sported run-of-the-mill, machine-produced on-the-cheap cut-outs of cowboys, cacti, sombreros, and a bucking bronco with little kick to him. You should have seen the detailed and exquisite handmade version my mother made of the theme. It looked as if it actually spoke Spanish.

I treasured these garments. They made me feel special. But when I outgrew them, my mother insisted that I pass them on to less-fortunate children in the neighborhood, for charity’s sake. To this day I harbor, guiltlessly, the uncharitable wish that I had insisted on keeping them, just to look at. They were that wonderful.

THE HORRORS

The reverse of the coin consisted of my Aunt Eva’s unwelcome contributions to my wardrobe. She (a stout, prosaic woman, with a blunt face), assisted by another of my father’s sisters, Aunt Sarah (a slender, whining mistress of self- dramatization), were housewives who devoted their free hours to performing good works. Their ongoing project was to make clothes for orphan girls in Israel. Presumably, at least from the aunts’ point of view, they were doing the work of the Lord.

A huge room in Aunt Eva’s house, devoid of furniture and decoration, was devoted to rack upon rack of these garments, in the sleaziest, most tasteless patterned fabric imaginable or in a pastel-hued fake satin that made my skin crawl, each item executed in infinite multiples and hung according to size (2 to 12), the simplest seams bunched and crooked, as if the good Lord had neglected to teach his servants the rudiments of operating a sewing machine.

But that wasn’t the worst. Aunt Eva gave some of these offerings to me, too, with the patronizing smile of an elder conferring a special sweet upon a child. And my mother actually made me wear them, not just once in a while to please Aunt Eva when we visited her–which we were obliged to do weekly, because Grandma lived with her–but as a staple of my wardrobe.

Visits to that room, from whence the clothes were shipped abroad, remain with me to this day as a waking nightmare. Oh, those poor charity children who would have to wear such dreadful garments every single day–and gratefully to boot!

UNCLE ISAAC TO THE RESCUE

Uncle Isaac, the kindly, astute man married to my father’s eldest sister, Jenny, provided me with the antidote to these well-meant but hideous aunt-crafted items. Every year, a few weeks ahead of my mid-September birthday, he sent me an enormous flat box containing, between yards of crisp white tissue paper, a half-dozen items of handsomely designed and tailored clothing made by the firm he owned.

The year I turned twelve, it was unseasonably hot on my birthday, and my mother had invited nine of my girlfriends to a formal lunch she prepared and served, pretending not to listen to our adolescent conversation, replete with “secrets” and giggles. Of course, despite the heat, I insisted upon wearing an outfit from my new fall-winter finery, occasionally wiping the resulting sweat from my brow, as unobtrusively as possible, with my linen table napkin. And every year I wore one of Uncle Isaac’s new ensembles on the first day of school. I may have been uncomfortably warm, but I felt elegant, elevated above the tawdry, certainly, but also above the commonplace. I think it was from the refined excellence of those clothes that I learned to recognize and seek out, when I later chose my own, the understated design and meticulous workmanship that gives an everyday wardrobe distinction.

VINTAGE CLOTHES

Much, much later I began my two-decade love affair with vintage clothes, acquiring my wardrobe from low-end retro boutiques, thrift shops, yard sales, and the like. I was sparked to do this when I began feeling guilty about even the modest prices of my own garments, seeing the homeless and have-nots lying on the sidewalk in front of my house and the homes of my middle-class neighbors. It is one thing to pity, generically, the plight of the impoverished and unemployable; it is another altogether to step, in shoes that cost too much, over or around just one of them, witnessing their unwashed toes through the gaping holes in their footgear.

Once embarked upon lowering my clothes budget radically, I found that, given my trade as a professional dance observer and my keen interest in the visual arts, I was good at spotting the rare gem lurking on the crammed racks and in the bottomless bins of dross. I found the searching a soothing activity, a veritable tranquilizer. And the finds were a thrill. Soon I realized I was exploring these low-end shopping venues for the sheer fun of the hunt.

The next step was creative, absorbing, and time-devouring–combining my finds into marvelous outfits that had a quality I’ve always cherished: a slight strangeness. For me, the obvious, no matter how luxurious or “correct,” is deadeningly dull.

