The Evolution of a Personal Style Enthusiast
How My Glad Rags Turned to Sad Rags doing "The Sugarfoot Rag”
Physical Fitness and a passion for Personal Style are two of the driving forces in my adult life, but I wasn’t born with a particular talent for either.
As a kid (and by kid, I mean anything up to age 42, and after this I’ll let you know), I was tall and uncoordinated, clumsy, and generally lacking a good handle on the nature of my body’s spatial relationship to nearby objects and people. Even now, I often tip over without warning or provocation, and frequently underestimate the size of my hips and bump into stuff.
From a very early age, my mom encouraged, yea, begged, me to take dance lessons. She enthusiastically proffered ballet and tap (but not jazz - too sexy), and often have I regretted not heeding her wishes. But after a summer of lazy afternoons at our beach house, lounging in my Grandmother’s abundant lap, eating Bugles and watching the 1976 Olympics, developing a mad girl crush on Nadia Comăneci as she scored her perfect 10, I was adamant:
“I will have gymnastics.”
Remember flying dreams? I had those, too, but mostly I dreamed of being a gymnast -- swift, lithe, powerful and graceful. In my dreams I could fling myself weightlessly into the air, twist into fabulous whirling shapes, float gently back to earth and stick the landing. I’d throw my chest out and my arms triumphantly skyward, while my fans threw roses.
I also dreamed of looking great in the outfit.
I loved the sporty look, and all the trappings, and wagered that if I dressed the part - embodied the spirit - of an athlete, I might magically come to be one.
My mom signed me up for gymnastics, furnished me with leotards and the pom-pommed footies I insisted were required, and dutifully hauled me to the Buffalo Gymnastics Center at 9 a.m. every Saturday.
The ecstatic sensation of my acrobatic fantasies was so visceral, I always woke believing I had actually moved in that way.
But the reality was quite different.
Week after week, I would engage in a mostly fun, but basically fruitless and sometimes embarrassing hour-long ritual consisting of a group warm-up, followed by me watching as a whole pack of pixies half my size tumbled down the mat executing perfect round-off/back handspring combos. Then they’d wait and watch, bemused, whilst I was “spotted” through a series of thunky walkovers, which I could not come close to performing unassisted. My body felt big and ungainly, like a thing not quite attached to me, like a snowsuit three sizes too large.
But I loved having the excuse to say things like, “Sorry, I can’t come to your slumber party, I have a meet in the morning.” Or, I’m working on thus-and-so, “It’s compulsory.” And every chance I got, I inserted the word “Coach” into conversation, dropping it like the name of some celebrity with whom I was on familiar terms.
“Coach” was a stocky man in his 40s who appeared to have suffered an unfortunate run-in with an Ogilvy Home Perm, and who went about in a pair of white track pants that Richard Simmons himself would have blushed to don.
He was very patient with me.
I was reasonably flexible -- I could do one of the three requisite splits -- and to this day I can still turn a mean cartwheel. But there my abilities ended.
I had no equilibrium to speak of, and was terribly afraid of heights, so the balance beam wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse.
The vault always looked thrilling, but again – heights. Not that I could’ve run fast enough to pick up the speed necessary to be come airborne. Also, I didn’t fancy the whole upside-down bit.
As far as the uneven parallel bars were concerned, I felt sure that if only I could get onto them I’d be able to do all those wonderful Casts and releases, Hip Circles and Giants… but I never had the chance to find out because mounting thwarted me; my hips would not Kip for love or money.
And then there was The Floor Exercise. The holy grail of flying dreams. One day, Coach sat me down and said, bluntly, but kindly, as if he were delivering a terminal diagnosis, “A good tumbler needs two things: strength and spring. Strength can be built, but spring is natural. You have it or you don’t. You have no natural spring.”
Wait. What are you saying? If that were true, how did I win the first grade jump rope contest? Fifty-four uninterrupted rope skips -- “pepper” style, not with the little cheat hop in between! And let me tell you, they had to stop me there, because I coulda’ gone on all day, brother, but I’d already beat Hannah Dawson by 9 jumps, and she’s a bonafide competitive gymnast. So there.
I came back from the water fountain one Saturday after practice and found Coach in quiet conversation with my mother, who was nodding sympathetically, her brow furrowed. I‘m not sure what transpired, but I didn’t sign up again after that.
My whole family showed up to my final meet of the term, and clapped ferociously as I walked up and down the lowest balance beam twice, then dismounted with a cartwheel. Stuck the landing, too.
And that was the end of gymnastics. We went to Dairy Queen and celebrated.
I didn’t fare much better in gym class at school.
