all of the selves we Have ever been
For me, the COVID years were a fall from grace. There was the forced social isolation and the unplanned early retirement. Those seemed like momentous changes at the time, but I adjusted. Turns out, the long-term damage was to my wardrobe. While I never caught the virus or lost my sense of smell, I did suffer a complete loss of taste. Now, I am trying to come to my fashion senses.
With minimal social contact during the pandemic, I cared little about my style or about the frequency with which I did the wash. Laundry happened whenever the fabric freshener ran out and my clothes marched themselves to the washing machine and pounded on the lid. My COVID wardrobe consisted of six pairs of sweat pants, an equal number of oversized t-shirts, and a pair of walking shoes. My back-up system for improvising consisted of an emergency body bag in basic black and a stash of single-ply toilet paper stockpiled when the good stuff disappeared from the shelves.
Now, nearly four years out, the body bag and the single-ply toilet paper are in pristine condition, but I notice that some of my clothes are becoming see-through in should-not-be-seen places. “It’s time,” I tell myself, “time to put COVID behind me and get a real life and put on some real grown-up clothes. I officially declare the pandemic over and myself in recovery.” I dig deep into the closet in the spare bedroom to see what survived my bouts of clean-it-out-and-give-it-away during the heat of the pandemic. I try on some of my pre-COVID wardrobe, some of my old office styles. The look staring back at me in the mirror says “stuffed sausage.” Not a good look on a vegan.
Because I haven’t shopped in more than four years, I have no idea what is in style. My COVID fashion statement read “survivor.” Now, in the fall of 2023, Vogue tells me that it’s all about “monochromatic tailoring,” and “the sultry return of lingerie-inspired looks.” What? Tailoring?! I haven’t worn a fitted waistband in 15 years, and I am guessing they haven’t seen my lingerie. It pre-dates COVID and is sturdier than a suit of armor. I am hoping that’s what the editors mean when they report that metallics are in style this season. Reading further down the list, somewhere between cinched blazers and kitten heels, I see that “90s nostalgia” is in as well, and I think, “Good Lord! I was pregnant for most of the 90s.” When I get to “denim-on-denim” I look over my shoulder and check my privacy settings.
Appalled and thinking it’s not too late to become a cloistered nun, I see some terms I can reckon with: “oversized clothing” and “relaxed effortless style.” Well, well, well, it’s true: everything old is new again! I repeat the magic words: oversized, relaxed, effortless, and presto chango, I’m back in the game. It appears the key to fashion is patience.
I am reinforcing my well-worn sweatpants with all that toilet paper, and just in case I am invited to a more elegant event requiring a runway look, I am holding onto the black body bag with the metallic zipper. I’ll dress it up by wearing a pineapple on my head. As they say at Vogue, “there are so many way to sprinkle a bit of magic into our seasonal wardrobes…and turn heads.”
Oh, yes, there is…oh, yes, I will!
This short story is dedicated to my dear friend known to all as Aunt Jean. She is by God-given nature, the funniest storyteller I know. She has a magical pair of slightly bent glasses that see the entire world tilted toward the hilarious. This story is a potpourri of the characters and happenings from her actual lived life. I played with the ending. Thanks for sharing your stories, Aunt Jean, and for a lifetime of friendship, a friendship that rose to every occasion, especially in the worst of times. You belong with Erma Bombeck in the Hysterical Society.
Oh, how Mary wanted a lace mantilla for Christmas! Canon Law required Catholic women to cover their heads in church, and the lace mantilla was quickly becoming all the rage among the church-going women in Mary’s rural parish in the winter of 1960.
At first, Mary was subtle in her request. At mass on Sundays she would whisper to her husband Rudy, “Oh, look at the new mantilla Jenny’s husband brought her from Spain! And doesn’t Agnes look lovely in her lace mantilla? Just like the Blessed Mother.”
Rudy didn’t even look up. He owned and operated the local slaughterhouse and was first and foremost a butcher. His mind was always busy calculating the price of livestock and anticipating the special orders from his regular customers. Which cut of beef would Mrs. Shelton want for Christmas this year? She was always trying recipes for dishes he had never heard of. What on earth was cordoned blue chicken, and why was this woman taking cooking advice from a child named Julia? And that Davis family with its eight children always peppering him for the meat ends and asking for sale prices…
Mary knew that Rudy worked hard and was a good provider. She accepted his role as the breadwinner, but, darn it, she was a partner in the family business as well as the bread maker and the one responsible for the family’s salvation. She’s the one who herded them off to church on time, him with starched shirt collar and folded cloth handkerchief, the twins in matching petticoats with starched netting that gave their Sunday dresses a fashionable flare. All Mary wanted was a lace mantilla. And she wanted to wear it to Christmas mass.
Mary got a mixer.
“What’s this?” she asked Rudy
“But I didn’t want tools, I wanted a lace mantilla!”
“I don’t know nothing about lace mantillas.” That was the end of discussion. Mary knew it was pointless to persist. Unless she was talking about a cow’s innards, Rudy’s response was about as deep as he went.
Not one to give up on such an important need, Mary scheduled herself an “appointment.” “You will have to take the twins with you to the livestock auction. I have an appointment.”
