I used to think I was a tomboy. I dangled from trees, made forts in the shrubbery, wandered the parks unsupervised and sped around the neighborhood on my Schwinn Stingray bike. All such interests that meet the all-boy qualification check list. On the other hand, I was a bit of a delicate looking minikin. Small boned with wispy blonde hair, a tiny head, big eyes, sort of waif-ish. Someone once described me as John Wayne in Bo Peep’s body. Not an ounce of princess in me. Was I born tough or did I learn tough?
My growing up world was overwhelmingly Boy. Two brothers no sisters. Two neighborhoods equally full of boys. When my parents sent we three siblings on a bus to learn to ski (we were 8, 9, 10), I lasted 2 lessons in my all girl class. Those in charge moved me to a more advanced class of…you guessed it…all boys. And all a year older. I rode horses, drove a truck in high school and felt at home in my co-ed college dorm. When I graduated from college I worked for many years with mostly men. At one point I was the token woman in my 23 person lending group at The Bank. (Not including staff who were all women and served the titled officers.)
So while I looked like a girl on the outside, inside I was sort of an imposter. Not gender confused, just lacking in feminine role models. All that exposure to testosterone growing up though served me well in the corporate world of the 1980’s and 90’s. My girlish appearance was a side item to intellect, curiosity and drive attributes vastly more practical to gain promotions and increase salary than being pretty. Women dressed like men back then in pin striped tailored uniforms that fit the austere times and masked female differences. I didn’t mind. I was grateful to have a sound career even in a male dominated profession. I understood and liked men and they liked me back.
After leaving the world of finance and its suited up style, I attended grad school then fell into motherhood. Neither endeavor had a discernible dress code. I had no extra funds or time to think about my appearance during this messy era. Whatever previous corporate style I had managed to pull off, fell into disuse. Writing essays, baby drool, gardening and painting did not require me keep up with fashion trends. Frankly, my style slid into something between yard man or vagrant most of the time. Comfort was my only conscious priority.
But as it is said, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear or in my case teachers. My fashion fairy godmother’s were not wand yielding, crinoline clad flying sprites from a Cinderella story. All the same, they took me under their non-existent wings and nudged me into recognizing what had become my less-than-success dowdiness.
As I gazed into my modest sized closet I could hear their words chattering inside my head.
“You might consider adding a little color to your wardrobe.”
“If they are expensive, but you never wear them, then you might want to rethink that.”
“I’m not sure I would have my 80 year old mother choose my clothes for me.”
Hmmm…Ouch. I leaned in closer. I stared at the rectangle of bland in front of me. Lotta black in there. Good bit of beige, muddy brown-greyish yuck. Plenty of denim and baggy shirts. Velour-gad! It really was an impressive collection of comfortable won’t-care-if-this-gets-spit-up-spilled-on attire. Moving on to my smaller “nice clothes” closet in the next room revealed more despairing images. Expensive wool and silk items hung listlessly tailored for droopy middle-age matrons. Various mismatched pieces sagged despondently waiting to be worn. Some dresses and even blouses had visible dust on the shoulders…horrors…and on the creases of folded pants. How long had I owned this pair of what, or this frock-of-ages? Several specimen hung over thick logo embossed hangers from stores no longer in business. The “special clothes” closet was a vertical tomb exhaling mausoleum-like fumes. Sniffing I wondered if “frumpy” had a fragrance.
Shoulders slumped as I slunk back for another review of the regular closet. Decided valiantly to put the focus on my favorite pieces since most of what was hanging there fell into the despondent category of muted utilitarian/communist issue. Did I still own anything I looked forward to slipping into in the morning or for that matter any time of day?
Deep inside something was shifting. Isn’t dressing up supposed to be fun? Memories stirred. Images formed. My daisy scattered dress in 1st grade. Mmmm. In junior high, green cotton puffed sleeved top trimmed with a sweet patterned collar. Oh and that tailored denim blazer I wore riding horseback when I was 15. Fellow cowgirls making appreciative remarks. Dresses donned at college parties that other girls asked to borrow. A thick creamy Irish cable knit sweater paired with jeans tucked into tall Frye boots. A cobalt work dress drawn in with a wide black patent leather belt. That one turned a few heads. And the shoes. Matching pumps or cowboy boots or..or…WAIT! I do remember liking clothes. And color, I wore color! So what happened here?
My eyes refocused. Running my hands along draping sleeves and folds of cloth I searched for signs of liveliness. There, in the back. Hidden or simply overwhelmed in the stewed mass. A few favorite tops in a vast neutral wasteland. White blouses. Love those, but wait. I never wear them anymore. Huh?
“Because you might ruin them”, croaked Ms. Debbie Downer Dresser inside my head.
Wait. There were lots of white blouses. I looked closer. Many it appeared to be duplicates. One worn the other crisp and clean.
“That’s because you need a cheap look-a-like to wear so you don’t ruin your favorite shirt”, Miss Downer droned on.