We mostly played team sports, and since I was klutzy and spring-challenged and distrustful of any fast moving object, I didn’t take home any MVP trophies. In 4th grade I had a banner year, receiving 2nd place in the Bike Rodeo - four basic skills that I practiced in the library parking lot for months - and, most improbably, 2nd place in the High Jump on field day. (Take that, Coach!) I must have had Froot Loops for breakfast that day. They were the only two sports ribbons I ever got in school.
Yet, for a long time, I somehow remained blissfully oblivious to the depth of my failings in Physical Education. I was, above all, a good student, always eager to please; I played sports willingly, if tentatively; I certainly deserved an A for effort, and I frequently had a fair amount of fun. Sure, I could see that there were others who ran faster, threw harder, or who could climb the rope and ring the bell, but I didn’t really understand that it mattered in any macro-level academic, social, or life sense.
So imagine my bewilderment one Friday afternoon in October, during Silent Reading Period in Mrs. Palmer’s 5th grade class, when Mr. Johnson, the gym teacher, appeared at the door and summoned me.
Apparently it had been decided that since I could read on something like a high school level, a more constructive use of my Friday afternoons would be to get tutored in gym.
We had recently taken the semi-annual New York State Physical Fitness test -- Strength: sit-ups, Speed: running around cones, Agility: sashaying back and forth across painted lines, and Endurance: squat thrusts, (now inexplicably renamed “Burpees,” as if that’s less of a PR nightmare). Out of a possible 10, I had scored a 4.
Damn Russian judge.
I, and about five other kids, one of whom was in a wheelchair, were to receive extra training each week in these vital life skills, in hopes of doing better on the same test next spring.
There was something about the character of these proceedings -- the intimate group, the closed gym door, the hasty and hushed discussion that followed my extradition from Reading period -- that suggested that either a) the gym teacher was a pervert (he was not) or b) there was something inherently shameful about being tutored in gym.
I think the whole spectacle was genuinely intended to bolster my athletic confidence, but really it just clarified for me why I was rarely among the first round draft picks for Steal the Bacon. And though these sessions were private, if you don’t think that word of being tutored in gym travels fast among 10-year olds, well, you don’t know the meaning of laughing stock.
But every year during elementary school, deep in a five-month Buffalo winter that precluded tennis, softball or track (thank God), there was one redeeming unit in physical education -- a sport…er… physical discipline…er… activity at which I excelled.
Square dancing was right in my sweet spot. Little coordination is required, enthusiasm counts for everything, and being a quick study doesn’t hurt.
Oh, my disdain for those pupils who couldn’t master the Allemande Left or the Dixie Grand, let alone put the two in sequence. Not for lack of bodily ability, mind you, but because they simply couldn’t keep the moves straight in their heads. Face your corners, square your sets! Left hand, right elbow, left hand. Just memorize it, you morons!
I was in my element, and it was so much fun. A sturdy and speedy swing–your-partner-yesiree almost gave me the euphoric feeling of flight in my gymnastic dreams.
And this was gym class! For four blessed weeks!
And then came a grand announcement.
There was to be... an All School Square Dance Open House Competition Jamboree Extravaganza.
At the end of the unit, each gym class would participate in a heat. The winners from each class would go to the finals –- (Holy Bella Karolyi! “Invitationals!”) -- a 6 pm performance for parents and teachers, of square dances by the crème de la crème of every grade, at the end of which one girl and one boy would win an award. And then at 7 p.m. the rest of the school could come and dance just for fun. And it would all be followed by that high water mark of primary school occasions: The Ice Cream Social.
This was my chance! I would claim my rightful place as a physical being of formidable prowess, clear my besmirched name, and take home a trophy I'd never otherwise win. And by Jupiter, I was going to look good doing it. For inside this clumsy, flat footed, earthbound “4” was a rhinestone cowgirl to be reckoned with, and even at the tender age of ten, I understood that if I was going to summon this secret superself -- call forth the latent Jenny that could dance, win at something in gym, take home a trophy – it would require…
My mom sewed me a tiered circle skirt of navy blue and white gingham that spun out like a golf umbrella when I twirled, and a little navy blue bolero with white trim. Of course, this was in Buffalo in February, so she made me wear it with a turtleneck and fuzzy tights, but it still worked.
They say God is in the details – which everyone knows is just a boring word for accessories -- so I tried to parlay this occasion into a trip to Shoe Town to buy a pair of saddle shoes. I struck out though, because the only ones they had in my size were brown-on-tan (as if anyone would want saddle shoes in that combination), so I had to wear my sneakers.
My pièce de résistance, though, was a cowboy hat borrowed from my kid sister’s Halloween costume a couple years back. It didn’t fit on my head, over my puffy hair. Now I regretted having cut my hair into a Dorothy Hamill in a futile attempt to wear the feathered style; I wished I had back the long braids I had recently lopped off -- they'd look so much better with the cowgirl hat. But no matter; the hat hung around my neck by a red rope with a barrel button slider, and bobbed jauntily along to the music when I Skipped to My Lou. I didn’t even mind that it threatened to get hooked on my partner’s Do-Si-So and strangle me to death, because I looked fine.
