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APRIL 18, 2012 12:05PM

The Clothes Make the Woman

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Clothing takes on more importance when you have no say in choosing what you wear. Unlike my own daughter who was free to pair her polka dot shirt with her striped pants in kindergarten, my mother carefully crafted my outfits. The colors she chose for me were the same ones she chose for herself. Brown, beige, and taupe. A dubious choice for a mature woman. A horrible mistake for a girl in elementary school. She chose "tasteful" clothes for me. No flowers, no ruffles or lace. Everything was very Bergdorf Goodman circa 1955. Except this was more like 1968.  My mother insisted on understated and sophisticated. I wanted Mod and Twiggy.

On school days I wore a plaid skirt with a large pin which I suppose was some sort of kilt. I wore knee socks and saddle shoes. Or brown Oxfords. This was not Catholic school. This was my mother's doing.

The shoes were bad enough. But God Help Me, I had a drawer full of berets my mother jauntily perched on my eight year old head. I'm surprised I even had any friends.

I was a Glamour magazine Don't from head to toe.

In junior high I quietly rebelled. As soon as I stepped off the school bus, the transformation began. I rolled up my skirt into a mini skirt like the other girls.  I changed my shirt in the bathroom. My friends let me borrow their blue eyeshadow and Yardley lip pots. I was good to go. Until the day I saw my mother standing in the office with her beige shoes and matching handbag. I had forgotten about my orthodontist appointment. We stared at each other. It was hard to say who was more horrified.

As a teenager, I left home and delighted in the freedom I had to choose my own clothes. I got my ears pierced. I wore long dangly earrings, Mexican peasant blouses and flowered skirts that twirled.  I wore baggy hip-hugger jeans and my boyfriend's flannel shirts. I took my bra off. I felt good in everything I wore back then.  

I had no real fashion sense but I didn't want any either. It was a perfect way to rebel against my mother's stuffy dress code. It was a heady time.  A time of self discovery through my clothing.  I was young and self-assured, leaving a trail of amber and patchouli in my wake.

As I got older I became a more conservative dresser. Not Talbot's conservative, but I did put my bra back on.

 I got a job at Saks 5th Ave. I lived on crackers and instant soup but I had a wardrobe to die for.  With my 40% discount I bought the cutest dresses, the hottest shoes and the fanciest underwear I've ever owned. (And haven't owned any like that since.)  Every week I left a large chunk of my paycheck at the store.  It was the first time I had ever taken more than a passing interest in fashion. I wore high heels, Chanel No.5, and an air of confidence.

I still enjoyed stylish clothes as I got older and became somebody's mother. But I started going more for comfort. I wore my cotton flowered maternity dress long after the baby was walking and talking.

 Although my teenage daughter and I wear the same size she is very clear that I am not allowed to borrow her clothes. When she is away at school I sift through all the clothing she has left behind. Sometimes I try things on just to see if I can double my wardrobe while she is gone. She is right. I look ridiculous.

Like my mother, I appreciate well made clothes and clean lines. She didn't like anything fussy and neither do I. But that is where the similarity ends. I cannot put on anything brown, beige or taupe without needing to take it off immediately. They are the saddest colors in the world on me.

For the last ten years or so most of my wardrobe has been black. Black is beautiful. It works for everything from cocktail dresses to jeans to bathing suits.  Black has been good to me. It is easy sophistication and hides a multitude of sins.

Lately however, I am reaching for the clean lines and well made clothes in aubergine or azure. Jewel tones speak to me now. I love wearing turquoise and teal, raspberry and plum. 

Simply put, clothes have always been about the way they make me feel.

I feel pretty good in the clothes I wear now. I buy an occasional mistake.  But unlike the years I spent in saddle shoes and berets, I can look at my reflection in the mirror most days and not cringe.



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This was Great! Sounds like my years except Mom had no fashion sense and I got my older sisters hand me downs. She'd buy us the same dresses in different colors so I'd have two school pics. in a row with the same darn a different color. Loved the late 60's, early 70's and the freedom of looking ridiculous. Although I will admit that now that I'm home..the bra is off once again unless I need to go out. What goes around comes around...or is that...what goes down..goes further down? Anyway.....was an enjoyable read and a walk down memory lane. Do you remember pettipants?
I know you hated it but you were SO CUTE. Forget the beret - the purse! The glasses! You were a junior junior leaguer!