One of my favorite acquisitions was a copy of a Jean Desses dress made long ago for the lower-middle-class consumer. (Desses was a well-known French designer of the mid-twentieth century, who specialized in draped gowns fit for a Greek goddess.) My vintage copy, labeled with a credit to its inspiration, is calf-length, cut from navy crepe studded with tiny gray-metal stars and an occasional equally tiny rhinestone. Its draping is so subtle and complex–turned inside-out, the dress looks like the labyrinth Theseus negotiated with Ariadne’s thread–it often takes fifteen frantic minutes to wriggle into it and the help of anyone who happens to be in the house.

Once, invited to a dinner party in Paris, I wore it with sheer black nylon hose that had a seam running down the back (you can still find these if you look hard enough), discreet costume jewelry of the twenties, and a well-worn Levi’s jeans jacket. The ensemble created a quiet sensation.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for anything strewn with minuscule stars that have a quiet gleam to them and appear ephemerally amid the folds or layers of fabric that serve as their sky. All this goes back to a Hallowe’en costume worn once by my schoolmate Judy Aronoff. (I refuse to call her Judith; no one did.) And first you have to understand that Judy’s sixth-grade coterie of girlfriends faithfully arrived at her house early on school-day mornings and rushed up to her bedroom to watch her compose her outfit for the day, carelessly littering the ruffled white organdy bedspread with piles of fabulous discards or gazing intently into the mirror of her similarly-skirted dressing table. The rest of us dwelt in more Spartan environments, albeit more tasteful ones.

One Hallowe’en in our preteens, Judy–angelically blond-haired and blue-eyed, of course–was dressed as a fairy princess. Gently wafting a wand tipped with a crescent moon, she wore a white tulle gown, its skirt multi-layered like the long tutu of a Romantic ballerina, the under layers twinkling here and there with diminutive silver stars. One way or another, I’ve been trying to replicate that costume for more than half a century, hence my attraction to the after-Desses dress. Today I like to think that a child so spoiled and frivolous as Judy came to a bad end, but at the time she was a creature to envy and (though impossible) to emulate.

DRESSING FOR SUCCESS

In a class by itself was a series of dreadful costumes–outfits of subdued respectability acquired for specific occasions on which I was being judged for suitability to fulfill certain roles, roles about which I often had justified doubts to begin with.

THE COLLEGE INTERVIEW COSTUME

Although I got stellar grades through high school, I didn’t want to go to college at all. I wanted to study acting full-time as the first step toward becoming a theater director–a naïve notion, to be sure, though, as a high-schooler, I took a year of acting lessons, read Stanislavsky endlessly, and went, alone, to the Saturday matinee of a different Broadway play every week. Still my parents were having none of that “stage business” as a career choice, and I was too much of a coward to defy them.

Under firm parental influence, I was headed for the Seven Sisters, the all-female colleges considered the equivalent of the elitist, male-only Ivies. Clothing my willowy figure for my interviews in a matching peach short-sleeved sweater and pencil-slim skirt seemed to do the trick. Or was it my top-notch academic record? Or my cultivated speaking voice and flawless, mama-bred manners? Or, my writing skill even on the tissue-of-lie essays on why I wanted to attend Vassar, Smith, Bryn Mawr, or whatever. I was accepted by every single college I applied to.

Neither of my parents was at home the afternoon the acceptances arrived and, without consulting them, I answered yes to Barnard, no to all the rest, and mailed my replies. This wasn’t a rare access of rebellion but a crucial attempt to save my own life. Barnard, at least, was in New York, a hub of artistic activity, the town to which my spirit belonged.

ESCORTING THE OFFSPRING TO THEIR COLLEGE INTERVIEWS

A generation later, I had to acquire the equivalent of the peach outfit in which to accompany my first-born to his college interviews. Unlike me, my son wanted to go to a name-brand school and, believe me, for the Class of 1984 hopefuls, at least, the schools scrutinized the parental escort as well as at the prospective student. For my costume on this occasion, I duly selected an off-the-rack Christian Dior suit ensemble in an ever-so-quietly-chic beige and white. To complement it, I acquired a large woven-leather clutch purse and shoes, both carefully matched to the beige of the suit (matching was still de rigueur). My son, too, was accepted wherever he applied, but I put that down not to the Brooks Brothers corduroy sports jacket and impeccably tailored slacks of his costume but to his uncanny skill at interviews.