This outfit plus my mad skills? Outta my way, dumb jocks. You bitches just met your match.
The night before my class’ competition. I lay in bed, sleepless with excitement.
When at last I drift off, I dream of dancing The Virginia Reel before a sold out house. My square dance partner… who is this boy? Not an actual boy I know from school, but a worthy partner drummed up by my subconscious. As happens in dreams, his image is shifty and slippery – I catch him only in passing glances. Skinny, ruddy, a little shy, with just a touch of the Howdy Doody about him; a 10-year old heterosexual boy who not only enjoys square dancing, but who, I can feel from the firm hook of his elbow when we swing our partners, is inexorably drawn to both my unique variety of athleticism, and my fashion sense. He finds me, in fact, irresistible, and ogles me goofily when we Bow to Your Partner. The gym air is electric. The music swells to a plucky climax and I finish the dance with a twirl of my skirt and a cheeky flip of the cowgirl hat… maybe even a wink… too much? The square dance equivalent of sticking the landing. Sweaty and flushed, beaming broadly, I thrust out my turtlenecked torso and throw my arms into the air. My parents, friends, and those backstabbing fools that made fun of me for being a PE flunky look on in wonder and envy as the gym teacher not only applauds but whispers in my ear that I’m his star student and actually apologizes for having misunderstood me. As I reach for my trophy, I get this tingly feeling all over, and realize that I’m still holding the clammy hand of the mystery boy. I think, “Golly! I don’t even now his name!” I turn and flash him my winningest smile, as if to say, “Howdy, pardner. Mighty fine 'Spin the Top.' Ya’ll wanna go git an ice cream sundy?” But just as I try to look him in the eye, he vanishes like a vapor of tween boy sweat, and I’m left clutching the trophy in one arm, thin air in the other, thinking, “Who was he…?”
A chilling thought calls to me as if from far away. What? What’s that you say? I startle out of sleep, and the nice tingly feeling turns instantly to goose bumps.
Oh, holy 'Do Paso.' There’s a hitch. A fly in the 'Shoo-fly.'
Who will I dance with?
In my fantasy, I had not factored in this crucial, unresolved point, nor the barbaric ritual by which partners were chosen in PE.
We would line up shoulder to shoulder along the wall, boys at one end of the gym, girls at the other. When Mr. Johnson blew the whistle, one gender would run as fast as they could across the gym and grab a partner from the line of the opposite sex. No backs! On Tuesdays, the girls would pick the boys, and on Thursdays, it was the boys turn to pick the girls. Not only was there always a mad dash and a noisy crush for certain boys and certain girls, of which, needless to say, I was never one, but the fastest runners, the best athletes, always had the pick of the litter simply because they got there first. Even in square dancing the sporty types had the advantage. It was so unfair.
What day was this? Wednesday? Wednesday! And the open house is this Friday! Tomorrow, the day of the qualifiers, is a Thursday. Boys pick girls. Oh no. Think. Think!
I tried to console myself thus: I may be chosen last for team sports, but given the high stakes nature of this game, what kind of moron wouldn’t pick me -- who knows the calls by heart like Bible verses, who dances with skill and flair, and who’s dressed in her Hee-Haw finest?
I had no B-plan, and no time to strategize. It was out of my hands.
Thursday. Gym class. I’m in my pretty costume. No one else has dressed the part. They’re all in sneakers and corduroys and polo shirts. Some girls stare at my outfit, and whisper, and I think how jealous they must feel.
No one except me seems nervous. You’d think we were lining up for a regular old game of kickball. We wait, backs against the wall, for the whistle. I’m on the left about five girls from the end of the line. I jockeyed for one of the coveted center spots, but naturally, being neither quick nor aggressive, I’d been relegated to the wings to await my fate, while Jill, Krissie, Nicole, Megan, Holly hold the high ground.
I stare across the gym and desperately scan the line of boys. The mystery boy from my dream is nowhere to be found. There’s Scott, Ryan, Rick, Dave… the big men on campus, the kick ball kings. Out of my league. Not a chance. I see Kevin, Mark… only okay as dance partners, but they think they’re hot shit, so I’ll be way down the pick list for them.
The whistle blows, and here they come, like they’re running with the bulls.
It all happens so fast.
Certain kids pair off immediately, namely the ones who are already kissing on the playground after school, while I’m home watching Little House. One girl cries and pulls another girl’s hair for being chosen by the boy she likes.