Black is absolutely my go-to color as well.
Isn't it funny how we rebel. My mom wouldn't let us wear pants, revealing clothes or makeup. My 20s were all of that and more. Now- denim. Period.

This was cute.
Love the pic and the sun glasses...
oh god, you were adorable! I don't care...those sunglasses and little gloves are to die for. I think I had a dress with a jacket like that, that my grandma bought for me for Easter/Passover. But I'd have to wear the hat she made for me, too. I loved wearing gloves. I could never figure the hat though, as much as I loved the netting. The business of it grabbing my head always bothered me. Those little cloches had to hang on somehow. Even now I hate anything that constricts my head. Gives me a headache.

I'm with you Joanie, all the way. I hated how I looked when anyone dressed me. I loved how I looked when I dressed me. That applies today.

I also used to wear tons of black. Especially when I was working, being an artsy fartsy type. And now I'm into whatever suits my fancy, which might be black but when I'm into the dark, more likely navy or brown or grey. Then again, I've added every other color too, the best one aqua, which works with my grey hair. AND PRINTS! I likee the stripes. I likee a certain kind of has to have the right shapes and colors.

I still favor turtlenecks in the winter. Still favor jeans. Don't wear jackets much although I have them. Love the blazer. Just can't be bothered. I like the tailored look, but I think in my old age, I'm kind of busting out of that and getting a little wild. And that's okay. GREAT post.

I swear that picture kills me. I could hug that little girl!!
had to look at that picture again. the expression on your face is just too funny!!! hahahahahah

you look really annoyed. (still cackling)
I stick to classics and accent them with trendy, inexpensive accessories. I'm into comfort more than anything, but I also wear what looks good on my body type, so there's no chance of anybody seeing me donning Daisy Dukes, thank goodness!;)

That pic is priceless. Remember wearing the beret during my Girl Scout years...:)
Who's that little doll with the chic beret and cat's eye shades?
It wasn't so much the style of the clothes I wore that was embarrassing. It was where my clothes came from: K Mart, Sears, or the thrift store.

In the 80's, when I got my first credit cards, I shopped at the Broadway and Robinson's and Bullock's. I wore Guess, Esprit, and Jag. Lots of mini's and sky high pumps. When I see photos of myself from back then, I laugh. The 80's had to be the worst decade for fashion.

Now? It's all about clean lines, small details, quality and comfort. I live in Reef flip flops, Converse, good jeans and lots of black.

I loved this! Funny, though, I was one of those garish little Hispanic girls whose mothers actually let them wear go-go boots and little sundresses with huge sunflowers and stiff petticoats underneath to make me look like an exotic flower. I used to envy the "classy" Anglo girls with their pleated, plaid skirts, penny loafers, and sweater sets. They looked so elegant, like they belonged on the cover of a magazine. ... Sigh ... like you, I loved my peasant blouses, too. Rated.
On school days I wore a plaid skirt with a large pin which I suppose was some sort of kilt. I wore knee socks and saddle shoes. Are you kidding? In 1965 you would have been so cool in South Minneapolis. The skirt would need to be probably shorter than your mom would like but otherwise ... Since I wore uniforms to school, I was excessively focused on what was and wasn't cool. (And cool was everything.) It was around 65 when the shoe stores started carrying saddle shoes identical to our uniform shoes (taupe with a rust saddle) except not as clunky. I loved my brown and black ones, though.
My seamstress grandma made my dresses--about four inches longer than the other girls' dresses. They were pretty though, with smocking.
You are so stinking cute in that picture, oh my gosh! Every detail! But I can understand how you felt, my mom sewed some of my clothes, and that made me feel awkward and she was a dance teacher and loved to put my hair in a huge (huge) puffy bun, back combed, hairnet, 25 bobby pins... and send me to school...

I too worked in retail for a short time, love the deals! And it made me a better shopper and gave me some well needed fashion sense.

