I love clothing and I love dressing myself. My mother did, too, and so did my father’s mother. Looking at pictures of each woman from the forties, despite not being wealthy or even solidly middle-class, they are wearing classic suits with necklaces and, in the style of the day, broaches. The similarity in their looks is ironic considering they loathed one another.
For the last half-century I’ve bought just about anything I’ve wanted to wear, following fashion trends through the sixties when I had pale lips, Smokey eyes, big hair, short, short, Empire dresses and a much loved pair of – yes – white vinyl boots. My hair was even bigger in the seventies when I switched to flared jeans paired with a tailor-made tweed jacket with elbow patches and one that was a paisley velveteen with a smartly nipped waist.
By the late seventies I’d developed a split-fashion personality: a still casual at-home look and a television personality look. As a Boston reporter and news anchor for ten years, my wardrobe was defined by what our set looked like from year-to-year, and whether I was paying for my own clothes or had a clothing contract. The latter restricted me to one or two stores favored that year by our constantly changing news directors – rarely by what made sense for a news anchor to wear. Over time, that wardrobe played a small part in my growing desire – nay, my need – to leave television. Who was that cheery woman in all that makeup and big, bright smile? Surely not me.
My post-television wardrobe was influenced by a series of jobs that required office wear that worked in the South where, in the eighties and nineties, there were places women did NOT wear slacks. I loved the game. I knew that when I went out with Atlanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson (I was his press secretary and speechwriter) I’d better be in a skirt or dress and heels or I’d get the look. In every job that required making fundraising calls, I always wore my shortest skirt and my highest heels. This was an important part of my presentation since virtually every person I solicited was a man. I know; shameful behavior.
When I was hired as a communications director for the 1996 Olympic Committee someone forgot to tell me that Billy Payne, the CEO, didn’t want women at the director level and above to wear pants. Billy is now head of Augusta National, which tells you how he reacted the first time I bounced into his office for a meeting wearing slacks and a long flowing robe-like top. He said, “What are you wearing?”
I assumed he was asking about my top, not my slacks, so I explained that it was an Indian print that I’d found in a shop in Greenwich Village. By then his eyes had glazed over. It was only later as I recounted our conversation to a friend that she told me it wasn’t the top he was referring to but my audacity at wearing pants in his presence. He must have gotten over it because I was his primary speechwriter for more than five years. Gradually as our staff expanded beyond anyone’s control, other women directors began wearing pants. By that time we all had bigger problems than what the women on the Olympic staff were wearing.
By the time I was ready to end my career, I was working with one of the best- known actresses and activists in the world. Appearing in public with Jane Fonda has its own life-force, but what one wears when one shows up at a fundraising meeting at the Ford Foundation or at a gala populated by women who’ve spent a lot of time and money dressing to meet Jane does require a certain attitude. Fortunately, by the time Jane and I met we were in our sixties and our respective styles were set. My goal was to not compete with her visually, but to not lose sight of who I was either. Strangely, it was easy and I enjoyed our pairing.
One of my favorite moments with Jane was leaving a meeting on the top floor of the Georgia State House. We were both in skirts and high heels. Standing together at the top of a set of high, broad marble stairs, we looked at each other – aghast at what faced our challenged feet – and both whipped off our shoes and bounced happily down each flight.
When I had time to dream of my future without a day job I thought mostly about what kind of small house we could afford to buy, but I also thought about what I would wear in this new life. Who was I, after three decades of working in jobs that, in some way, dictated my wardrobe? Once I could wear what I wanted most of the time, what would I choose? I was out of my mind with excitement at the very notion of such freedom.
The house choice was settled quickly and easily and, after a decade, I love our small, easy to care for house as much now as when I walked in the door the first time.
My retirement closet has been a more complicated and expensive issue.
I’ve loved discount shopping since the first Marshall’s opened in my hometown on Boston’s North Shore. I love consignment shopping and I love Nordstrom. And, I love shopping online. I own nearly no dresses though I like the concept, but I have coats for every occasion, including a genuine Spanish theater cape that was made for me as a gift, and a Japanese Hanten firemen’s coat once owned by Versace. It, too, was a gift. I also love scarves and shawls. Did I mention handbags and shoes?
I enjoy wearing and owning beautiful things and I take good care of them. I’ve never thrown my clothes on the floor, I air them before hanging them back in the closet, always button the top button so the garment hangs correctly and generally act as owner/curator. I enjoy taking out a piece I’ve not worn for a while and trying it on and simply admiring it.
The downside of this love is that I’ve always bought too much – though that is relative, isn’t it? The problem is a matter of economics: I’ve bought too much of a non-renewable resource for my life circumstances. And that belief comes with its attendant guilt. I’ve certainly read articles and heard interviews about shopping addictions and will cop to having what I’m hoping is a mild form of it. I do get a hit of pleasure when I know I’ve gotten a serious bargain. I’m thrilled when I find that “perfect” white blouse that will go with everything. And who can’t use another pair of black pants?
Recently, I’ve been cherry picking among philosophers, all male, to think again about causality, determinism and free will. From Cartesian dualism, through Schopenhauer and on to Camus and Sartre and the “nature of happiness,” looking for ideas on how and why we stop doing things we’ve been doing for decades. We know we are capable of making these dramatic changes because we all know someone who’s stopped smoking or left a bad marriage. But how deep must the motivation be for the change to happen?
We’ll see if it is possible because over the last year I’ve slowly reduced the number of new things I’ve bought. I’ve treated myself like my own recalcitrant child and returned items bought in passionate haste, and I’ve been getting rid of clothing I don’t wear enough, don’t really need and that no longer flatters me – if those pieces ever did – and that can be better used by someone else.
Last year I sold half-dozen handbags and a dozen pieces of clothing that had no business in my closet or my life. My closet and I are both feeling freer and looser, but we have a long way to go.
Part of this process is thinking anew about what I want to look like and what I do look like as I move toward my mid-seventies. When I was a young woman it was about who was looking at me. Now, it is about reflecting that I feel good physically and emotionally. Looking good and feeling good have gradually joined hands as I’ve aged.
In this new frame of mind, I approach my closet differently. I ponder less and toss faster. Rather than assuming there is something I must have to augment something I already have that isn’t quite working, I look to see what I can pair in new ways. The really good news is that I’m now bolder and more creative. Gone from me are those mostly silly fashion rules that held my generation as tightly as those girdles we tossed in the sixties.
At 72 dressing is more fun than it’s ever been.
Lyn May is WWN's editor and webmama