No one has even looked my way, but center field is thinning now and they’re starting to make their way out toward the flanks. I hold my breath. We’re seconds away from a verdict.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see, to my left, a lone boy. Buddy. He’s a big, cumbersome kid, with an intractable mass of curly dishwater hair, and sleepy eyes. A sweet, shy, lonely child, awfully young for his age, kind of dreamy and clueless. He’s another one of the 5th graders being held hostage in remedial PE on Friday afternoons. A boy who, through no fault of his own, stands exactly zero chance of being socially accepted in grade school. The kind of kid that as a parent, you wish you could wrap in your arms and reassure, tell him he’s perfect just as he is… And that as a kid, your recoil from like eczema or lima beans.
Buddy has started at the end of the line and is indiscriminately working his way along, girl by girl. He asks each one to be his partner and is each time summarily denied. Sometimes before he even speaks the girl shouts “No!” or even “Ew.”
Oh my gosh, he’s coming. He’s almost to me. Oh please, please, someone say yes to him. Or some other boy, please, choose me first. Andy! Todd! Do me a solid, dudes!
Because I know in my heart of hearts that if Buddy asks me to be his partner I cannot, will not decline. I tell myself, it’s easy, just say, "No, thank you.” Today of all days, Jenny, look out for number one! This is your moment! Everything you’ve worked for, wished for, dressed for. But I can’t help it. I feel sorry for him, as I feel sorry for myself – gangly, uncoordinated and unsure why I come across as a little weird.
Tears are rising, even as I smile maniacally, trying to keep up my act, and not wanting to smear the little constellation of cowgirl-chic freckles I've dappled on my face with brown eye pencil.
Buddy approaches me, points, and says, “Will you be my partner?” And I hear myself saying, “Okay.”
I skulk across the gym with my fingers squashed in Buddy’s sweaty, outsized hand, practically dragging me. We take our places in a square that seems to have been intentionally front-loaded with the utterly incompetent in order to thwart my ambitions. No one can even find their spot or figure out which way to face. I mean if someone was trying to dash all my hopes, this was the way to do it.
By contrast, the square next to us is entirely populated by hot-shot athletic kids with advanced gross motor skills and cool attitudes. Kids who act like the square dancing competition is no big deal! Or even - hah! - uncool. They make a mockery of it with their ditzy screw-ups. The centerpiece of their square, of course, is Steve and Krissie, the jockiest of the jocks, the most waggish of the wiseacres. Their square has all the talent and none of the heart.
And then I spy a silver lining in my situation.
Perhaps the sheer doofy ineptitude of my group will make me look good. Perhaps I will shine all the brighter against this grim backdrop. Yes. I will elevate them. I will take a deep breath and lead.
We warm up with some Promenades. (Please. Don’t waste my time.)
Then there’s a couple practice rounds, dances I could do with a hangover and two broken legs.
And then it’s Go Time. Each square is to be observed individually for one dance.
One square goes. Then another.
Meh. Not bad, but no competition.
Then Steve and Krissie’s group is up. I have to admit, they’re not bad under pressure. She bungles a simple Grand Right & Left, but their California Twirl is undeniably, infuriatingly immaculate. It’s maddening to see they can be so nonchalant and still pull it off. Mr. Johnson smiles and marks his clipboard; they act all chummy with him. I hate them.
And then, at last, it’s our turn.
There is a brief interlude while the record is changed, and Steve and Krissie’s group, relieved of responsibility, starts goofing off, talking and laughing and pushing each other flirtatiously and doing ridiculous dance moves, and immediately everyone else follows suit till the whole gym comes unglued.
I try to stay focused, but I’m vibrating at a shocking frequency. I’m perspiring and the fuzzy tights are itchy. I grin crazily and hop stiffly up and down. The butterflies in my gut are churning things up quite a bit and I’m overcome by the sensation that I may at any moment break wind.
At last, Mr. Johnson calls the room to order and tells us to get ready, but our square is as crumbled as a broken graham cracker, and not half as square.
Mr. Johnson flicks a switch on the turntable and there is an interminable moment of static-y silence while the needle finds its groove. My knees are locked and I can barely feel my sneakered feet. Finally the music scratches to life and Red Foley, in his easy twang, announces…
The Sugarfoot Rag.
Suddenly, like a world class marathon runner breaking the tape at the finish line, I hear only the sound of my own steady breath; in this moment I have laser beam clarity, and absolute charge of my faculties.
Here we go!
“Promenade your lady, to the left you go! Rock to the rhythm on your heel and toe!”
Predictably, Buddy goes right, but I yank him back to the left and make it look like a bit of flair with a swish of my skirt.
That’s ok, little Buddy. I got this.