The jewel tones are gorgeous and I love the animal print but have never been bold enough to buy or wear. Fun read, I loved this!
I LOVE the beret, glasses, gloves, and handbag. You were adorable. But yes, I think every kid goes through that time when they want to rebel. Tadpole wants to wear pajamas to school. I'm tempted to let her. Excellent post! Thanks so much for your fashion history.
I find that photo to be most uncringeworthy.
What a great post! I love the picture, also! Tasteful little sunglasses!
I know exactly where you're coming from. My mother insisted that I wear "tailored" clothes while I wanted pretty party dresses like the other girls. She continued to control me until I got to college. From then on, I expressed myself through my clothes, and I love frou frou and bright colors. Telling someone, of any age, what to wear is as bad as telling them what to eat. We all have unique taste.
I enjoyed this. Loved this line "It was hard to say who was more horrified". So very sorry, I went to Catholic school and it was bad even if everyone else was in the same boat.r
Ha! This post was just the pickup I needed. ~r.
Love the photo of you in your sailor suit, white gloves and purse, Joan. Reminds me of me at that age. I'll never forget when I was five and Mom forced me to wear a Kate Greenaway green and white dress with a crinoline lining--itched like hell. It was my Easter dress and I was crying in the photo. I wanted another dress, sans crinoline, of course. Delightful post!
That photo is the cutest EVER! Sounds like your wardrobe blossomed through the years in a beautiful way, Joanie. All I remember from my childhood is running around in those Sears Toughskins with the mega-reinforced knees. :) It was the time when girls were first allowed to wear pants to elementary older sister still had to wear skirts every day.
haha @ put your bra back on! :-D
You could have been a little "stewardess" on the TV show Pan Am! So prim and proper. Because I had to wear a dreary navy blue gabardine jumper, white blouse with Peter Pan collar and a stupid beanie on my head, clothes became an obsession for me (still are, as you well know.) I have always liked to be in fashion, but I designed my own and my mother did her best to make them to my specs. I used to wear hand-me-downs from the doctor's daughter, who lived next door -- that's how I got my first so-called training bra.

In high school, I tried to make up for lost time. I wore Garland skirts and matching sweater sets in red, pale yellow and kelly green. Black was verbotin; mom said it wasn't for young people at all. I worked a summer job in the law firm she worked in to pay for all this.

Even in my dotage, I am still "making an effort" when I leave the house. I'm what you'd call a Clothes Horse. My bad.

You do know that is my favorite picture in the world, almost! I had a saying I wanted to put on a pin 10 years ago, when all of us first-time homeowners of "fixer-uppers" were comparing Benjamin Moore paint chips: "Just say nope to taupe." If I had done it, I'd send you one :)
I've been thinking along these same lines Joan. About how much more confident I am with my fashion choices now that I've (sort of) developed a style of my own and figured out which cuts and colors look best on me. Of course my everyday uniform is yoga pants and a t-shirt, which is just a tiny step up from pajamas, but at least I'm not wearing pajamas!
ThroughMyEyes, it's good to see you! And of course I remember pettipants!

keri h, "a junior junior leaguer!" Omg, that is perfect. I always fall back on black . What's not to like?

Thanks, phyllis! In junior high, they still didn't allow girls to wear pants!

jmac, thank you. I'd still wear the sunglasses today.

Adorable Monkey, your comments made me laugh out loud. Yeah, I think I was pretty annoyed in that picture. I love clothes, and the older I get, the more confident I am about my style. No berets. Ever. xoxo

Belinda, I still have my little green beret from Girl Scouts. I was amused to see it was made by Kangol.

Me, Matt, me! :)
In a way this is too familiar. Why did they want to dress us up that way? Thanks for sharing this, it struck a nerve of remembrance....
So well-deserved a Cover, Joan! Rated.
You've mentioned before what a frumpy unfashionable kid you were, posted that picture, and I think what the heck? You were the coolest looking hip little kid, and I would have done anything to be your evil school yard friend. I would wear that exact outfit today, with red lipstick, even keep the white dinky socks. So chic. Berets, BTW, official headgear of the creative bohemian.
I loved this memoir. Yet it's sad to read. Having read some of your other writing about your mom, I am not surprised at all that she was a control freak where your clothes were concerned.

Don't you wish, though, that she had treated the loss of your Barbie's clothes (I think your story was called The Barbies of Avenue A) with some of that iron control?

