A few years ago, in my 50s, I began to wonder what happened to my sense of style, and then the coronavirus shutdown brought the issue to the foreground. Working from home, formerly stylish people happily adapted to sweat-pants couture. Some people may never fully return to their once-dapper attire, but some, like me, left fashion behind long before the pandemic. Or perhaps fashion left me behind.
I used to adore clothes. When I was five, I had a fuzzy canary-yellow jacket that I loved so much that when it no longer fit, I begged my mother to turn it into a stuffed animal. She promised, but the coat quietly disappeared. She’d counted on me to forget, but as you see, I never have. In fifth grade, I had a crush on my faux-suede jumper with a fringed panel. By the time I was 11, I’d learned to sew, and from my mother’s old dresses, I made the most idiosyncratic pants in all of the sixth grade. Even teachers commented on my “interesting” pants; one pair was black-and-white horizontal stripes in stretchy fabric, and another mustard-gold plaid in itchy wool fabric.
High school marked my first clothing rebellion. My Spanish teacher, perhaps sick of everyone wearing dungarees (it was the mid-1970s), declared a “dress up day” — jeans were forbidden. Appalled at his dictate — and anti-authoritarian in general — on dress-up day I wore dungaree pants, shirt, vest, and a jean jacket: head-to-toe denim. He threw me out of class, which bothered me not at all. In college in the 1980s I shopped at the Salvation Army, where I bought men’s plaid blazers, and once a gorgeous black-and-white patterned 1940s swing coat, with rococo buttons the size of silver dollars, in pot-metal filigree studded with rhinestones. (Sometimes I bought coats just to harvest the decorative buttons.)
Backpacking across late punk-era Europe in the early ’80s inspired my “look.” When my boyfriend’s Lutheran Midwestern parents met me later that year, they didn’t know what to make of the fire-engine red, pointy-toed high-top sneakers I’d purchased in Amsterdam. I was stylistically adventurous back then, even opting for an asymmetrical haircut once, though it lasted only a day. I felt off-kilter, and the lopsided look with curly hair made me look slightly deranged.
When I graduated college in 1983, I vowed to never wear nylons, a micro-stand against convention. Reality set in soon, though, when I had to interview for jobs, but I rebelled when I could. On one temporary job at the investment enterprise of Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and a staunch conservative, the dress code disallowed pants for women. Every day for the two weeks I worked there, I wore pants, the only woman in the office to do so. Fire me. I relished the thought, especially as there was plenty of low-wage temporary work. My rebellion was stoked by memories of elementary school, when girls were not allowed to wear pants, at least until 1972 when I was in sixth grade. My two older sisters took part in a walk-out at the junior high to protest the rule. A settlement with the principal allowed girls to wear pants on Fridays, but once that line was crossed, girls wore pants any day they wanted.
Later, at my jobs with environmental conservation groups, my coworkers were amused when I wore egg-yolk yellow tights with a purple dress (my legs did look a bit Big Bird-ish), or blue-and-white striped pants pegged at the ankles, paired with a fuchsia cotton t-shirt with a ragged hem, like Flintstones wear. My clothes were loud, and so maybe I was, too. The ornithologist on our staff once called me a “house wren.” I didn’t get the joke until my wildlife- biologist friend, Nancy, explained that wrens “sound twice as loud as a bird their size ought to.”
I lived in Lansing, Michigan then and often shopped at Value City, a messy warehouse crammed with liquidation merchandise, racks and racks of cheap and weird clothes. I once saw a fur vest on sale for $900, still dangling the original $2000 Neiman Marcus price tag. Value City would announce random sales over the P.A. system, like HALF OFF WOMEN’S DRESSES FOR THE NEXT TEN MINUTES! I’d hear the rumble of shopping carts as women from all points of the giant warehouse race-walked to women’s-wear. In the frenzy, there was no time to try on dresses; you just grabbed stuff off the rack and got in line for the markdown. The announcer would broadcast the end of the sale, but nobody stopped. “Ladies, you must stop shopping,” came the announcer’s plea. “LADIES, PLEASE STOP SHOPPING!” A strange directive in a store.
