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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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