Thursday, January 04, 2007

the autobiographical clothes closet/ Part one.

People who know me well would think I am the last person to think about clothes; for years I wore socks in whatever combination they happened to appear from my drawer: red with green, white and black, now and then, surprise, a pair that matched. From a very early age my daughter perfected the fashionista's stare and the "Mom, are you going to town looking like that?" cry, which was simply a variation of my own mother's affectionate despair.

And yet...if I were making a list (and indeed I am) involving things to wear, there would be a number of outfits, dresses, little hats, shoes and other bits and pieces that still stay in my mind, in a perpetual closet of the past, like the imaginary painted dresses of a favorite childhood book (100 Dresses) given me by my aunt.

She gave me one of the first dresses I remember with love: the fabric was probably nylon, given the era, but I thought it silk, and it was creamy white printed all over with a pattern of tiny blue flowers and ferns. The sleeves were puffed, and there was a plastic, black, shiny belt. But best of all there were five buttons down the front, black plastic also, but starred with little rhinestones.

I was four years old. I thought it one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

From the same period there was a dress that shows up in the first kindergarten snapshot. The photo is in black and white, but I recall well the colors of the plaid: a red background with lines of sky blue and grass green and thinner lines of straw yellow. That was pretty, but best of all was the wide collar, with a strange fringe of--it wasn't rickrack, and it wasn't lace, and it wasn't braid--just little tabs of extra fabric kind of hanging down. I thought it lovely. The same seersucker plus tabs trimmed the two pockets.

For some reason this dress reminded me of my heroine, Dale Evans. I called it my cowgirl dress, and wore it with a belt that had jewels in it--three big glittery glass gems set in the worked leather. On very good days I hung my holster and cap pistol from this belt--though mostly, as I played cowboys and Indians with my rowdy pack of boy cousins, I wanted to play the virtuous Indian maiden.

Probably because I thought having long, thick, glossy black hair would be wonderful. My own was dandelion light and thin and stick straight except when painstakingly curled by my mother.

If we fast forward to my years in Japan all I recall are a series of pastel dresses: mint green, pale pink, pale blue--they all had sashes, they all had puffed sleeves, they were all of polished cotton. None moved my heart, nor did the saddle shoes I wore, black and white, with socks slipping down into the shoes as I walked through puddles. In those days what I most loved was the times I could borrow my brother's jeans and striped t shirts and ramble free, untamed, unconcerned with whether my sash was tied or my dress neat, through the wild woods and villages near the air base.

But I do remember a hat, because it was soft dark blue velvet, and fit to my head so beautifully, and had a decoration of tiny pearls. The pearls weren't real; one of the early lessons at my mother's knee was on how to tell real gems from paste, real gold from things merely plated, real silver from other shining metal. On special occassions I could wear my velvet hat.

And I recall a very frilly, lace embellished pair of underpants, sent to me by the aunt who gave me the blue floral dress. They were the prettiest things I'd ever in my life seen, a far cry from my usual modest white undies. They were like whipped cream, or something found in the chambers of a well loved princess.

I scandalized an entire schoolroom by innocently sharing my joy in this garment with the class during show and tell. It might have been then that my father began wondering about my moral fiber--what well brought up and virginal daughter would stand in front of a class and lift her skirt to show her beautifully made underwear?

In mid school years there were larger saddle shoes, and in the summer rubber sandals, which were cheap and worked okay after you got over the blisters between your big toe and the next one. And there were, the year I was 11, the red shoes.

They had black buttons on the side. They were well cut, shaped to my narrow foot. At night I would wake up and go to my closet and take them out, simply to look at them, to touch them, to admire their shine.

They were to prove totally unfashionable, and caused the in crowd to whisper that I was an odd one, and more hurtful things, but I did love them. And I was odd, wandering the playground murmuring poetry, carrying my New Testament in my pocket, trying to figure out the world there on the sand scoured desert lot.

That was the year my mother made all my dresses: one in black, with gold designs and lace at the neck. One with a high waist, in a pale blue cotton. One in green gingham trimmed with white rickrack. A red plaid with long close fitting sleeves. They were all ankle length, exquisitely sewn, and totally out of fashion.

When I look at photos from that time I see what I didn't see then--that the dresses suited me, and were more elegant, more beautiful than the tawdry fashions of the time. But then I writhed, feeling so out of place, so poorly dressed, longing for something storebought and trendy.

And we passed on to plaid skirts and pale sweaters, to a lilac party dress embossed with white flowers, to another party dress in pale pink with silver threads and a green sash, to yet another party dress, sewn by my clever mother, in a teal brocade with a hem that was scalloped and a little jacket to match. That dress I wore into college, and at the party in highschool at which a dark young man diffidently approached me and blurted "You look like a chair".

He amended this somewhat alarming statement by saying he meant, of course, a Louis the 14th chair.

We fell in love, and had a tumultuous relationship that lasted through highschool and college, through wanderings in Europe, and beyond. We still write to one another, all these years later.

And perhaps we should close the closet there for a while, leaving me in a brocade dress in a chair in a room lit by a candle, sharing my life story with an awkward and intense young man who wanted to be a poet. That dress was pretty magical.


At January 05, 2007 6:59 PM , Blogger marlyat2 said...

And what did he turn out to be?

I pictured you with thick black hair, long and straight.

Ugh, oxfords! I remember a pair of black patent shoes after those, with daisies on the toes and heels barely high enough to be considered high.

At January 05, 2007 7:59 PM , Blogger jarvenpa said...

Ah, you pictured my inner wished-for self! If only.

He turned out to be a poet and cultural historian and professor of history, the moderately successful author of volumes on various strange things--copies, the millenium, the history of diet obsessions, noise. Now a slightly rotund and much bearded gentleman involved with a government official. I still remember him as the intense boy he was.


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