In my 30s, I still shopped at vintage stores, though retro-wear was not always convenient. One day I wore to work a form-fitting 1950s jacquard dress, buff with embroidered lime-green rosettes and a neck-to-tailbone nylon zipper. I lived alone then and when I got home I couldn’t get out of the dress. The zipper tag was tiny, and when I tried to pull it down, it snagged. I was trapped in my beautiful, now too-tight and uncomfortable mid-century modern dress. I feared I’d have to ask my kindly elderly neighbor to emancipate me, but I finally thought to loop a length of wire through the zipper tag so that I could disrobe without dislocating my shoulder. Living alone for the first time in my life, I had to consider style versus function. I never wore that dress again.
At 35, I had a midlife crisis and quit my job as Director of Development for an environmental nonprofit. I’d dreamed of being a writer, and had published a few essays and articles. When I quit my full-time job, I was poor by choice, working less so I could write more. I had no money for clothes, which I mark as the beginning of the end of my sense of style. I took ad hoc work, answering a customer service hotline for a pizzeria chain (too cold, too chewy, not enough cheese, the onions weren’t caramelized). I stuffed envelopes and cleaned a small conference center (seven bathrooms). The only job that required halfway decent clothes was for a human resources consultant, conducting employee “feedback sessions” for various clients. I bought a few items at Goodwill that passed as “business attire.”
At one job, a hospital in South Dakota, my cheap clothing choices led to what can only be called a “wardrobe malfunction.” Each day that week there were seven, hour-long employee feedback (grumbling) sessions. The H.R. person who’d arranged the schedule left no time between sessions, forgetting that I’d have to walk — or in reality, jog — from one wing of the maze-like hospital to another. These employees there were particularly burned-out, so they lingered after each session as I tried to leave, adding more complaints, even though my laptop was packed away and I was no longer taking notes. I’d race to the next small, windowless conference room to face yet another group of disgruntled nurses, orderlies, or cafeteria staff.
That day I wore one of my Goodwill dresses, nylons I’d fished from the back of my lingerie drawer, and second-hand pumps that were a tad too big — all of which conjoined to create a sartorial “perfect storm.” With vortex-like force, the shoes sucked the nylons down into them, and in turn, the nylons grabbed my underwear and peeled it from my backside as I dashed along the hallways. When I finally found a spare minute and a bathroom, I yanked the whole mess up, but the cycle repeated. For the entire day, I battled the formidable gravitational pull of the shoes.
My period of self-imposed penury lasted more than a decade, long enough for me to forget how to dress well. Aside from Salvation Army attire, I wore hand-me-downs from my sisters and my father’s profligate wife. She once bought two cashmere coats for $300 each, marked down from $900, even though they didn’t fit her — the sale was too good to pass up. She offered them to my four sisters and me, but the coats were designed for 5’10” models, not those of us eight inches shorter. One coat was navy blue, the other mint green. I wore the mint-green coat once, but it was ankle-length on me, so I looked like a child playing dress-up in mommy’s clothes. I donated the coat to Goodwill, which was the fate of the blue one, too. From the bags of cast-offs, I wore clothes I never would have purchased for myself. For the first time in my life, I wore khakis and chinos, which felt like an aesthetic coup de grâce. Preppy. (I grew to like the pants, which was, perhaps, a case of fashion Stockholm syndrome.)
By the time I went to graduate school in Ohio in my late thirties, I was in fashion no-woman’s land. In a bar in 1999, after a reading by a visiting poet who is now famous but wasn’t then, he looked at my flowered tie, which I wore with a maroon silk blouse, and said, “Didn’t that style go out in the eighties?” I laughed. “I’m bringing it back.” Nobody could see me blush in the dimly lit bar.
I knew all the thrift stores in Columbus, Ohio because I wrote a review of them for the graduate student handbook. One day in a second-hand shop, I found a paper dress, a “caftan” made by James Sterling Paper Fashions of Madison Avenue. I bought the dress for five dollars, not to wear, but because it evoked a fond memory. When I was a kid, my mother sent away for a paper dress she’d seen advertised in the back of a magazine, a sleeveless summer shift that felt like a stiff paper towel. When it arrived in the mail, she put the dress on right away.