Never mind that he was smart and handsome; the boy had–still has–the gene for charming hearts of stone.

THE MONEY DRESS

A decade later, I was seeking funding for a grand-scale dance history project I’d thought up. The support was not to pay me, mind you–I had undertaken the affair through sheer love and admiration of the Royal Danish Ballet–just to cover the expenses of equipment, travel to Copenhagen, and the like, all parsimoniously budgeted. To be taken seriously when I went begging, I needed a dress that would make prospective donors believe I was – what? A respectable scholar? Mature and conservative although associated with the arts? Worthy of their attention and benevolence, at any rate. Needless to say, I had nothing like that in my wardrobe.

After endless shopping, I found a perfectly fine dress that I could afford. It fit impeccably and, what’s more, the green in its subtle weave matched my eyes. But the activity I pursued in it–convincing, which involved charming, CEO types, often elderly gentlemen, to give me money–made me feel like a prostitute. When the fund-raising period came to an end, thankfully with reasonable success, I burned that serviceable dress with glee, and have never succumbed to such a disguise again. It was my final attempt to wear what I wasn’t.

NOW

These days I write, mostly at home, explore New York with my two local grandchildren, go to the gym–and often to the theater–in jeans that have become vintage even if I acquired them, long ago, new. Really old models, just so you know, are much better cut and sewn than up-to-date ones, even from the same brand–and their rugged denim grows increasingly velvety with age. Hardly anyone but the moneyed society that attends opening nights and galas dresses for the theater nowadays, so my concession to the lovely old custom of “dressing up” for such an event–a dance critic, should, after all, honor the artists–is to add makeup and beautiful drop earrings. Crystal, usually–another of my obsessions.

THEN, AGAIN PLUS A FINAL WORD

Back when I was a young teen, we’d wash our new 501s several times in scalding water laced with a little Clorox, to make them flatteringly tight and give them a slightly worn look, new being nerdy. After repeating the process two or three times, we’d then don them and walk around for hours, occasionally sitting on the kitchen linoleum to rest and play canasta, while they dried into form-fitting submission, the now-cooling damp fabric clinging to the particular shape of our butts and legs.

“You’ll catch your death of cold,” my mother would say, sometimes angrily, sometimes resigned, whenever she glimpsed us at our ritual. Recklessly or not, we ignored her old-wives’ science. “Colds come from viruses,” we’d declare, tossing our long, luxuriant, adolescent locks.

These harmless clothes fads of adolescents should be respected, I think. They’re fun. They’re ephemeral. They’re creative–a form of self-expression, albeit a group one. Surely self-expression is a kissing cousin of art.

Not so long ago I realized that I was still far more interested in writing than in wardrobe. Perhaps it was as a celebration of this belated bit of self-knowledge that I produced a book peaceably combining the two. It’s called Obsessed by Dress. My editor calls it “a meditation on clothes.” I think–at least I hope–it’s strange and, perhaps, even wonderful.

© 2009 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Because TT and I belong to the same generation, I think we may have had many of the same clothes. My last blue dotted swiss dress. however, I had at sixteen. Such a pretty dress it was, with a full skirt and a white collar and, I believe, no sleeves. I wore it to the circus and fell in love with a black seal wearing a white bow tie.
    And while my mother couldn’t (or wouldn’t, I’m not sure which) sew a stitch, my grandmother, who was also an artist and a writer to boot, would adorn the dresses my mother generously gave her to mend–when I was quite little–and they would return smocked where they had not hitherto been smocked, embroidered around the hem with satin-stitched flowers in red and yellow and blue, never pink. This annoyed my mother and thrilled small me. Part of the reason I like (yes, I really do like) going to “The Nutcracker” is to see the little girls in their pretty dresses–these days in black of all things, but also red velvet; occasionally I even see a long taffeta skirt.
    And I too remember the ugly, soul-destroying clothes my grandfather insisted on my having because they were appropriate–they came from Best’s and I hated them. And never never was I to be permitted to wear red, because of my red hair. Not a nice man, my grandfather.
    But TT’s dotted swiss dress–ahh, that is to me what the madeleine was to Proust, triggering a lovely memory, for which I do thank her, from the heart.

  2. Regina Hackett says:

    Magical.

  3. Allen Robertson says:

    Dotted swiss, what a memory-inducing phrase, like Jane Austen’s sprigged muslin. A lot of fun to read.

