Strange Fashions

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I spent last weekend with some of my closest friends in the mountains of North Carolina. We’ve been getting together on an annual basis for nine years now, and although we don’t all live within driving distance of one another, we are as close as we’ve ever been.

These ladies all vetted my would-be husband and then stood beside me when I married him. They helped me say goodbye to my dad, heralded the arrivals of each of my children and have otherwise served as fine, funny, encouraging friends ever since I’ve known them.

I couldn’t be more thankful, especially this year, because I’ve found myself in a bit of a morass when it comes to today’s fashions. I am 5’2″, with what could be described as athletic/curvy/stocky legs; I have a penchant for high heels and cashmere, fitted shirts and a clear delineation between my torso and my lower body. The thing that’s going on with leggings, tall boots and long, chunky sweaters? To someone built like me, it feels downright immoral; after spending a lifetime taking exacting measures in fashion to counteract an unadvertised body type, the act of even considering “skinnies,” tunics, Uggs, and blanket coats is just reprehensible.

And yet, I feel an odd pressure to try and (finally) embrace it, maybe because we just bought a mini-van and I don’t really want to look the part, or maybe because I live in such a trendy city, where plenty of people, older than I am, have no qualms with donning a fedora and/or wearing screenprints with skull and crossbones.

I happily pegged my pants and wore a lot of hairspray in the eighties. In the nineties, I’m pretty sure I asked for Jennifer Anniston’s haircut, and I may have worn a vest. But in the 2000s, I settled nicely in to a closet filled with classic sweaters and universally flattering boot-cut pants, none of which were made of leather. I hardly ever came across another person and cringed, thinking how terribly out of style I must look. But then the fashionistas broke out the tall boots and skinny jeans, Lululemon came to power, and people, real people, started wearing it all – and my whole “pearls and cashmere” thing was blown to pieces.

This past weekend, my friends and I discussed several things: school choices for our children, baby naming, dinner ruts, work/life balance and, of course, the current fashion trends. Now, I should be clear that all the girls with me last weekend are a lot more on-trend than I am, but the general consensus was that much of what we see happening out there is, at the very least, difficult to identify with.

After a discussion about the right and wrong ways to wear the styles today, I started feeling a little braver, though. I resolved to update in the most timeless way possible, and on Monday, before the feeling wore off, I rushed to the mall.

After sending my friends a variety of selfies from the dressing room, in which I am making ridiculous faces in the mirror while trying on clothing that makes me look like a potato, we reached an agreement on a few things that were deemed not so far outside my personality that I should not buy them. I have boots now, pants that are skinny enough, but not obscene, and a few tops that, according to people other than me, might be described as flattering.

My husband was out of town when I went shopping, and since he returned, I’ve worn some derivation of this new style – what he has referred to as “strange fashions” – every day. I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a few new things to wear, and that it is good not to feel so stuck in 2008. But I won’t feel I can own this look for some time, if ever.

Fashion has a way of pulling even the most confident women into a delicate state of vulnerability. We hear a lot about the dearth of real body types represented in the media, but very little, really, about how clothing trends are chosen and the aftermath for those of us at the mercy of people who design clothing for ladies who weigh about as much as an average American 12 year old. As a woman, I find this exasperating; as a mother of two girls, I foresee a lot of long talks in dressing rooms, and I hate that they, at some point or another, are going to feel their worth is in the clothing they wear, or how they wear it.

If you see me out and about sporting my new style, know that I am pretending, at least a little, and that underneath that voluminous sweater I’m wearing, I’m holding my breath, waiting for a new trend to spike.

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Yellow Bird

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When I was in first grade, my classroom was divided into three groups: yellow birds, blue birds and red birds.  Although no one ever actually said so, it was clear that the yellow birds flew more slowly than the blues, and that the red birds took to the sky most quickly.  This was my teacher’s gentle way of helping young students take to learning at a pace best suited for them.

I was a red bird, but I loved the color yellow – and perfect, chirping yellow birds – and I thought it unfair that I couldn’t sit at the yellow bird table.  Mrs. Hogston, my first grade teacher – a tiny woman with smile lines around her eyes  and a sweet Southern accent – assured me that I should be a happy little red bird, proud of my feathers, and insisted that I stay at the red bird table.  I did so, but begrudgingly, learning how to add and subtract with one eye on the yellow bird table and the other on my text books.

For most of my life, I’ve kept pace with the red birds and I learned to enjoy it.   Yet, now, at a time when I would most like to be dive bombing with a flock of cardinals, I fear my feathers are turning … well … a tinge of yellow.  I’d heard that pregnancy might do this to me, that words would mysteriously slip away; that I might suffer memory loss; that I might – on occasion – make sense only to myself.  But my little red bird brain eschewed such notions as an old wives tale.  It promised to keep processing the material and meaning of life with utmost efficiency; word retrieval problems were for other sorts of pregnant people — not writers, not teachers, not red birds.    

Yet, as I sit composing this blog posting in Starbucks – writing, and then deleting, and then rewriting and rereading the sentences I’ve written – I feel defeated.  My red bird brain has succumbed to the hormones after all.  I find myself staring at my Mac for longer than necessary, the synapses of my brain firing with less enthusiasm than usual.  Staying on topic is difficult; finishing an essay – impossible.  Sometimes, in conversation, my husband has to help me with words.  That thing on the kitchen counter?  Ah, yes – a coffee maker.  The thing we use to walk the dog?  Right.  A leash.