Paper dresses were introduced in 1966 by Scott Paper Company. With two coupons clipped from Scott’s products and a dollar and 25 cents, women could order either a paisley or a black-and-white “op art” paper dress, described by a hyper-alliterative copywriter as “dashingly different at dances” and “perfectly packaged at picnics.” Scott Paper sold almost 500,000 dresses in nine months, and their success spawned imitators: Dove, Lux, Lifebuoy Soap, Breck, Pillsbury. There were Jolly Green Giant dresses, and Campbell’s Soup produced the “Souper Dress,” sold through Parade Magazine, the Sunday newspaper insert. (Recently, an original Campbell’s Souper Dress was appraised on Antiques Roadshow for up to $3,000.)
By late 1966, one company, Mars Hosiery, was manufacturing about 80,000 paper garments per week, spurring an executive to predict that by 1971, “75% of the nation will be wearing disposable clothing.” William Guggenheim III, who’d invested in a brick-and-mortar store for paper couture, called In Dispensables, said, oxymoronically, that “disposables are here to stay.” This was “The Big Paper Craze,” according to a 1967 Mademoiselle Magazine cover story, but just two years later, a New York Times article asked, “Whatever happened to the paper dress?”
I know what happened to my mother’s paper dress. Wearing the dress, she went about her usual routine, making eight beds, cleaning, and putting away dishes. The dress began to tear and within a few hours it was shredded, flaps trailing my mother as she bent to pick up a toy or to check the roast chicken in the oven. My mother wore that paper dress until it nearly fell off her, but she never bought them again. Fashion writers attributed the paper dress mania to a desire to blend fashion with pop art, or to defy the previous generation’s faith in “durability.” But for my mother, and surely many women, paper clothes promised an end to the tedium of laundry. The pile of dirty clothes on the cellar floor beneath the laundry chute in our house was often four feet high. But paper clothes did not save my mother from domestic scut work; they were impractical and uncomfortable.
Perhaps it was practicality and comfort that had inspired Lori, a girl on my dorm floor in college, to wear parachute-jump suits. I never saw Lori wear anything else, though she must have owned two or three that she interchanged, all royal blue, gathered at the ankles, with numerous big pockets. She wore them with army boots, and I recall she donned the occasional scarf, her splash into accessorizing. I envied Lori her renegade style. In my 30s, I’d dreamed of having a “lawn mower” haircut, like the star of the cult film Tank Girl, which would look like a tiny mower had run crazily over my scalp, a patchwork quilt of buzz-cut squares, long tiny braided strands, inch-high tufts, and some corkscrew curls, my hair’s natural propensity. I doodled pictures of it. I told myself that when I was a writer, I’d get the lawnmower haircut, but I never did. Either I’d lost my nerve, or perhaps because by my early 40s, I needed health insurance and a steady income, so I took an academic job. Teaching required me to look at least marginally professional, or professorial anyway, but I didn’t know quite what to wear. My colleague, Rebecca, one of the few snazzy dressers in the English department, took me shopping and selected some pants and tops for me, and a brown cloth overcoat that fit well and looked good. I still have the coat now fifteen years later. It’s still in style! (I think.) In spite of remedial fashion help, I felt like an imposter in my “professor” costume.
As I approached fifty, my first book was coming out and I needed flattering clothes to wear at readings. I asked another colleague, Michelle, a Medievalist, herself a smart dresser, to nominate me for the reality show, What Not to Wear, in which two fashionistas help “revamp” individuals nominated for their “lamentable appearance.” I wanted someone with expertise to fit me in chic clothes (and pay for them with the show’s $5000 wardrobe budget). Michelle wrote a letter convincing enough for the producers to request photos of me looking lamentable. She sent the snapshots, but we never heard back. That’s when I knew I was truly bereft of style, when I would have allowed two rude but aesthetically-superior fashion mavens to inventory my closet, chuckling and groaning as they pitched my clothes into a trash barrel, on national television.