  4. Tom Schoff says:

    What a lovely piece, Tobi. But isn’t it sad that you have to explain what dotted swiss is?
    I started dressing myself at age 14 after winning a standoff regarding a bright red shirt, the last article of clothing my mother ever bought for me. For all I know it could still be hanging, unworn, in that closet in Michigan. My most prized purchase was a pair of cordovan shoes that were slightly pointy though nothing like the last couple of decades have produced. They cost $40, and I still have them, though they no longer fit; I’ve carried them around for 50 years and once in a while run across them in the dusty back of the closet and think about being 14.

  5. Andrea Siegel says:

    Best thing I’ve read in a long time. A long time.

  6. Vie Steinmetz-Hentze says:

    Hi! A lovely article. I enjoyed it. Thinking about how chic you dressed, when I first met you, and you told me “I found it in a second-hand store.” Keep enjoying!

  7. Ah, Tobi, you do bring memories. Unlike yours, my mother saved every scrap of fabric from the clothes she sewed for us, plus most of the dresses. They surfaced, like flotsam, when she died three years ago and I had the chance to tell them goodbye.
    Of course some I couldn’t part with right away, so I get to revisit this agony from time to time. Blue dotted swiss? I still have the 7th grade version, plus my white pique 5-year-old bridesmaids dress, plus the evening dress I got on sale in high school that is so unbelievably awful that I kept it to laugh at. Picture shirred chartreuse tulle with cerise velvet bows, and you had to scrub the bodice interior with soap or the tulle seams would itch to kill.
    Thanks for taking me down remembering lane.

  8. At first I wanted to tell you about the T-shirt dress I had in first grade that I think had bumblebees in red, yellow and blue stripes knit down the front and back, but then I thought of shopping.
    My mother liked to shop at Alexander’s, now no longer with us. We visited the store in White Plains, near where I grew up. Like a step-sister in rags, the store sat up the hill from the fancier stores. The formally chic Saks Fifth Avenue was down to the right. Straight ahead was Bergdorf Goodman (which soon became Neiman Marcus in what seemed to me both a strange and fitting identity change: the hushed jewel-box grandeur of Bergdorf’s flipped into the “y’all come down now and buy these big ole his-and-her airplanes” of Neiman’s). Further down the road was Bloomingdale’s, a store filled with pounding music and narrow jeans that evoked my yearning for trendiness. We would walk through these stores after visits to Alexander’s. I loved the smell of makeup and perfume, and would shpritz myself liberally, to the point where mom once told me I smelled like “a bordello,” a word I didn’t know. Now I wonder how she would have known.
    At Alexander’s, the walls were bare, the floors uncarpeted linoleum squares, and the gloves, scarves and clothes were laid out on tables that had big drawers underneath in which you could forage for the item in your size if you didn’t see it on the table. Apparently, you could find the Real Thing there, if you were a “good shopper” and a grown-up. Grandma also favored Alexander’s. There I never found things other kids wore, like shirts with alligators on them, Fair Isle sweaters, and Levi corduroys.
    I think it was when I admired the outfit of one of the teachers at my school that she told me about “Sally’s,” a thrift store in the then “dangerous” working-class town of Port Chester. She offered to take me along. We zipped out of the school parking lot in her pale blue Volkswagen bug one afternoon and at Sally’s–the Salvation Army, of course–I found my spiritual home. With the savings from my weekly allowance (twenty-five cents) I could afford to dress like the other kids. We went on “dollar day,” when all but one color tag was a dollar. There were my alligator shirts aplenty. I guess I must have gotten a look of enraptured greed, because my teacher had to tell me that there was more than enough here for everybody. She later became a nun.
    I became a lifelong Sally’s shopper, expanding from preppy looks to sleeveless beaded evening-gown tops, cashmere sweaters, men’s clothes, vintage designer finds, and the just plain weird (which gave me a lot of joy).

  9. My mother sewed beautifully and made all my clothes. I had a new Easter outfit every year of dress, coat, hat,and shoes, which I proudly wore for the first time to church that morning.
    The only disappointment was that there was no label in anything. I envied my friends with their store-bought clothes for that reason alone. When we all got married, though, they came to my mother to make their wedding dresses!
    As to dotted swiss, I thought I was the only one left alive who remembered. I had pale yellow bedroom curtains made of it ( by Mother, of course) and I can still remember them floating into the room on a summer breeze.
    I loved your story.