I grew up poor, and if I got new clothes, they were from Robert Hall (anyone else in the Chicago area remember Robert Hall?) I also had to wear my mom's clothes. I went to summer camp with her jeans once, in about 1970--they were fake denim with an elasticized waist. I was so docile that I put up with all this. I let my three wear whatever they want. They never took advantage of it.

And during the past ten years, I've concluded that the best clothes are at Goodwill.
I think you'd look fetching in an aubergine beret. OUCH!!
"It was hard to say who was more horrified."

Really Joan? It was ME. H.O.R.R.I.F.I.E.D! But I laughed out loud, at your expense.. true.
I might be gay for reading this, not that there's anything wrong with that - eyeroll- but I enjoyed it and all my macho OS guy friends can kiss my fashion feaux pas'd behind.
Victoria, I completely agree. No decade was worse for fashion than the '80's. Although I did enjoy a brief "Flashdance"period...

Deborah, you would have been my fashion idol.

nerd cred, you mean I would have actually been cool if I'd grown up in South Minneapolis? To think only a few hundred miles stood in my way!

Sarah, you were so lucky to have dresses made for you, and I still love smocking!
Great piece, as always. Although from the photos you've posted, I do believe you are slim enough to not have to worry about any sins, few or many.
You were and are completely precious! Love this! /r
Oh I so get it. My mother, otoh, was a 50's fashionista, somehow proper and uber glam at the same time. Every following decade she hit it out of the park. She put chubby me in plain slimming black, navy and charcoal. It sure didn't help that our prep school unis were grey flannel skirts, white button down shirts, blazers... And saddle shoes with knee socks. Blech. I have her good taste but am a jeans and jewel colors gal, black always a staple. Great view of another piece of you.
We grew up so differently Joanie, I had hand me downs and holes with baseball cards in my keds in the summer till payday. An only daughter and one in seven, you and me, yet the same misgivings and transitions. As all kids do I longed for nice clothes, and babysat and worked and bought my own since I was young. It's odd, now I could buy more or less what I want and I don't want them anymore. Life is cruel that way. Interesting post and photo.
Did I mention the vintage picture? Didn't! What I see besides the mom ensemble, which is nice (!) by the way, is your face.. your smile. Whimsical . . inquisitive. Later to be, who woulda thought, the girl in a short skirt and long jacket from Cake fame (at the braless phase). Or something. Love you!
I have to say I was lucky; my mother liked clothes and trends, liked to look fashionable and she liked her daughters to look that way too. I still remember the white go-go boots in 7th grade I got for Christmas that made other girls jealous. Which made me happy. But you mention the plaid skirt with the big pin and also saddle shoes, and I always wanted those. My mom wouldn't let me have them - too old fashioned, she said. Even as a kid, I liked more conservative classic looks. And that picture of you complete with big pocketbook is the cutest thing I've seen in a long time. You look like you're ready to lunch with the ladies!
Wow, people actually have thoughts about clothes? I have fat jeans and not-so-fat jeans. I buy my tops in bulk from Old Navy. I don't have the body for clothes. I look better nekkid, but that doesn't work in all venues and leads to orange jump suits.
asia, thanks for reading! "So stinking cute" is a really nice compliment. I was with your mom all the way until I got to the word, "hairnet."

froggy, sometimes our clothes define certain parts of our lives. Like wearing a maternity dress for two years... Tadpole sounds like she just wants to be laid back and comfy. We have one day at our school just for pajama day!

Con, thank you, and please fasten your seatbelt.

Bea, I'd still wear the glasses today.

Pam, you are so right. It was stifling being told what to wear. For many people, clothes are an outer expression of who we are inside. I can count the number of kids in capes I see everyday on two hands!

hugs, thank you for reading. I would have fit right in at your school.

Pranay! I'm so glad to see you. I hope this means you have a new post up. Will be over to look soon.

Erica, another thing my mother eschewed: Crinoline. I loved crinoline...

clay ball, I love the image of a little girl in Sears Toughskins. It meant she was doing stuff!

PeelingAnOrange, yes, that braless period some of my friends and I went through was quite embarrassing to me now...
Lezlie, what's wrong with being a "clothes horse?" Some people like fashion, some couldn't care less. To each her own. And thank you for flying the Friendly Skies with us today. :)

"Just say nope to taupe" Dirndl, now I MUST have that pin. Thanks for coming by. Actually, this is one of my favorite pictures, too.