I was on spring break in March 2020 when my campus shut down for the pandemic, and then stayed shut the following academic year. I taught all my classes on Zoom, so I only had to wear a decent shirt, and in fact not a whole decent shirt since my screen profile was a headshot. My tops could have been ripped or stained. I just needed a respectable collar, like a dickey. (This split-personality look has been dubbed the “Zoom mullet”). For nearly two years, I didn’t have to worry about dressing appropriately, or wearing a bra. I was small-breasted for most of my life, so I often went braless anyway, but after I turned 50 and gained weight, I grew the sort of breasts that could hold a pencil beneath them, as was the junior-high girls’-room test of boob size. Normally when I teach in person, I deploy my “few good shirts” strategy, bought at an expensive boutique, with black pants. After ten hours on campus, while cruising the highway home at 65 m.p.h., I remove my bra. I’ve perfected the maneuver over decades. Steering with one hand, I reach back and unfasten the hooks. Then I snake one hand up a sleeve and extract the bra strap. Repeat on the other side, and then yank the bra from under your shirt like a magician pulling knotted scarves out of a sleeve.
Except for those bra-constricted days on campus, I’ve taken to wearing silicone nipple covers instead of bras. They’re like the pasties that strippers wear minus the sequins and tassels. (A Google search of pasties turns up a variety of plain and decorative nipple covers, and a lot of yummy-looking meat-filled hand pies.) The pasties stick quite well. Once I forgot I had them on and swam my usual mile in the swimming hole up the road. I only lost one nipple pad, now resting in the muck bottom of Sewall Pond. Another time I forgot to take them off before bed. After a typical night of tossing and turning, by morning one nipple pad had migrated and grafted to my cheek.
Aging has limited my clothing options, so my devolving style is not entirely voluntary. I can no longer wear heels because of hallux rigidus, the fancy-dress term for “big toe arthritis.” Gaining weight curtails clothing choices as many labels don’t offer sizes larger than 12, even though the average clothing size for American women is now between 16 and 18, according to a study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design. The majority of fashion designers and clothing companies fit an idea of women’s bodies, not real women’s bodies.
At home, my attire inverts custom: I sleep nude and in the morning I put pajamas on— most often men’s cotton pajama bottoms that I buy at Goodwill (and wash in hot water and bleach – basically sterilizing them). Men’s p.j.s are looser and more comfortable and with deeper pockets than women’s pajama bottoms. I’ve gone out in public in the p.j.s, which I can get away with because Maine is largely a fashion desert; L.L. Bean, the state’s signature brand, rarely strays from their signature rubber boots, flannel tops, and wool sweaters. Once when I brought a bag of hand-me-downs to my family in Massachusetts, I held up a shirt for my sixteen-year-old niece, Stephanie. “This is still in fashion,” I said. She looked at me almost with pity. “For Maine.“
Now that I’ve crossed into my sixties, except for special occasions, I feel liberated from fashion concerns. I don’t want to work that hard at being in style. I have too much to do and not enough time to worry about clothes. Paper dresses would appeal if I could countenance the environmental crime of disposable clothing. Parachute jumpsuits, too, would be convenient, though I’d want a range of colors, and maybe five pairs to avoid laundering them daily. What a time saver! What a money saver! What a way to hide midriff bulge! Years ago my friend Sarah traveled to a monastery in India, where she was required to wear a loose garment, like a caftan. “How oppressive,” I said. “Not really,” Sarah replied. I understood her point; girls’ and women’s bodies are constantly surveilled. I saw the appeal of avoiding that scrutiny.
Some fashion columnists have written that post-pandemic, comfort is here to stay. Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist (!) said in Marie Claire, “The need to not only be physically comfortable but psychologically comfortable in what we wear will likely remain.” Comfort, she said, “will be hard to relinquish anytime soon.” Fashion guru Tim Gunn, host of the show, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s hard after you experience the comfort trap to go back to clothes that constrain you.” I wonder if Gunn is aware of his bizarre framing of comfort as a “trap” rather than the clothes that “constrain.”
Perhaps all along I have been ahead of the fashion curve, avant-garde, if you will, in my men’s pajama bottoms. That might be a stretch (like my pants), but in any case, I was fashion-ready for the lockdown. Maybe after all this time wandering in a fashion desert, I’ve found my style again. Maybe its name is pandemic prêt-è-porter.•