I find it so interesting that while we endorse the idea that our denim jeans have a unique ability to gain character and value as they get older, fade and get used, we resist applying the same logic to the aging process of human beings. Why do we allow so many inanimate objects, like denim jeans, furniture or jewelry, the freedom to age over time, increase their worth and become valued for their narrative stamina rather than fall out of favor as older people seem to do?
Like my collection of denim jeans, I was always fine with being older because for all but the first three years of my life it was a familiar state: I’m the oldest of 6. At age 35, this changed when my 56-year-old father suffered a stroke. No longer able to speak or move with any ease, the garrulous, charming, athletic parts of him disappeared and someone unrecognizable yet familiar remained. Unhappy with some circumstances in my own life, the fragility of my father’s propelled me to change mine. I went back to school for a Ph.D., got divorced, changed how I ate, gave up alcohol, got regular exercise and moved to New York City. Yet as each birthday passed, an unconscious dread buzzed in my ear like an errant fly. Turning 57 I felt a great sense of relief; the fly went away.
My sixtieth birthday came with mixed feelings: I had survived the fate of my father and changed my life so that I was physically and emotionally healthy and had much to be happy about. Yet when I looked in the mirror, I saw someone strange to me. Boobs drooped, wrinkles from past stressful times circled my thinning lips and crept out from the corners of my eyes. I could no longer find images of that person in the mirror in the fashion magazines I loved. Not able to summon up the energy that once made me feel seductive, I missed the heady power of that. Who I experienced myself to be inside and who I saw when I looked in the mirror no longer aligned. Disoriented, I too became someone unrecognizable yet familiar. My father lived many years after his stroke and over time he and I adjusted. I found and spoke to those familiar and vibrant parts of him that remained while mourning the parts that were taken away. From this came a lesson that helped me see my way through my confrontation with age: I had to love the familiar and vigorous me that lived inside and make my peace with those faded and wrinkled parts that will never be the same just as my father did. And during the year that followed my entrance into the sixth decade of my life, just like my denim jeans, I loved the new/old me and started Accidental Icon.
As I prepare for my 68th birthday, I reminisce about the early days of starting the blog. Because I had so fully accepted my age by the time I started it, I never imagined it to be a project about age. I saw it simply as a place to express my current identity creatively through what I wore and the study of fashion. Maybe unconsciously it was my way of refusing to become invisible because I did something that, if successful, would make me more visible in a huge way. Ironically, I have become more visible than I’d ever been at any other time of my life when we’re supposed to retire and gracefully exit the stage. And so I now accept the idea that it is indeed a project about age. It’s about how to be old.
Now that I fully experience myself as the lively person inside when people treat me as “an old person” by being overly solicitous or rising swiftly to give me a seat on the subway, there’s a flash of annoyance. That’s because it tells me what stereotypes they have in their heads about aging. One that means I’m in a frail and weakened state, even though I appear to be healthier and more fit than some of those jumping up. When working as Accidental Icon, I can determine the narratives people have by how they treat and respond to me: taking my elbow when there is an electrical cord on a set I must cross over that’s about an inch high, treating me exactly the same as everyone else and best of all giving me a physical or creative challenge because they believe I can do it. Some of the most fun and creative stretching I’ve done is working with a creative team at Kate Spade on a series of videos. When I walked on set to do the last one, I came upon the largest trampoline I’d ever seen. I was to jump up and down as high as I could, look to the ceiling as a large camera loomed overhead while the magic of green screen would make it appear I was jumping on a handbag that suddenly explodes propelling me into a sea of smaller versions of the bag. I felt powerful, grateful to those who allowed the me that lives inside, this moment of heady exhilaration.
Today in my new home and life I wear old denim jeans almost every day. I appreciate them as I never have before. Let’s just say we completely understand each other. They seem to be the perfect fit. Will Accidental Icon survive the transition from city to country life? Will she continue as she did before in the transition from a pre to post COVID world? I don’t have the answers yet, but I know with a great deal of certainty that no matter what, me and my denim jeans will be just fine. Even as we are fading and becoming even more worn, we continue to create new narratives and add more value to ourselves with each passing day.
What’s your rose today?