Sheesh. And look here! Another favorite that I preciously saved, lusting to wear someplace special. Maybe I had PTSD from childrearing mishaps. Wait is it…really is….oh no…is it? Yes, the pristine snowy top is oh so out-of-style. How did that happen? I never really wore it. No place special enough for years so now it is fashion expired? Really.
Okay, time for some serious action.
Calling in a professional.
She was 20 years younger named Tiffany, Ashley or something similarly perky. Referred by a very fashionable friend. Pause. Had I picked someone too fresh and bouncy? An out of date wardrobe is sad, but dressing a couple decades under your own is just embarrassing. Anxiety roared. I vowed to be prepared.
Before She arrived I had sorted every item from the Closets of Gloom into three piles. Mostly a thrifty move to get as much zip from my time with Miss Adorably Dressed as I could. Here were the piles:
Miss Savvy Cuteness was great, diplomatic and decisive. Wow. The piles were helpful and I did have a core left of acceptable pieces. Very relieved to not be Lady Godiva at my age after all this closet exorcism. Entire lines of clothes were eliminated not because they were not well made or perfect for some other body type, but because they were not me. Hello me!
I discovered under all those useful outside-only or messy-inside clothes lives a comfortable human being-little Bo John Wayne-Peep. She is a bit of a tomboy but still a woman, kinda rugged never polished but can be cleaned up. Denim, leather, wool and cotton with a touch of velvet or silk at times. Digging through my dusty closet diving deep for the me in there. Exhale. Lost but not incurably so. Now if Miss Adorable Pro could put those mix and match Granimal tags on everything left, that would set me up.
I reported my progress to my Fairy Fashion Godmothers. They rolled into action. Now I am not a shopper. Hate crowds and despise taking my clothes off in dingy dressing rooms with sickly lighting in front of floor to ceiling mirrors. D. Downer’s favorite kinda place. Do not like talking about my body type to strangers or being viewed like a prize calf at the National Western Stock Show.
I do have one exceptional best friend who would occasionally do Comedy Shopping with me. That would be defined as trying on the most ridiculous outfits followed by photo ops. This would be in pre-selfie times.
E.g. On fashionable Michigan Avenue in Chicago, we once tried on pricey coordinating neoprene dresses. No, we were not in a scuba shop. The body hugging fashion forward couture was what an adolescent Diver Dan would expect his sleazy prom date to wear. We stuffed our skinny bodies into the black stretchy flared tubes that felt like blubbery whale skin. Once sausaged in vigorous tugging ensued yanking up the thick hot pink and red plastic zippers closing the gaps to complete the beyond-trend look. Too bad snorkels and masks were not included. Would have accessorized nicely. Our inappropriate snort laughing sounded more like strangled rasps as the squeezed tight fit restricted air flow to our compressed lungs. We gleamed darkly hideous in our new outfits; the three way mirror highlighting our enhanced assets. Memories from the Fun House at Lakeside Amusement Park danced in our bedazzled heads.
Not all my shopping experiences have been so amusing. Thus the above described wardrobe. I have had a few “in the zone” moments so, if I were in the right place, I would actually commit to picking something out. Not an endorsement for my high style resume’.
Even with that checkered anti-maven history, my supportive sophisticated FFG friends persevered. They were amazingly patient with me given my pathetic shopping record. They ignored my low mumbles of self deprecating humor easing me into a new way of seeing myself with lots of encouraging words and thoughtful remarks. They were the Clothes Whisperers I needed. There were hits and misses during the transformation of my closet. I forgave myself the misfires, learning to return swing-and-a-miss items or to just donate them to good causes.
Ultimately though it was taking on the challenge of meeting myself in the mirror polishing off the grime to see clearly who was looking back that is worth applauding. Laughing at myself is easy. Ignoring glaring deficits is not good. Beating myself up (Ms. DDD always there to help with that) is a hard habit to shake. So recognizing the beautiful container that was gifted to me at birth was the solid prize I took into my heart. Thank you Fashionista Fairies.
I have a sturdy body. It has carried me far on hikes, bikes and skis, in heels, boots and sneakers. Her slight frame has a pretty excellent job, rarely failing me most days. I forgot for a time to cherish this mortal body; sadly ignored my one-lifetime-only flesh vessel. Even hid its glory for years under layers of bland neglect. Looking honestly into dimly lit places, was not quick or easy. Waking up from the dark never is. Stretching out during this trying voyage however, lit up my internal pilot light so I could glow from within again.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have been luckier had I been exposed to more feminine ways earlier. Would I be more complete if somehow I learned to be aware of how fresh and pretty I was when I was young? Or would I have met the temptress Vanity along the way instead? As the crinkles and wrinkles compound, gravity rearranging my curves and creases, the shift has not really been a bother. My smile is still true and my sweet body still moves well enough. I am seldom enticed to think about holding on tight to a beautiful youthfulness I never knew I had.