Monday, March 1, 2010

Dressed to the Gills

One of my earliest memories had such an impact on me that it's retained its crystal-clear vibrancy down through the many years since it occurred some time in the very early '60s. My parents had taken us to the Maine sea coast -- a sixty-mile drive from our home in a small town in the central part of the state -- and we ventured out onto a long pier. This was unusual, as my mother liked to go places but wasn't so keen on actually letting us do anything once we arrived. I guess she felt it was too hard keeping track of all six of us, so often after a long drive that was likely to have resulted in at least one of us getting horribly car sick, we would sit and stare at the scenery through the windshield as though viewing a drive-in movie. Then we'd turn around and go home.

Anyway, as we ventured out on that wharf, we came upon a small crowd. At its center a young woman with short curly blonde hair was sawing the head off a freshly-caught 600-pound tuna. The incident stayed with me all these years, not because of the amazing size and shape of the fish or the gore pouring out of its innards or the rust that speckled the saw. It made an impact on my four-year-old self because the woman was wearing blue jeans.

It's hard to believe that in the span of one person's life what passes for acceptable fashion could change so completely. As far back as the '30s women like Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball had been flouting convention with their slim, tailored slacks, but even decades later in my early childhood skirts and dresses for women were still the norm. At about the same time, people spoke of Mary Tyler Moore's signature pegged slacks and toreador pants as though she had personally redefined the look of the suburban wife and mother, and in a way she'd made such a visual impact that she had; I was so young I confused MTM with Jacqueline Kennedy, the true trend setter of the time, and whose husband didn't trip over hassocks when he entered their living room. My own mother wore dresses until her fifties, when varicose veins took their toll and she finally realized pants were easier anyway.

Since that long-ago day at the coast our society has weathered a lot of cultural change and churn that sped up the evolution of modern fashion. The hippies had us all wearing floppy bell bottoms and gauzy Indian shirts and Nehru jackets, which was mirrored in a more casually-tailored business dress, which then evolved into the hideous excesses of the '70s -- cuffed flaired plaid pants and double-breasted suits, ties as wide as flounders, and chunky women's shoes like hooves. Soon fashion was reflecting the New Wave movement with skinny suits and skinny ties, on and on through shoulder pads and power ties and acid wash, until the last truly fashion-killing epoch of the dot com boom, when grown men began wearing shorts and sandals ("mandals") to the office like overfed, idiot toddlers. They even rode scooters.

That last strata of the fashion ages has set into cultural limestone and may never be chipped away. My closets are filled with beautiful clothes, but I tend to rotate the same sets of jeans and t-shirts and sweaters, and on the rare occasion that I wear real trousers, shoes that aren't sneakers, a shirt with a collar, and a nice jacket or blazer people ask me if I have a job interview or, worse, glare at me on the street as though I'm a source of riches to be had for the mugging.

I often think that if you took a random, middle-class person from, say, 1940 and set him down just about anywhere in the United States of 2010, he'd be appalled not only by the extreme casualness but the lack of self reflected in the sloppy t-shirts and baggy shorts. It's inconceivable to us to imagine a world of hats and gloves, of suits and ties, and yet newsreels attest that generations of people garbed themselves in ways that mattered to them. Clothes are, after all, an expression of our self-value; they give clues to who we are and who we think we are. And though much is said and written about our obesity epidemic, I truly believe that if people took some degree of pride in how they dressed they'd be more likely to manage their bodies so that they could properly outfit them. How can a nation of billowing, midriff-baring tattooed yahoos get its act together to maintain a functional society, let alone cure AIDS, halt global warming or achieve peace?

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