Thursday, November 06, 2003

I decided to write about fashion today. If you think I'm not qualified, because I wear Nehru goes skiing outfits, you may have a point, but it doesn't prevent me from being opinionated.

As a teenager, one of my favorite kinds of summer holidays with my father and brother was cycle-touring. My father liked them because 1) he used to do it as a kid, and 2) you didn't need to plan anything ahead, you just set out in a given direction, and every evening, just before sunset, you looked around for a place to spend the night. I know some people actually plan such tours, some people even join packaged tours, but the word adventure takes on a totally fresh meaning, when you have experienced time and again riding through a very wet English downpour, and showing up all bedraggled and exhausted at the front desk of the swankiest hotel in town, because it happens to be the only game in town, and you have two very wet teenagers in tow, and yes, there has to be room at the inn. We kids would show up for dinner in the fancy dining room, with white table cloths and all, with our faces scrubbed, our hair slicked back, wearing the same wet clothes we had come in, and our father would have changed into his tennis whites from Guatemala 1928, full of creases from being folded up for days in his saddle bags, but he had to do it, and wear a tie, just skip the pith helmet.

We usually would manage to find the one room, which my father would share with Alain, and then I would sleep in corridors, lobbies, drawing rooms, dining rooms, wherever the hotel or bed and breakfast people could find floor space to set up a bed for me. I called it bivouacking, like Napoleon's armies. I can sleep just about anywhere, put me in a horizontal position and... zzzzzzzzzzzz!. Don't laugh.

I remember very well one night in Devon, somewhere, where I slept in the dining room of a large deserted hotel. They cleared a few tables away for me. The dining room opened through french-windows onto a garden with a view, there were no curtains, and I listened to some thriller on the radio that they had placed near my bed for my benefit, to make things more comfortable for me. It was all about a mystery series of murders in an English village, where it turned out the murders always took place on misty nights (just like the one we were experiencing), and it turned out the murderer was the person least expected, the village bobby. I kept looking at those blind windows facing out into pitch black, and wondering how I would react if suddenly some face should appear framed in one of them, looking in. But nothing like that did happen and I slept soundly, as soon as I put out the light.

Anyway, one summer that we had reached St Ives in Cornwall, we all liked it so much that we rented a caravan for two weeks. So I was set in one spot long enough to exchange letters with Flavia, the daughter of a friend of my father's, who was about my age. Flavia invited me to spend a week with them near Abergavenny, in Wales. "You don't need to bring a thing, we won't be doing anything special. Just bring some kind of a skirt, there's going to be a barn dance."

Well, if you're cycle-touring and carrying all your gear in saddle bags and it's all getting wet almost every day, you have pretty much learned the real meaning of travelling light. Not to mention the fact that my father bought me the very minimum of "home clothes", stuck as he was with the requirement, the obligation, to buy the fancy expensive school uniform at Harrods, which seemed to change every year, so I had very few options anyway. But I did have a few fancy pieces, courtesy of those "gift packages to war orphan" from my Aunt Marie in Texas, things she picked up at church bazaars, which she organized, things usually unsold at the end of the day, for very good reasons, now going cheap, cheap, cheap!

In my saddle bags, I carried a newly purchased sundress from C&A, the color of "red sails in the sunset, out of the blue" of Breton fishing fleets, somewhat like a dirty brick red, splattered allover with multi-colored sailing boats and beach balls. Huh? Well, my father was color blind. I picked what I liked, tried it on, and he would blink and say: "You really like that one?" "Yes, I think so," and I would show him the price tag, well within budget.

This particular sundress had a bare back, it had a halter neck front that tied behind the neck, and a fitted bodice with a zipper on the side.

In the saddle bag, I also had a pretty American blouse, grey and white stripes in a see-through cotton voile, with leg-of-mutton three-quarter sleeves, and a little white pique Peter Pan collar, with tiny buttons all the way to the top, very demure.

I lived in my school uniform, grey divided-skirt shorts, just below the knee, my "gym shorts", which I wore all the time with an aertex white shirt and a grey V-neck sweater. The fashion plate was completed with grey ribbed cotton knee socks and my blue boats, old beat-up, flat slip-ons that had been resoled many, many times.

I wrote to Aunt Doll in London and asked her to please, please send my full circle "barn dance" black skirt from Texas to Flavia's, to await my arrival.

By the time I arrived in Abergavenny, things had become more complex, however, and there was a full line-up of social events, very county: gymkhanas, tennis club dances, tournaments, etc. I was philosophical about it, couldn't be helped, what I had was all I had. Actually, with the arrival of the circular skirt from London, it was great to be able to say: "If I had only known, I could have..." I never actually had to let on that that was it, there was nothing else for me to bring with me.

I shall always remember the day of the Tennis Club Dance.

