By Lyn May
Last week a good friend gave me a copy of Margo Jefferson’s new book, Negroland. She had heard Ms. Jefferson speak the night before and was thrilled to learn they had so much in common. But she was especially excited because she dresses the way the handsome woman on the book’s cover was dressed – in an elegant suit and white gloves. It’s a good look, but it isn’t my look.
Like most girls and women, black or white, raised in lower, middle or upper-class America in the fifties, I wore a girdle when I had nothing to jiggle and weighed about 120 lbs. I also wore stockings, pants of any kind only in clearly casual circumstances, and hats and gloves when they were expected. On Easter Sunday and funerals, for sure. I was raised to look like a lady, whether I was one or not.
One of the reasons I like this friend is because we are different in some interesting ways, including our personal styles. She drew back in genuine horror when I said I couldn’t wait to get rid of my appropriate little suits when I retired fifteen years ago. I tease her about her “Westchester matron” look, and she is kind enough not to gasp when I wear something she wouldn’t dream of putting on her body.
After she left, as I was putting a blouse in a closet I noticed, taped to the wall, an old Eileen Fisher advertisement I’d cut out not long after retired and moved back to New England where modest and casual dress is expected. I’d clipped it because it was a perfect example of what I hoped to look like in my first non-work wardrobe in many years. It worked for me because, over the next decade as I worked from home, had few meetings that required stockings or high heels, my look evolved.
An invitation to model for a wonderful designer in Hartford, Connecticut, whose esthetic was strongly Japanese-influenced, helped shape my style. My soft, mostly unstructured look meant enough to me that when I moved back to Georgia a few years ago, I carefully unstuck my advertisement and put it up again in my new home. I was particularly fond of this picture of the wonderful Carmen de Lavallade dancing away. I hoped that's what I looked like leaving.
For those of us vain enough to care what we look like when we dress, the changes in fashion over the last decade have been fascinating. I’ve liked that fashion has moved toward me, and more and more clothing is soft and swishy. I think it’s gotten easier to dress our aging bodies – for those of us who consider our age when we dress ourselves. Since there are fewer rules, I guess it may be harder for some of us to know what to wear where since people in any public place are likely to be dressed in everything from sequins to sweats, and even in sequined sweats.
I think it is all great fun and, thanks to consignment stores and passalongs from friends, it can be done on a budget.
I do get cranky with people who seem to make no effort at all to look like something. Yes, I’ve heard the “I need to be comfortable” argument, as though the only clothing that allows for comfort are baggy sweats and a T-shirt with writing on it.
I don't believe caring about what you put on your body is frivolous. It’s one of the ways we communicate. What we wear helps people know who we are and how we might feel on any particular day.