Fashion-wise, my life is an interesting synthesis. Clothes were not very important to me growing up. In fact, I recall distinctly that being enormously unstylish was a great way to drive my sister nuts. There was one particular hideous orange shirt I wore for years because she couldn’t stand it. In junior high one of my favorite outfits was an ankle length black skirt (with black keds from Payless — I don’t remember the sock color and blanche at the thought because I don’t think I owned black socks), a white turtle neck and my volleyball windbreaker (black, with white and green writing) over it. Stylin’. Through high school I regularly wore the light blue sweatshirt with puff paint displaying a winter scene with a dominant element being St. Bernards rescuing skiing penguins. It had a little plastic penguin charm, if memory serves. Towards the end of high school I started getting fancy with black slacks and jewel-colored silk shirts, and began to wear jewelry like a trumpet pendant. And, well, the trumpet pendant. (Oh Lord, let me have had black socks! Tell me I didn’t wear all this black with white socks!)
Fashion was never very important to me. I liked to dress up and look pretty, but invested hardly any effort or money in doing so, most of the time. I had rather baroque ideas of what pretty was. I generally wore very long skirts, not feeling comfortable that I could pull off/knew how to wear short skirts. I never wore heels or makeup. Anything I did wear, barring outside examples, was liable to be put to the same rigorous use (see also: hiking, tree climbing, river fording) that was my normal activity during those days. Yes, even (or especially?) on dates.
So through the most socially insecure times of life I generally dressed entirely pragmatically, with an emphasis on St. Bernards.
Then I went to college. I met this GUY. Eventually, I figured out this GUY had parents, who lived very far away and therefore weren’t particularly relevant. However, as we got seriouser and seriouser I began to realize that when you get married you get these things called in-laws. Finally, I met my mother-in-law.
Fashion-wise, she was diametrically opposed to where I was. Here I was in baggy jeans and a t-shirt. She was wearing more jewelry than I’d ever owned and was immaculately dressed in something extremely stylish. I seem to recall leopard print. Gradually, oh so gradually, she got to work on me. First it was a few summery dresses from Thailand. Who can say no to summery dresses from Thailand? Then it was some sweaters. They were nice sweaters! Then she helped me out when I needed to clean my closets. Closet cleaning is always easier with someone else.
By the time Grey was born, when she came to visit we were having regular sessions of “What Not To Wear”. She’d bring me an item of clothes that pushed my boundaries a bit. Maybe it hugged where I was used to baggy. Perhaps there were colors that weren’t in my standard palette. Possibly it was a little more stylish than I was used to. And of course, every time she came to visit there was a new piece of jewelry for me. Yeah, I know. I suffer. And she’d point things out. Did I notice how the fit on this dress was baggy at the bust? How about how this one caught at the hip? She wouldn’t let her aged mother out in public in those shoes: why would she let her beautiful daughter-in-law? (All the training is accompanied, I should add, with copious praise.) The clothes got better fitting and more fashionable. The shoe selection got more diverse. The jewelry got bigger.
I started to catch on — to see the fun of wearing things that look good and fit. I learned to match the elements of my increasingly extensive wardrobe together. I figured out what MY style was and communicated it back to my mother-in-law, who promptly helped me focus in on those areas. (For example, I own nothing with leopard print.) I started having fun with it.
Yesterday we went shopping together, and I crossed a milestone. You see, for years I’ve declared all capri pants strictly out of bounds. Why? I’m not entirely sure except that I’d never worn them. But yesterday she found a pair with this really cute embroidery, and urged me to just try it on. What could it hurt? Well, she was right. They’re adorable, comfortable and fit beautifully.
I swore I’d never wear capris. Never say never.
I still think I’m in the sweet spot. I now know enough about fashion to be able to present myself in the way I choose, and to feel really good about how I look most mornings. But I also still have that early sensibility, of practical over fashionable. I don’t value myself or others based on clothing, or the state of a manicure. I don’t feel unsightly because I haven’t put makeup on. I’m not dependent on my external appearance in order to feel ok about myself — I know that’s not what matters. But neither do I rule out the entire arena of clothing as something other people do.
PS – In case you love the original jewelry my mother-in-law has made for me, she does sell her work. Here’s a gallery of some of her recent creations