Right now I have too many clothes, too many shoes, too many jobs, too many half-read books, and too many stress-induced pints of ice cream under my belt. Yet here I am on my phone, my eye caught while browsing Instagram by a pair of blue suede tassel loafers. I go to a website that sells them for $500. The woman wearing these shoes lives in Paris and is the epitome of class and style. Around my age, confident in it as evidenced by her long white mane and her healthy management of the shift in weight that comes with age, she wears Dior vintage jeans, Hermès belts, and her pieces of cashmere with a casualness that indicates it is no big thing for her to be old or dress this way. In fact, for her it just is. Her ingredients when composing a look are essentials: jeans, a scarf, a sweater, loafers, and sometimes velvet slippers. She wears no make-up, choosing instead to present a “face” that is just a healthy glow. Unlike me, she is settled securely into her class, her privilege an accessory she wears easily. My grandmother walked in the world the same way. I, in contrast, wear my privilege like a stone in an ill-fitting shoe; something that always feels uncomfortable and never able to find my right size. However, it does serve the function of reminding me it is there.
My grandmother made clear her deep disappointment with my mother’s choice to abandon her class through her choice of a partner and dress in the latest styles from E.J. Korvettes rather than Saks or Neiman Marcus. In an achingly beautiful gesture, each Christmas my father, who must have squirreled away money all year, would gift my mother one very expensive outfit from Brooks Brothers. An acknowledgment of her sacrifice and of his love, my father had what we call, “a good eye” and my mother suddenly appeared beautiful and glamorous in these clothes; someone different than the mother we knew. I remember now my most favorite of these outfits, a skirt and matching cardigan in a shade that whispered the color yellow. It was of the softest, most luxurious cashmere. The cardigan had small, flat round pearl buttons. The sensual feel of the garment was such a contrast to the scratchy, abrasive texture of the usual polyester clothes that came from the discount store. You could rest in these garments, sleep in them. It was one of the very few articles of clothing my mother owned that seemed worthy of the perfect strand of pearls my grandmother brought her from a trip to Japan. My grandmother made sure we knew she had personally observed the divers, mainly women, as they dove deep into the cold to gather treasure from the bottom of the sea. The fact that it was one outfit, one time a year and gifted with love and gratitude made it infinitely more special in how it was worn and animated by my mother and how it was perceived by others. My mother would remark that just one, well-made, high-quality outfit a year was more than enough. Her version of treasure.
I decide I will begin an archeological dig and find out more about where this woman from Paris came from. I twitch with nerdy excitement; I love the process of research. I don’t want to assume she was always this way or was born into it, I want to know her story. So today rather than immediately put those loafers in my digital cart, I explore why I am so drawn to them and to her. What she represents to me. Why do I feel I must have these shoes even though I already have too many pairs of loafers? Mine are leather, some quite rigid. Most have not been broken in, chosen for a shoot and to make content; not for everyday wear, therefore uncomfortable. The blue suede tassel shoes she wears seem like slippers; the buttery softness of them triggers my longing to be comfortable again in my life, myself, and my skin. She is 75 and as such she gives me a visual I am inspired by and can add to the style mood board I am constructing for my seventh decade of life. The stars of my board when I turned 60 were Tilda Swinton and David Bowie and were manifested in the signature style and haircuts worn by the Accidental Icon.
I find this woman is originally from Texas and as she tells it, “being curious about a different way of living”, headed to Paris at the age of 30 when a modeling career was over. I wonder if we are somehow related as her last name is the same as my mother’s aunt and uncle who also lived in Texas. Intending to be in Paris for three months, life happened and as a woman open to serendipity, she stayed forever. I discover that after a career as a fashion editor and an apprenticeship at Ralph Lauren, she is now the owner of a small boutique specializing in cashmere. I go to her website to see if I can find the same murmur of yellow as my mother’s beautiful outfit. Perhaps I can find a scarf or a sweater, something that when I wear it would keep me close to my mother, who died this time last year. Perhaps because of the time of year, I am looking, winter, the colors are earth tones, the yellow a spicy, warming mustard. I will take another look in the spring. Though it seems if you add a touch of browner this is a new color never tried before, I think I can wear it.