“Two by two all around the hall, swing your lady then swing them all”
Round and round we go. What I lack in coordination, I make up for in lack of rhythm, but no matter. I have achieved a kind of mechanical letter-of-the-law perfection in these steps, and no one can match me for gusto. To the untrained eye, the effect may be somewhat spastic -- like a droid with a few screws loose and a short in the mother board -- but I feel like I’m dancing with a delight and abandon as intoxicating as a flying dream. This is my Floor Exercise, my round-off-back-handspring-back-handspring-back-layout-stick-the-landing.
Young Buddy is totally lost; he’s just sort of standing there shuffling his big, pigeon-toed feet. But it’s alright now because I’ve taken the lead – as a dance partner, and in the contest -- I’m unstoppable. And in this moment I feel a warmth and compassion toward Buddy, poor lamb. Stick with me, ol’ pal, I got this in the bag.
We’re nearing the end of the number.
“Now One foot, two foot, slew foot drag…. Do a little jig and a zig and a zag!”
What happens next takes place in an instant, in that little infinity between two lines of a song – the last lines, the final, critical dance steps, my big finish…
We’re zigging and zagging, when suddenly, Buddy stops short, freezes. He inhales sharply several times.
I’m dancing like mad, but I’ve got a bead on him.
His head rears back, his eyelids flutter.
Buddy? Stay with me, Buddy. What in hell is happening?
And then, he sneezes. The kind of sneeze that would leave Dr. Seuss at a loss for words.
Buddy looks dazed, like he’s not sure what’s just happened. He stands there and blinks a few times,
And then the call comes - the square dance maneuver that will mean the difference between “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as they said on Wide World of Sports every Sunday afternoon.
Red Foley picks his banjo and trolls, “Swing your honey to the Sugar Foot Rag!”
Swing your partner! This is my best move! The one that shows my skirt in full whirl, the one that feels like flying. Buddy. Buddy! Pull it together, baby! Come back to me. Swing me, sweet Buddy!
He looks around, and I catch his eye. Atta boy!
I hurl myself toward him, right arm outstretched.
He sees me coming and, still reeling from the sneeze, lifts his arm to his face, and wipes his nose on the sleeve of his red hoodie.
Just as the crook of my elbow is about to hook his, I see it:
A mucous-y strand stretches from his elbow to his wrist, and is glistening in the fluorescent gym light. Some of it is clear, like a trail of so much slug slime, but there is a chunk of frank green solid matter at one end. It is a booger of startling proportions.
Time is of the essence. I have not a nanosecond to make a crucial choice. And I know in that moment there is no earthly way I can link arms with Buddy and swing.
I boldly plant my hands on my hips, give my skirt a flick and Do-Si-Do around him. "Yessiree!" I yodel, for cover. Maybe they won’t notice, I think.
I stick the landing, strike a pert pose, and in a final, desperate and ham-fisted act of feigned victory, rip off my cowboy hat and lob it into the air. But being pathologically incapable of catching anything besides a cold, I miss it on descent, and it lands on the kid next to me like a bird plop.
As Barney Rubble once said, in the famous Flintstones fishing episode, “I goofed when I should have gaffed.”
I Bow to My Partner, crestfallen. Buddy seems unaware that anything at all has happened.
My fate is sealed. We are disqualified. Steve and Krissie will represent our class in the finals.
I couldn’t believe it was over. That it had ended like this.
On the school bus that afternoon, some dumbass asked me, “Are you wearing your Halloween costume?”
At home I cried, and refused to attend the following night’s extravaganza.
My mom tried to persuade me that the whole thing was just for fun anyway. “Hold your head high, Jen,” she said. “Go to the dance and have a good time. Show ‘em what you’ve got.”
I was not convinced.
In the end, though, I decided it would be stupid to waste a great outfit.
So Friday night, I put on the skirt and bolero, my sunday school shoes, and knee socks (I got to chuck the tights, as consolation); I arranged the hat, did the freckles.
We arrived just as the competition was ending. Fenton Jones’ mellifluous drawl reverberated eerily down the empty nighttime school hallways from the gymnasium, calling "Turkey in the Straw." I hid in the bathroom and covered my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear Mr. Johnson announcing the trophy winners.
When I heard a general hub-bub, I made my way toward the gym. Music was playing, and people were milling about. Steve and Krissie were there, but they weren’t dancing together, and they hadn’t won the big prize. Buddy wasn’t there. Neither was the mystery partner from my dream.
I squared up with some kids from my grade, and danced a little bit, and Steve, who was actually a really nice kid, asked me sheepishly to be his partner for a round. I danced with him, but I suspected someone had put him up to it, so it felt like a booby prize. I never really got to show my stuff. It wasn't a great turnout; there weren’t that many spectators in the stands, and hardly anyone square danced -- the parents didn’t really seem into it or didn't know how to do it -- so eventually Mr. Johnson turned off the callers and just played some banjo music.