Rudy did not even ask. While he could butcher an animal with his bare hands, he feared the details of a woman’s “appointment.” And so, on the day of the auction, with Mary already out of the house, Rudy put the twins into the back of the pickup truck and headed for the silent livestock auction. He hoped to get there early, scout out the livestock, and grab some good seats up front where the children might be entertained by the action.
That evening when Rudy and the girls returned home from the auction, Mary was already at their farm completing evening chores. She had a new lace mantilla.
Rudy had a new jackass. The winning bid had been made when one of the twins raised her hand to slap her bored and rambunctious sister upside the head. The girls named their new purchase “Taffy the Jackass.” The minute Taffy the Jackass bucked her way off the truck it became clear the animal was deranged. She immediately began terrorizing the family and the neighborhood. Her size and strength threatened the lives of small children, toppled fences, and trampled gardens. She ran away frequently and refused to come home. The county sheriff became a frequent visitor. The term “Taffy Pull” took on new meaning in this picturesque farm community. It consumed every spare minute of family time and some of the neighbors’--pulling and coaxing the stubborn jackass from one spot to another.
As all good Catholic mantilla-wearing women do, Mary feared that Taffy the Jackass was punishment for wanting something for herself—for coveting that lace mantilla. Humbled by a jackass, Mary had seen the light and done her penance. Now, Taffy the Jackass had to go.
A neighbor woman who also wanted a lace mantilla agreed to take Taffy if Mary would throw the lace mantilla into the deal. The neighbor knew Taffy, and so without shame or guilt, Mary sealed the deal. Gone was the lace mantilla. Better yet, gone was Taffy. Peace was restored, and so was Mary’s soul.
The next Christmas Mary requested nothing. And Rudy didn’t ask. He gave Mary some white doilies his mother had crocheted. Mary accepted the doilies, put one on her head and wore it to church. This move by Mary is said to have launched the chapel cap craze that continued until 1983 when the Catholic Church finally dropped the head covering requirement for women.
I stood in the check-out line behind a young woman dressed in rainbow-colored leggings. The leggings were so tight that I’m pretty sure the woman had a beauty mark on her right butt cheek. I felt a little awkward with this view of the woman, so I tried to avert my gaze. The outfit seemed to say, “Look!” but it felt wrong to see so much. Shifting my eyes to the phone charger display, I wondered, what is the correct reaction to this new wardrobe phenomenon? Envy? Acceptance? Disdain?
I decided to go with discomfort. Even my own skin doesn’t fit that tight. If I were I to try to stuff myself into a pair of those leggings, it would be like trying to get rising dough to stay in a teacup or a helium balloon to stay in a paper bag. There would be a lot of fruitless pushing and punching going on. Regardless of the self-flagellation, something would be left hanging out, and it would be a lot more than a beauty mark.
I have to accept that I am of an age when the term “skin-tight” no longer applies to me. I have been voted off that island and sent to the place where what is baggy is me. Any clothes that fit like my skin need to sag and be permanently wrinkled. The only starring role appropriate for my look is that of a Shar Pei.
I have a very beautiful and dear friend who hates shopping. As a matter of fact, she doesn’t even call her pursuit of new clothing shopping. She will report in her discouraged way: “I went out to try to buy something.” My friend is a slender, fit, and active woman who prefers soft sweatpants and loose flannel shirts. She, like so many of us gals, survived girdles, garter belts, underwire, mini-skirts, hip-huggers, and platform shoes. We were the generation that grew to womanhood watching older women burn their bras. Perhaps it was all of that Lycra on fire that led to the deterioration of the ozone layer and our minds, but we got the message. We’re all about comfort now. Bring back the moo moo!
But style shifts aren’t the issue. No, the real culprit in this fashion evolution is spandex. It has turned underwear into outwear. Spandex has spread faster than the coronavirus and infected everything we wear. It is like the COVID of cloth. We are being embalmed in our active wear. Please! Give me some distance, some breathing room.
I am amazed that some people who object to wearing a mask will stuff themselves into clothing made of 98% spandex. Folks who won’t take a life-saving vaccine consider better living through chemistry to be the laboratory-created fibers that stretch up to five times their original length. DuPont started cooking this stuff up back in the 1950s along with a stockpile of forever chemicals.
Does that mean leggings are here to stay? Maybe not. Things do change. After all, spandex was the replacement for rubber in girdles. A friend who was a flight attendant back in the 1960s tells me that even a stick-thin stewardess was required to wear a rubber girdle as part of the uniform. The only upside was that it protected her backside from being pinched by inappropriate male passengers. Today, if a man were to grab a woman’s spandexed bottom and release quickly, the woman would be rocketed into space without the wings. But as the commercials promise, spandex will hold its shape even when we don’t.
From my point of view, it’s not the leggings; it’s the spandex that is the real enemy of the people. No wonder folks are so miserable and full of complaint. We’re all clothed in fabric stretched too thin. Life has enough pressure, now our clothes are squeezing us too. I say, “Loosen up!” You don’t find the peace and love crowd wearing spandex. Jesus and his followers wore loose, flowing robes and comfortable sandals. Other holy men and women have followed suit.
The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” a sign that you’ve lost control of your life. Sure, Karl, nothing says “I’m in control” like being bound with elastic and scheduled for labiaplasty. Going forward, I think I will take my fashion advice from the grand designer. I’m going with the Jesus-look. Fortunately, the one item of clothing I own that contains absolutely no spandex is my bathrobe. Depending on the wind speed, you may be seeing more of me.