We're talking of the early '50's. In England, in those days, a Tennis Club Dance was not really such a casual affair. Once you had reached the age of 16, you qualified for one of those fluffy netting ball gowns, full-length, with a bustier and a stole, in some pastel color or other. You not only qualified, it was pretty much a required item in a girl's wardrobe. The men all wore tuxedos. (For heavens' sakes, my brother even went to a school were the students wore starched, detachable white collars with their shirts!). You usually had had dinner somewhere beforehand, with the party you were going with, you all had "dates" for the evening, nothing personal about it, it was all pre-arranged among the adults.

We all went to dinner at someone's house, that is: Flavia, her parents and I. In the car, I was firmly instructed: "So-and-so is your date." Nobody knew who he was, was why. Flavia's date was the pre-approved young man they all knew very well, the perfectly acceptable Catholic county gem. "My" young man, reportedly was not even a Catholic, who knew whether he was even respectable, what other redhibitory faults he might have?

Over dinner, it became clear to everyone that "my" young man was a star. He was a second-year medical student from Guy's in London, he was very handsome and he had a wicked sense of humor.

Dressing for the evening had been fraught with anxiety for me, when I had to admit I had absolutely nothing to wear, and no, the circular Texan barn dance skirt would not do. Flavia had a brand new powder puff ball gown, especially purchased for the occasion.

"I'm wearing this. What are you going to wear?" Flavia asked.

"I don't know."

"You could wear the dress I wore last year," she offered, "I could lend you the dress I wore last year."

It was brought out of the closet, a taffeta tartan affair, with a bias skirt, too short (it came above my knees, in an era where we all wore our skirts half-way to our ankles).

"There's nothing wrong with it," Flavia said, as I modeled the unflattering thing for them all, "I just grew out of it, that's all, otherwise I would be wearing it again."

Lucky you...

"I don't think I can wear that one," I announced with some finality in the tone.

The three of them looked at me in dismay.

"But what are you going to WEAR?" they blustered.

"I shall just wear my sundress," I announced brightly, "At least it's mine, it's new and it fits me, and I shall be comfortable."

Well, that was a slight exaggeration. When I put the sundress on, I was not at all comfortable: it was clearly a dress that needed a beach to go along with it. On a late summer evening in England, with the mists rolling in over the hills, even I could not swing enough enthusiasm to wear a beach dress on its own: I slipped on the striped leg-of-mutton sleeved, Peter Pan collared, blouse underneath, and zipped myself in.

"You are going like THAT?", they all said. They didn't quite know what to do next.

"Why not? It's VERY comfortable!"

I can just imagine how my young man felt when he first saw his date. I can vouch for him, however, he was imperturbable.

I had an absolutely great time. My young man was witty and fun, he was also a great sport. By the time we reached the Tennis Club, Flavia and her parents had all developed blinding migraine headaches, and my young man and I were the only two people in the party actually enjoying ourselves, cutting up the floor, dance after dance.

"What do you think of the way the other girls are dressed?" my young man asked, tongue in cheek.

"Not much, really," I pronounced with authority, "A few of those dresses are really terrible."

We went around the dance floor and I critiqued the entire county creme de la creme.

Eventually, I was collared by Flavia's father: "I'm really sorry, you seem to be enjoying yourself so much, but we really have to go home early, we all have a headache."

Before leaving, I managed to introduce my beautiful date to a stunning nurse, about his age, wearing quite a lovely ball gown.

"Thank you so much for being so kind to such a badly dressed Cinderella," I said to him.

"Not at all," he grinned hugely. "I had great fun. I'm sorry you have to go."

I never saw him again. He might be a stuffy professor now, but I bet NOT.

Of course, Flavia did do it again, years and years later, when she was married and spending some time up in Vermont. She invited me to spend a few days with her family, over Christmas/New Year. Ski things OK, she said, "We don't have anything planned."

I should have known better. When I arrived, we had been "unexpectedly" invited to dinner by neighbors, "the Laurence Rockefellers might be there", and as usual I had nothing, even anything that might qualify as "casual".

I went the whole hog this time, and wore one of Flavia's dressing gowns over my ski pants.

"Oh, that looks like a dressing gown!" someone exclaimed, "Love it!"

"It is..." I said proudly, "I borrowed Flavia's dressing gown."

"Love it! Just love it! You look SO comfortable!"

Nowadays the one distinguishing thing about fashion is pretty much that you can wear whatever you want, and now that there is freedom, everybody is in uniform.

On the catwalks, the podiums, in the glossy magazines, those young men with the wildest of imaginations offer us the sight of the most beautiful women in the world, modeling (sometimes, barely wearing) extravagant, colorful fantasies, with feathers, sequins, embroideries, furs, silks, ribbons, beads, leather. It's not so much "Red sails in the sunset" as "Here she blows!"--Man-of-wars under full sail.

But in the street, in real life, it's black, and black, and black, and black, and if you don't know what to wear, wear black.


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