  10. Lynne Sharon Schwartz says:

    Dear Tobi, I just read “You Are What You Wore.” This is really a gem–I was dazzled and smiling the whole way through. And your second sentence, about the shroud, was magnificent. I, too, remember Judy Aronoff, though not quite so benignly. Anyhow, your descriptions are brilliant, the jeans worn to velvet and all
    the rest. Thanks, this was a treat.

  11. Micalyn S. Harris says:

    I, too, had a navy dotted-swiss dress, although there are others I remember more vividly–both with love and doubt. My greatest unhappiness, though, is not acquiring a navy blue coachman’s coat with red piping that I tried on when I was maybe 8 or 9. It had double-breasted gold buttons and a full skirt, and I thought it was beautiful. It probably was, but it was more expensive ($50) than the “sensible” brown and light blue and cream tweed double-breasted coat ($40) that my father thought fit me better and was more “sensible.” He who has the gold makes the rules. If I ever see a coat like that again, regardless of age and whether appropriate, if it’s even close to fitting, I’ll buy and wear it with joy.

  12. Indeed a nice blog post. The eye for detail alone in this post is impressive, as it is in all the pieces in this series. Great work, and a brilliant read.

  13. Thanks. Of course some I couldn’t part with right away, so I get to revisit this agony from time to time. Blue dotted swiss? I still have the 7th grade version, plus my white pique 5-year-old bridesmaid’s dress, plus the evening dress I got on sale in high school that is so unbelievably awful that I kept it to laugh at.

  14. Nicole Dekle Collins says:

    This is a brilliant essay, Tobi. The rustling sound of the blue taffeta of your bar mitzvah-going dress and the feel of its pink tulle underskirt against your legs–fancy clothes do make their presence felt with a sensory fullness that everyday clothes simply don’t, yet I have rarely heard this expressed outside of literature. In addition to the impressions you evoke, I would add the sound of one’s heels clicking on the floor or, more perilously, on some cobblestone street in Paris . . . .
    I also find very perceptive your observation that the clothes you hated as a child (and, in a different way, as an adult) caused you an anguish–or, as you put it, left you with “permanent aesthetic scars”–commensurate with the pleasure you received from the ones you loved.
    Throughout my childhood my mother repeated (and still does) the mantra that “Clothes make the woman.” Your book “Obsessed by Dress” has a lot to say about this as well as its complement, “The woman makes the clothes.” When you describe the way wearing Uncle Isaac’s gifts made you feel–“elegant, elevated above the tawdry, certainly, but also above the commonplace”–I think you give voice to a particular pleasure that most women feel when they feel well dressed. It’s a kind of benign serenity in which one’s spirits float as much as one’s body on the tide of one’s sartorial success.
    And, as you know, we share a love of combing through thrift and vintage stores for “finds.” I agree with your observation that the treasure hunt is a “veritable tranquilizer,” nearly as satisfying as the treasure itself. I recall vividly a fantastic ’50s dress you “found” for me in a heap of clothes on a street fair table. From a distance the clothes looked like the rag piles collected by those 19th-century chiffoniers photographed by Atget–and yet this dress was anything but a rag. It was black, stitched together of three fabrics: wool bodice, velvet midsection, and a flower-like skirt of tulle. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
    Finally, I love your description of the way those of us interested in clothes try to “replicate” memorable get-ups we have seen others wear–the outfit might be, as in your case, one we remember from childhood, or more recently, or something we saw in a film. And usually it isn’t just the clothes we remember, but the wearer, and how the two were of a piece.

  15. Hi! A lovely article. I enjoyed it. Thinking about the chic with which you dressed when I first met you, and you told me “I found it in a second-hand store.” Keep enjoying!

  16. Of course some I couldn’t part with right away, so I get to revisit this agony from time to time. Blue dotted swiss? I still have the 7th grade version, plus my white pique 5-year-old bridesmaid’s dress. As to dotted swiss, I thought I was the only one left alive who remembered. I had pale yellow bedroom curtains made of it ( by Mother, of course) and I can still remember them floating into the room on a summer breeze.

Speak Your Mind

*

an ArtsJournal blog