While reading an interview on a style blog, I find that one of the perks she found from going grey at the age of 50, was that she could wear colors she never could before, this has inspired her to offer a selection she carefully curates each season. In her experience, as she has gotten older, “certain colors lost their charm and other colors look reborn.” I find this a wise approach to take towards change, and being old, in general. Sometimes it’s just about looking at something that already exists in a new way. When you are old you have a whole pile of “already exists” waiting for you to make something of them. The checkerboard shelves reminiscent of paint boxes in her Paris store are filled with the hues she has chosen for the season. Her shop is a creative studio; a place to exhibit the things she believes in, a profound expression of her creativity through the vehicle of fashion. Her chosen material, cashmere, offers an endless color range allowing for an ever-evolving expression of a creative life that is always moving forward.
I find that the object of my interest also experienced a childhood where money was a scarce commodity and only available for essentials and thus an appreciation of them. In high school, she also coveted perfectly tailored Oxford shirts (her preference was pink, mine blue) and Bass Weejun tasseled loafers. Thinking that we would never be impossibly cool as the girls who wore these things were, we both found later that style has not much to do with price or birthright. That sometimes having to cope with less fuels a dormant, everyday creativity that allows you to make something glorious out of nothing. The potential for this creativity, like a small kernel of unpopped corn, resides in all of us.
I learn, that like my grandmother, who gifted me at the age of 15 with perfume from a trip to Paris, her grandmother took her to the local drugstore and made sure she experienced her first bottle of perfume. She was entranced by the beauty and color of the glass bottle, I by the smell that emerged from mine. My perfume from Paris taught me how a scent can trigger a memory and bloom into a story like a flowering tea. Hers taught her about the joyous explosion of energy that is color. Grandmothers are often identified as a significant influence in style stories. We are both grandmothers now and I wonder what style stories our grandchildren will tell about us.
I’ve always been an over-consumer. My appetite for the world was always way bigger than what was served at our formica-covered kitchen table. As a child rather than candy or cake, I consumed books and I devoured them like I was starving. Every other Thursday when my father was paid he would take my mother to the A & P where she would grocery shop and buy food that was supposed to last for two weeks. A limited amount of treats like soda, ice cream, and pretzels went in the cart and thanks to my four ravenous brothers were gone the next day even when my mother made attempts to hide them. I would be up in the middle of the night both to find the hidden pretzels and read the current book I could not put down. I prefer salty when it comes to snacks, books, and people. We didn’t quite realize that by not making these treats last, eating slowly, and savoring their specialness we were doomed to 13 days of boring staples. Once I discovered through reading, all of the delectable treats of experiences that exist outside the tiny suburban world I lived in, I wanted to eat them all before they could disappear. The problem with over consumption whether it’s on food, clothes, experiences, or emotions, is that it is often followed by a punitive cycle of deprivation. It’s an all-or-nothing approach to consumerism and emotional life that leaves one extremely unsatisfied all of the time. At the end of the day despite the overindulgence, the state you are left with is emptiness.
I am in the process of organizing the books that are piled in stacks in the room where I write. The problem with reading too many books, too fast, and at the same time, is that you often miss the best parts of the writing; the turn of a phrase, the importance of a scene to a plot, and the subtle clues in a mystery when you rush to the end to find out what happens instead of enjoying the journey. My kindle is full of books read in such a haphazard manner. I’ve probably got at least six different books going right now; mainly essay collections and writing how-tos. That doesn’t count my audiobooks, though I find the lulling voices of the reader puts me to sleep. I prefer reading the written word.
Now as I get ready to turn 70, I find writing to be what helps me create balance in my life. It has become the potential cure for my overconsumption. Now I read to learn how to write so I go slow. I stop and write down a line that takes my breath away, an opening sentence that catches my now relaxed and slightly open mouth with a hook. I write during these times with a pen and in a notebook, slowing the fast pace at which I write when using a keyboard. I write to process what I read and think of its impact on others. I must take care with the words I put on the page. They must be written, revised, and edited. I write about an article of clothing, a bag, or a hat and describe the flights of fancy they take me on rather than consume them. I suppose as I am doing now rather than pressing the place order button for the blue tassel loafers I covet.
I’m also going through the five racks of clothes that fill up a room in my new house trying to meet my new commitment to sustainability amidst my lifelong attachment to clothing. Along with books, articles of clothing, shoes, bags, and costume jewelry have been the objects I’ve collected. They have been used in the service of representing who I was or wanted to be during certain periods of my life. Aside from my computer, a phone, and an iPad, I own no other electronic devices, I don’t own much art and most of that has been gifted. The pandemic forced me to be good as aside from some basics like pajamas and underwear I’ve not bought any new clothes. My bank account balance decreases far more slowly than it did before the pandemic in tandem with the amount going in as “influencer jobs” were few and far between mostly focused on beauty products, online exercise programs. and streaming TV services. Far from what I was interested in, to begin with, styling looks, wearing clothes, and writing about fashion, these jobs felt like an overindulgence that left me feeling sick and empty too.