Then we went into the cafeteria and stuffed ourselves with ice cream sundaes. Kids were yelling and laughing and chasing each other around and generally availing themselves of the rare opportunity to run in the halls.
The whole thing was kind of lame, truthfully, and over really quickly.
But that evening, viewed in their proper context, my square dance sartorial choices garnered rave reviews. And I knew they were true. It was a great outfit, and I felt really good in it. A perfect 10, in fact. Just like Nadia.
Practical and Mystical Lessons in Life and Style Learned from my Grandmother
Shortly before I turned three, my grandmother, who always made a marvelously big deal of our birthdays, asked me what I wanted as a gift. I don’t remember this, but apparently, without a moment’s hesitation, I answered, “green shoes.” (I know. Prodigy.)
My grandma spent the next few weeks canvassing the greater Buffalo area for a pair of green shoes for a three-year old girl. None were to be had.
Luckily, my cousin turned up a brilliant pair of bright red clogs of perforated leather with a little white leather heart stitched on, which I adored -- but for years my grandma openly lamented her failure to find my heart’s true desire. She’d shake her head, chuckle ruefully, and say, “Green shoes! GOL!” Which was sort of her Baptist equivalent of “Oy, Vey!”
Christmas eve, my senior in high school –- a period in which my style wavered somewhere between “Dead-head,” “disaffected preppy,” and anything I thought would make me look like I ought to be in a John Hughes film -- my grandma surprised me with a pair of glossy dark forest green calfskin pumps with a green suede flower at the toe. They were gorgeous. I only wore them a few times – the Christmas service at church, a Valentine dance, a few dates in college – because they seemed almost too special. She was so tickled to have fulfilled my wish, if fifteen years late.
In truth, the lovely green shoes were too sophisticated for me at the time, but I wish I had them right this minute. They’d be perfectly in style -- classic, ladylike in a J Crew way. Jena Lyons would be all over them: with rolled jeans, a boyfriend shirt and a leopard jacket? Yes, please. Sadly, my feet, which never tire of growing, are now, after years of walking around New York, in flip-flops, pregnant, two full sizes bigger than they were in high school.
My grandmother worked outside the home, when most women did not. Before she got married and had children, she was a teacher. When her kids were very young she worked in an elegant shop, and later, in a civil service position, doing job placement for the state.
She had the means to have help with childcare and housework, and to buy nice clothes. She was a well-dressed, conservatively stylish woman. She wore structured dresses, make-up and heels. Her dressing table had a large drawer full of lipsticks, and the hall cupboard outside the master bath contained a formidable stash of beauty products, some dating back to roughly the Eisenhower administration.
For some foolish, selfless reason, she gave me carte blanche at her vanity, and I spent every Sunday afternoon after church getting dolled up, and parading around the house in her pumps and scarves, performing songs and made-up monologues in front of the mirror, and interviewing myself for Merv Griffin.
My grandmother had two clothing closets in her bedroom, and a third, across the hall in the mother-in-law suite that my great-grandmother occupied while she was alive.
The closet across the hall housed dresses -- for work, until she retired, and for church well beyond that. It also contained some wonderful coats, including a black suede wrap coat with a silver fox collar that I inherited. (Note: I don’t buy real fur –- I’m a huge fan of faux -- but 50-year old fur inherited from my grandmother I wear without apology).
The first of her two bedroom closets was full of pajamas, robes and slippers. My grandma had wonderful nightclothes. My favorites were two very similar peignoir sets, one in bright orange and one in pale turquoise. It felt so good to climb into bed and snuggle against her -- either at home, in her king size bed while Johnny Carson glowed on TV, or even better, in a bottomed-out twin bed at her beach house on Lake Erie, with the window open and sound of the waves rolling in. The nightgowns fell soft, cool and slippery over her generous, warm bosom. And the peignoirs doubled as very serviceable evening gowns when I was playing dress up, pretending to be on the Lawrence Welk show; I loved the way her scent wafted off of them – Noxema, Shalimar, Secret deodorant… and Starburst Fruit Chews, little bags of which she stashed away in the funniest places, most reliably, her panty hose drawer.
In the closet on the opposite wall, she kept her everyday clothes. On a high shelf within, (and next to, I am sure, a half-eaten tube of Starbursts), was a mason jar full of buttons. When I was bored, she would get it down for me and we’d look through the buttons, sort them, then mix them up and sort them again another way. They had all come off of old dresses, or as extras in a little pouch sewn into the lining of a suit. There were multiples of only a few; most were single. My favorite was a pinkish beige bakelite button with flecks of coral and blue iridescence. There were gold-toned buttons stamped with eagles, black jet with inlaid rhinestones, and tiny silk- or piqué-covered blouse buttons. They were beautiful, but there was something more; to play with them was transporting. Each one had a history -- secret to me, and in many cases already forgotten by my grandma. To a child of the 1970s, an era of corduroy and felt, rickrack and wooden barrel buttons, they were like little emissaries of bygone outfits, imbued with the glamour and ladylikeness of another time.
