It was 7:30 pm and I was exhausted from sitting on the studio floor in yoga teacher training; my fifty-something hips and knees crackling their complaints as I crawled in the car and pressed the gas to make it up Prince Street. A glow to my left drew my eyes from the road.
The store manager knew not to place anything around the mannequin in the softly lit window as big as the store. The line, the form, the shine said it all. A black and white gingham skirt — full, but not too full so as to be a costume, and of the highest quality silk, I could tell from the shimmer of the threads. Cinched by a black band at the waist, topped by a sheer black blouse and topped with a white Peter Pan collar, it said classic and whispered sexy all at the same time.
And then: reality as cold as the rainy blacktop that would carry me home. I don’t go to places that require this kind of dress anymore. I have retired from a life that would require this kind of fancy…or sexy.
When I was 18, I learned how to dress to achieve. Upon getting my first summer job at American University, Mom took me to get work dresses — 5 of them — from the old Garfinkel’s store on Mass Ave. I loved one so much I wore it almost every Friday as a celebration. It was the same silhouette as the dress in the window: full in the skirt, the top close to the body. This dress was sleeveless and the creamy tan and black polka-dotted cotton with a small white collar and big black bow highlighted my summer tan. I wore it with red linen peek-a-boo pumps. The dress was imbued just the type of cloaking mechanism a teenaged needed for her first receptionist job. When I put on that dress and those shoes, I was efficiency and friendliness personified in my little receptionist box; answering an incessantly ringing phone as big as toaster oven, its big plastic buttons flashing urgent messages to me as I approached my desk in the mornings.
When I hit my stride as a real boss, it was the era of the power suit — long jackets with padded shoulders and short slim skirts above the knee. I owned one from Saks — again thanks to Mom — that was a creamy pale blush silk with mother of pearl buttons. I wore it with an ivory shell and paired it with a pair of nude stockings and nude pumps. I spent a small fortune on Hanes control top panty hose in those day to wiggle into those body hugging skirts. The suit was pulled from the closet for high level meetings with the president of the college or presentations to the Board. I was smart, sassy, outspoken and deserving of that big promotion despite the lack of any real experience running an admissions office. The blush suit telegraphed that I was managing it all — a two year old at home, a new marriage, a big job. The suit was as short-lived as the promotion. It must have gone to Goodwill after I had my second child. It had become silent and unimportant in my life.
Maybe it was family life that makes it impossible for me to remember any other fancy clothes as clearly as this suit. The task of dressing in the mornings was rote; performed quickly after a too-short shower, heart pounding and skipping beats from early coffee and the anxiety of bus stop, dog walk, lunch money and traffic woes. Maybe it was the fashion of that era. Nothing seems memorable and shopping was worse than going to the dentist. I worked for a Catholic women’s college as an executive at this time and everything about that gray place, including my fashion, could be described as “dowdy.” I made bad fashion mistakes, purchasing a linen suit so that I looked like David Byrne on his big suit tour, or buying shoes from Payless. Thinking that the cheap white long-sleeved polyester blouse from Loehman’s wouldn’t feel like saran wrap when the static radiator heat pumped into my gothic office in mid-winter.
How many bad black winter coats did I go through? Why did I feel the need to do such damage to my feet? Bloody heels, such narrow toe boxes that my feet had to unfurl in in my slippers while I cooked the evening meal. How come I still can’t find a decent pair of black wool trousers?
This past month I’ve transitioned my wardrobe to winter things, bringing out my remaining sweaters, all six of them, only two worn consistently. The other four are from my past life working in much more conventional places where I didn’t sweat a lot or have to get up and down on the floor. This year, I’m letting go of those sweaters along with the gray wool trousers with pant legs as wide as Trump’s and a back-gap that lets the breeze into my ass crack when I sit down. I’ll finally bid adieu to the kicky black wool skirt and the polyester wrap dress from Dress Barn, bought more than 20 years ago. Also: the open-toed, four-inch strappy heels.
My minimalist dream is that eventually all my clothes will fit in one drawer. It is slowly turning out to be that way thanks to my new life as a yoga teacher. My clothes are a cross between a uniform and a coverall for a life of practice. I have chosen to dress for my most authentic self. And that beautiful dress in the store window? Not on me, not any longer, but it does take up some space in my imagination and in my journal this week.