To make myself feel better about this incapacitation I did a little research.  A study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that 81% of women suffer memory loss and word retrieval problems during pregnancy.  The article called this impairment “significant” – though certainly not permanent – and I rejoiced.  In 1998, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study confirming pregnant women’s memory loss and word retrieval issues would be most significant in the third trimester.  Another study cited “brain overload” and “memory dysfunction.”  Hooray!

It is hard to be a writer; now I know it is even harder to be a pregnant writer.  I wish I’d done this research months ago. I thought I was just losing my edge because I’m no longer in graduate school.  So – as of today I’m cutting myself a little slack; I am preening my feathers at the yellow bird table.  Forgive me if my blog postings don’t make sense, or if you find them boring, or if I write that something is “obvious” rather than “obsequious.” My red bird brain has flown South for the remainder of winter.  Here’s hoping it’ll come back to me this spring.

Hallelujah

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It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah!
It’s Raining Men! Every Specimen!
Tall, blonde, dark and lean
Rough and tough and strong and mean …

– It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls

For some reason I have always had an affinity for the song “It’s Raining Men.I like the imagery of it, and I like its passionate upbeat. I like its singers’ throaty, celebratory tone. I also like that the song contains the word Hallelujah. Recently, “It’s Raining Men” skipped, unbidden, through my head. It was the day after Christmas and I was in the mall, at Brooks Brothers, with Andrew.

Since I was very small, I’ve loved men’s clothing stores. As a little girl, I would hide inside King & Co.’s round racks of suits while my father tried on clothes. There, the smooth, tightly woven fabric of finely stitched wool, silk and seersucker enveloped me. I could peer between the lapels’ fine folds and beyond strong-looking, elegant tortoise shell buttons to observe upstanding men as they stepped tenuously out of their dressing rooms onto the store’s red and green plaid carpet. When they saw themselves in the three-way mirror – out of street clothes and into King’s finery – they stood a little straighter; they tilted their chins up a notch, allowing themselves a brief moment of vanity.

My father, a farmer, had few occasions to wear a suit so we didn’t go to King’s often, but our visits there still impressed me. To this day I find the mingled scents of fresh leather accessories, spicy aftershave testers, and crisp, new-smelling silk and wool enchanting. I admire men – young and old, short and tall, wide and narrow – who worry over stacks of cashmere sweaters, who hold a series of striped ties up to finely pressed shirts, who pull suits from tightly-packed racks and peer at them analytically, considering the clothing’s probable impact at a wedding, or in a board room.

I know that my deference for fine men’s clothing makes me sound old-fashioned – and I guess that I am. I’m a Carey Grant kind of girl: I swoon for men in suits the way other chicks squeal for rockers with gel-slicked hair and leather pants. APK, who cuts a dashing figure in a well-tailored suit, picked me up for our first date wearing a crimson tie, a starched white shirt, a dark suit and a long, black overcoat. He’d come from work, and that he hadn’t even bothered to loosen his tie made my stomach drop. I loved that he wasn’t trying to be cool, and that he stood up straight, and that he didn’t apologize for not having had the time to change clothes.

Now, whenever the opportunity avails itself, I go to Brooks Brothers with APK. For his bank job, he wears a suit daily. This year, he’d worn a few of his best to tatters, which led us to Brooks Brothers’ doors the day after Christmas for the store’s annual mega-sale. We arrived before 10 AM to find the store brimming with men and overheated sales guys. When the tailor, Farhad, saw us, he hugged Andrew and kissed him on both cheeks. Like a math teacher working out an equation on a blackboard, he made quick, deft chalk marks on Andrew’s chosen suits. Farhad commended the choices, acknowledging the suits’ fit and functionality as he marked my husband’s measurements.

Between Andrew’s fittings, Farhad graciously welcomed other customers to stand on the carpeted platform in front of the three-way mirror, and he made them feel good about themselves. The men, in turn, stood up a little straighter with their chins up-raised; they inquired about half-breaks and sleeve lengths; they bought, and bought and bought. Which is when the Hallelujah part of “It’s Raining Men” ran through my head. Until then, I’m not sure I’d known the depth of my gratitude for well-dressed gentlemen, for these old-fashioned snatches in today’s society. Had I been bolder and/or in a Grease-like movie (and, of course, not seven and a half months pregnant) I might’ve done a little Weather Girls’ routine right there in the middle of Brooks Brothers. If I had, I bet I could’ve gotten the guys in the dressing room to buy a few more suits.

Beyond whatever shallow analysis one might take from this random posting, I’d like to point out that observing male shoppers does offer a unique perspective on masculinity. I think that’s why I find places like Brooks Brothers so thrilling: the men’s store gives voice to its consumers vulnerability and pride, their desire not just to command respect, but to be respectful.

For this, I am envious of men’s shopping experiences. In comparison, women’s clothing stores are much more insidious; too often, they feed our insecurities and shame us into buying things that will last only for a trend or for a season. Women are expected to care – too much – about how they look. And while I am not so naive as to think that there’s no hype at men’s clothing stores, what hype there is strikes me as good hype, classy hype, hype geared to affirmation — the kind of hype that makes me, at least, want to dance on a tailor’s platform and sing karaoke.