In her retirement, which began when I was about seven, and right up until she died in the nursing home at 89, my grandmother subscribed to an astonishing number of fashion and lifestyle magazines. I don’t think she read Vogue, or Elle, but recipes in Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, and even Real Simple were dog-eared. I distinctly recall visiting her in her assisted living suite and paging through InStyle and a brand new “W” that featured a huge nude spread, which I took as confirmation that she’d never cracked an issue. I think she only got them because when subscription forms came in the mail she took them to be bills, and paid them.
She was, as I said, stylish, but her style wasn’t about fashion. She wasn’t unfashionable – she shopped at better Buffalo department stores like Hengerer’s, and L.L.Berger’s; stores that had a tearoom and a candy counter with fine chocolates, stores to which one still wore white gloves, not long before I was born. She always dressed elegantly. Rather late in life, though, she adopted a very specific personal style, one which transcended trends, but always looked smart on her – dressed but comfortable, considered but easy, enough variety to stay interesting, but tightly curated.
With her sturdy, curvy build, and ample bust, she wasn’t an easy fit. Once, when I observed that she had several identical dresses hanging in her closet, she explained, “When I find something that fits me well and I like it, why, I buy it in every color!”
The daily style she adopted consisted of stretchy straight-leg pull-on pants in a dark shade, usually black, navy or brown, but sometimes burgundy or dark green, with a silky printed tunic, often in a bright hue, and a long strand of shiny beads knotted at the solar plexus. The necklace knot was ingenious because it looked signature, but served a vital purpose – prevention of the boob-lasso effect.
Form, function, fit -- fabulous.
On Sundays, for church, she continued to wear a dress and heels, until her mid-seventies, when she finally caved and began wearing the pants outfit seven days a week, having finally arrived at the conclusion, I suppose, that God probably didn’t care all that much what you wore to worship… at least not in your dotage.
I didn’t catch on to her laudable style system until much later.
I first had to go through a few regrettable fashion stages, such as a protracted Victorian Moment, which in retrospect looked, at best, more “Little House,” and at worst, more “cult wife.”
But in my thirties, as I began to hone my sense, not only of what I liked, but what looked good on me, and what image I wanted to present, I realized that my grandma had introduced me to the wisdom and beauty of Uniform Dressing — not just as a matter of convenience and simplicity -- but as a way of developing and embracing your own look, and letting your “flaws” work for you.
Knowing what you wear well and using that as a template for every outfit can help you define your own unique style. Just as children feel free and secure with firm boundaries, and art comes to life in a frame, personal style can be most creative and satisfying when you have a basic structure in place.
My sisters tease me that I wear the same thing to take the kids to the park as I do to a cocktail party. It's not far from true. But I hasten to point out that that is subtly but significantly different than wearing to a cocktail party what you wore to the playground.
My essential uniform: jeans or slim black pants, a tank or tee, and a little jacket. Motorcycle boots for casual, booties for daytime dress-up, heels for night. Jewelry. Very large scarf. Ditto for summer, but with sandals, and shorts when the NYC heat is intolerable.
In her later years, my grandma suffered from a disease called Myasthenia Gravis. She grew terribly thin, her impressive bust line gradually disappeared, and she lost several inches of height. The uniform however, remained, and always looked sharp.
She had a lavish sense of humor and loved to tell jokes; although she was not Irish, few have matched her gift of Blarney, or her talent for telling a self-deprecating story with good humor. Like this one, which she told me in her mid-eighties:
She’d gone to church on Sunday, and after the service, was sitting in the fellowship lounge, enjoying coffee hour, when the pastor, a dear old friend, entered and greeted her. She rose from her chair, unsteadily, but of course threw open her arms and enveloped him, as she did everyone. Just as they entered the hug, her trousers, now much too loose on her fragile frame, dropped clear to her ankles.
“There I stood, embracing the pastor, half naked! It took him a minute to realize what had happened, and when he did, boy, he didn’t know whether it was better to hang on or let go. And let me tell you, neither did I. There was no question of my bending over to pull them up myself -- I’d go right over! But I couldn’t very well go on hugging him in my girdle. We stood there quite a little while before someone ran over and yanked them back up! Good grief. What a thing. Your grandmother – MOONING! At church!”
A refined woman who candidly, cheerfully tells an embarrassing story about herself is badass. She’s mistress of a winning social hat-trick -- get everyone laughing (herself included), instantly put present company at ease, and thereby confirm status as a generous, gracious, laid-back class act.