My muse today, also admits to a “zealous consumption” of garments because of her love of fashion. For her too this changed and she now views the acquisition of garments as those that assist in the representation of an evolving self. Buying less, but the highest quality, the garments become signifiers of who she is becoming as an older woman who remains invested and interested in fashion, yet unconcerned with trends and the resulting thoughtless overconsumption that follows. An ever-evolving self that when we are old allows us to allay our panic about times acceleration because we are in motion and going on being. We are swimming with the tide rather than going against it. We are anchored in the present because we are deeply involved in something. She focuses on designs and textiles that are ageless and timeless for her store. Her pieces convey respect for, and inclusion of whatever age you may be. As I browse the website, I find it of interest that she also sells Oxford shirts.
At my mother’s insistence, my parents somehow found the money to send my sister and me to a Catholic High School. In many ways a relief because uniforms meant there were far fewer days of jealousy over other girls’ wardrobes, only 10 days a year when it was “non-uniform day.” I would save to buy a few classic pieces to pull out but must admit I hated going to school those days. In truth, I was more attracted to the gauzy, beaded, mirrored, and incense-saturated paisley flowing dresses that hippies were wearing and that had no place in a high school that was grooming us for conformity. Sometimes I just chose to wear my uniform anyway as did other girls who weren’t all that much into clothes. I pretended I wasn’t either. This is how I’ve been dealing with getting dressed recently, I wear the same thing every day, pretending I no longer care.
Perhaps her insistence on my attending an all-girls school was because my mother also attended one herself. She very much enjoyed the rigor of her education and the lifelong friendships she developed with other intellectual and cosmopolitan women she met there. I’m older now and I craft more mature narratives about my mother and why she did the things she did when it came to me. Hijacked by the stultifying 1950s-1960s suburban life she found herself living, she was denied access to the pleasure of an intellectual life and what was now, far-flung friendships she could no longer enjoy on a regular basis. I believe she wished my sister and I to have the gifts of a rigorous intellectual life and like-minded companions too, She was trying to expand my world rather than limit it. Something I always mistakenly accused her of for many years.
I realize the woman I am reading about now, researching and am somewhat obsessed with actually wears a uniform almost every day. That this is the key to the effortless, comfortable look she conveys. Using color, layering, and scarves as a sleight of hand she makes each day look like something new while wearing essentially the same thing. Once during an interview, the person asking me questions made the comment that while I had a very exciting style; it seemed I approached styling nonchalantly. My response was to say I believed this stemmed from the experience of having to wear a uniform during my school years. I think uniforms promote a nonchalant approach to dressing, as wearing them requires fewer decisions and frees up time to be concerned with other pursuits. I suspect this explains why I spend more of my time on intellectual pursuits rather than fashionable ones. Why I now desire to spend less time thinking about what I should wear.
In another way, uniforms can nurture the development of a personal style and creativity. This is the lesson I learn from this woman who lives and works in Paris. Now, because of the pandemic, critical reflections, the death of my mother, changes in my body, and the approaching of 70, I am experimenting with uniforms once again. I seek a sense of “rightness” for this new period of my life. With my move outside of the city, I have fewer events, meetings, and formal engagements. As I have given up “influencing”, I no longer feel a demand to get dressed to produce content because I have to do an Instagram post. My life is much more centered on my partner, my home, my wild and overgrown garden, my daughter and grandchildren, writing, becoming involved in my community, and being purposeful and diligent about the things I need to do so I can continue to be old in a healthy and satisfied way.
So part of getting dressed for me today needs to include a vision of how I want to be old, how I am being old, and where I am being old. It also includes what I want to tell society in response to bossing me around. I still want to use what I wear to confront stereotypes and assumptions others make about being old. I want to keep breaking rules without breaking rules, find balance and not over-consume. I take the blue tassel loafers out of my online bag, close the tab and look through the shoes that I already have. Perhaps there is a pair that when I see them today may help me tell a new story of where I am now.
How are you looking at everyday things in new ways?
*Thanks to @lindavwright and her blue suede tassel loafers for inspiration