Bell, I use the excuse that I teach yoga, so I get away with wearing yoga pants more than necessary... I'm into dresses now that the weather is warm now. And flip flops.
I was lucky to receive new socks, undies, and other articles of clothing at Christmas and birthdays throughout childhood. Being the eldest of six kids, scrawny and Tom-boyish, I really didn't care much about what was on my backside until once when rumbling downhill at a soapbox derby in my neighborhood, some cruel neighborhood kids' laughed at me because I was wearing elastic-waisted shorts, no shirt [hey I was only 7], and a pair of cheap sneakers with holes in the time I was 12, things changed dramatically; I worked as a newspaper carrier [paper boy] and every penny earned was spent on garb other kids wore. It wasn't until my later years in high school that I realized the parallel "don't judge a book by its cover" also applies to some people who evidently are worried about what others think; hence, the years following were not spent with superficial fanatics who've left negative posits, and without providing anything positive, it's no wonder we were anxious about our public appearances.

I couldn't care less now. There are many great buys at Good Will/Thrift stores and other vintage/retro second-hand shops have designer labels for a fraction of the original retail prices found at malls and outlet stores.
Sheila, I think our mothers dressed us a certain way because we were a reflection of themselves, or so they thought. Sometimes I wanted my daughter's clothes to "match," but I let her be.

Aw, thanks, Jonathan!
I was reading along thinking of that very photograph and how unbearably adorable you looked with your lips pursed in sartorial confidence. And then after enjoying every word, surprise! The photo!

Well done, friend.
Oh, I so, so relate to this! My mother dressed me, too! But unlike your mom, mine always made me wear practical, "normal" clothes, when I always wanted to look like a princess or some historical figure. I think my mom thought she was doing me a favor. Ever since I got into high school, I've pretty much renounced pants and shorts (I don't how they sit or look on me), sneakers, etc. You're right, it's intoxicating when we can first choose what we wear - for several years I was all about mismatched patterns and crazy earrings. These days I've calmed down, but I always want everything I put on to make me happy. I'm so glad that you've also found yourself wardrobe-wise, and I totally agree about black -but also love the idea of your adding new colors, too. Whatever you wear, I know you look great.
OMG, how adorable are you in that picture. Berets on a small child are always terrific. Thank god your mother didn't enforce them in your teen years
Loved reading this. Fun to know about the little and less little Joan.
Is that a Chevy Bel Air?
Love the details, lines and color of this post.
greenheron, I don't think I ever said I was frumpy, did I? Anyway, you would totally rock this outfit...

Snippy, yes! I cared more about those Barbie clothes than my own clothes! Thanks for remembering that post.

AHP, sorry, did I just kick you with my saddle shoe? :)

tr ig, you crack me up. What more can I say?

Thanks for coming by and for the kind words, Mary. I've got plenty of sins to cover up!

Michelle D, thank you!

Sally, we are such twins. :)

Rita, thank you. I dare say we did grow up very differently. I'd trade with you in a second!

tr ig (again) I don't understand this comment and am not even pretending to. What is a long jacket from Cake fame? huh?

Oh Margaret, you would have loved how much I would have coveted those white go-go boots. Maybe you would have let me try them on just once...
A Prada lady you are not. And that is good. Very enjoyable read.
Sirenita, I remember those days when I looked better without clothes. Those days are long gone.

Kate, how I wish my mother had let me stop wearing hideous shoes in 7th grade. You were lucky.

Thanks, Linnnn! I love that you had this photo in mind! :)
Alysa, thanks so much for coming by. I wear pants often, but am much more comfortable in dresses these days.

fernsy, I never actually saw another child my age in a beret! I'm very glad you stopped by...xo

Larry, I have no idea!
The photo is priceless, the story fabulous. Loved it!

I dress for the feeling I get from the person I become, inside (or outside) the clothing. It took me a long time to discover what clothes could do for my self-esteem. Mom had commandeered that role for me throughout the sixties; she made every single item I wore, right down to bathing suits and matching headbands. I longed to shop at Sears.