I went to Buffalo to spend a few days with my grandma just before she passed away. She was so tiny and frail it was hard to imagine her robust, zaftig attractiveness of yesteryear. She still got out of bed and dressed most days, but sometimes she was too weak, and stayed in her room in night wear. The peignoirs were gone; now she had a couple nearly identical silky blue pajama sets, which, when you think about it, is really a version of her uniform.
On my last day there, she was very feeble, and I could tell she was slipping away. I crawled into bed with her, and stroked her arm, slippery and cool in the silky jammies. My 8-month old daughter clambered over us while we talked. My grandma drifted in and out of sleep, chatting weakly, but jovially, while she was awake. She reached out and patted the baby’s cheek, and said “Great-grandma loves you very much.” I kissed her good night for the last time, and returned to New York the next morning.
Late the following day, she died.
My aunt called with the news. She told me that that morning, my grandma had felt strong enough to get out of bed and sit in her chair for a while. She wanted to get dressed and even put on lipstick. She did not however want to put in her teeth… which was a bit tricky.
So like her to leave us with a hearty, self-effacing laugh.
To her funeral I wore my uniform: slim black pants, pale rose blouse, little black jacket… and a pair of green suede pumps.
A few months later, a few of us got together and went through the button jar. We each chose a few to keep as mementos. Other buttons found new lives on gifts my aunt made for us over the next couple years: some became little snowmen on a Christmas stocking for my son, and a few adorn the cuffs of a cozy pair of slouchy, black, hand-knitted fingerless gloves.
I also inherited some of my favorite things from my grandmother’s personal effects -- a porcelain boudoir lamp and some fabulous bracelets.
Sometimes I wish I’d asked for one or two of her long strings of beads, to wear knotted as she did, but in my case, for a bit of flat-chested flapper flair… because let’s face it, Roy Rogers himself couldn’t lasso one of my little boobs.
Five years later, during a period of big transitions, I wandered through a sort of hope-crushing creative desert. We were living in LA -- which some people, especially New Yorkers, regard as the ultimate hope-crushing creative desert -- but I’m surprised how willingly I trade my New York edge, my black and gray uniform, for SoCal's sun-drenched optimism and insouciance, a pair of cut-offs and a burnout tee.
For me, Malibu, especially, is a magical oasis. I’d go out to Point Dume, talk to the waves, and wait for Someone to send an answer to questions like, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
I remembered a refrigerator magnet my grandma had. It said, “Pray toward Heaven but row toward shore.”
So I began writing a story.
A woman, a mother of young children, struggling to hang on to her creative self. (Sound like anyone we know?) She’s in a loving, engaging relationship, and has a happy, healthy family; she feels guilty for feeling unfulfilled, but feels that way, just the same. Returning home for a family funeral, she visits the beach where she spent wonderful childhood summers with her grandmother, talking, playing games, collecting shells and stones. One day, she takes a walk and talks to the waves and prays for some sort of help finding herself again. Seemingly out of nowhere, an older woman appears, walking along the beach.
“I know you think you need to have it all figured out right now,” the older woman says, “But you don’t. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
One day, while I was working on the story, we took the kids out to Malibu for the afternoon. As we dug in the sand I was going over the story in my head, and probably talking out loud to myself quite a bit.
There were some dolphins playing just off shore, and I went to the edge of the water to watch them. A woman standing nearby turned and smiled, then strode toward me. She was stunningly beautiful, quite regal, probably in her early 60s. She started chatting with me, asking me about my family, my work and so forth. It turned out that she was an actress, married, in fact, to a very famous actor (I’m not telling), and the mother of two grown children.
Within only a couple of minutes she’d told me how she understood what it felt like to be an artist and to feel like that part of yourself had been all but set aside while raising a family. She assured me that I had time, and that I should relax and just be where I am right now and it will come. We discovered we were both yogis. She looked me right in the eyes, put a hand on my arm and said, “Don’t you just feel like the Universe brought us together?”
“I do,” I said. “You have no idea how much.”
Later, as I was combing the shoreline for little treasures left by low tide, my five-year old daughter came running up to me from the edge of the water where she’d been digging for sand crabs, and gathering shells. She offered two closed fists. “One for you and one for me,” she announced.
She opened her left palm, revealing a sparkly piece of sea glass. “This one is for me.”
“And this one is for you,” she said, showing me what was in her right hand --
a tiny green shoe.
If you haven't read my most recent post in ARTS click here for "Beaver Shop"
Part one: The Button Jar & the Green Shoes
Part two: How My Glad Rags Turned to Sad Rags Doing the "Sugarfoot Rag"
Part three: "The Preppy Handbook," an Unreliable Guide to Fashion and First Love
Jenny Sheffer Stevens
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2018 -- All rights reserved.