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Will it be too tight?

Dear Kim,

Writing about clothes and what they represent has me reaching back into my memory, scanning for things I haven't thought about in decades.

I imagine that coming from a poor immigrant family posed real challenges for my mother when it came to raising her daughters. Especially when it came to clothes.

What should she buy us, especially when we would soon outgrown things?

How much should we have?

How important was it that we have the same things that other kids have?

To look at my 82 year old mother now, you would never know these were issues. She is tiny, elegant and self possessed. She wears beautifully cut slacks and narrow Italian leather shoes. She knows how to dress for a dinner party or the symphony or a walk in the park.

This does not come as a surprise. A graduate of City College of New York with honors by 18, she always was a quick study.

(Kim: I'd like to meet her. She sounds very impressive.)

I have really appreciated some of my mother's choices over the years. When I was very young, she dressed me in my brother's old cowboy jeans and flannel shirts and I still recall the freedom of playing on the floor with him, both dressed like Davy Crockett.

When I was about nine years old, we went to a cousin's wedding in New York and while my cousin Judy wore a dress so frilly, she looked like she came off of the cake, I had a tasteful lilac linen shift. When I complained strongly about my apparel, my mother said, "Little girls are not supposed to look like decorations."

Dressing for a Party/So frilly it looked like she came off of a cake.

So when she got it right, she got it very right. But when she got it wrong, it was as if the impoverished side of her background has snaked around, dislodging certain common sense.

In the fifth grade, a teacher sent a note home to my mother saying that my dresses were too tight and short for my developing body.

My father, who rarely quarreled with my mother, became very angry.

"Why isn't she dressed properly? Why isn't she wearing what her friends are wearing?!"

I had new clothes sometimes. I vaguely recall the occasional shopping trip to Sears Roebuck, or, on very special occasions, to Marshall Fields downtown. But my mother was an eminently practical woman and her attitude was, why buy something when it will soon be outgrown. So frequently, I wore hand me downs from the neighbors.

(Kim: We were talking last night at the party about Marshall Fields. It has been bought by Macys and now it will be called "Macys." When I was a kid that was the place when my mom would buy most non-apparel things...even our lawn chairs and push lawmmower. My mom would ask the sales person for the "newest and the best." We still have those lawn chairs, purchased in the early 50s.")

That could be great fun, poking through the wool skirts and thick sweaters that arrived jumbled in a brown grocery sack. But I didn't always like the contents and it robbed me of the opportunity to express my own taste, or to even define it.

So my father yelled at my mother when I handed over the note from Miss Koeppe—a note all the more humiliating for its neat cursive handwriting .

I am not sure where the real source of his concern lay. Perhaps he felt embarrassed for our family. But I don't really think that was it. I think he was concerned for me, that i was not getting what I needed for the comfortable development of my identity as a young girl. Growing up in a tough working class neighborhood in the Bronx in which he was ridiculed for being a Jew, he understood the protective cloak of the status quo, even if he would not always follow it as an adult. And perhaps he despaired that his long hours of work and sacrifices to provide for his family could so easily be for naught.

(Kim: kWe could do another series on growing up Jewish. For me it was a concentration camp tatoo—one that represented a religion to which I had no connection.)

I don't know. I will never know. I come from a family with a lot of talk and very little communication.

What I do know is that my father took a Saturday off,—he always worked on Saturdays—to take me to Saks Fifth Avenue himself and he did not have a clue of what he was doing. And frankly, neither did I. My mother frowned on such things as teenage or fashion magazines and we were University of Chicago people. The most frivolous thing University of Chicago people read was the New Yorker.

(Kim: My oldest sister worked one summer at Saks on their "college board." Every year before school started my mom would take my sisters shopping for a new wardrobe. My sisters appeared to be into it. I never have had any interest in owning any apparel except maybe for a red flannel shirt or long underware...for when I needed to take long walks to school in the cold."

We were assisted by a saleswoman who saw her commission in my father's eyes. Since we didn't know what to look for, she told us. Draping her arms in layers of tasteful skirts and dresses. Bringing out a navy wool plaid empire waisted jumper and contrasting long sleeved shells to alternate underneath.

"What is this?," he asked, noticing the unusual cut.

"Isn't this nice, " she said. "It's called a jumper. See, you can pick up the colors in the bodice and with a few different tops, get different looks."

What a novel idea. He was fascinated.

I still recall the tender way he fingered the fabric of jumper or maybe I am tender in the way that I recall.

What I do remember best is that he took the day off to take me to the best store he knew, that my mother stayed home and that everything that the saleswoman suggested, he bought.

(Kim: This is one of my favorite writing of yours. I think we might do the entire exhibit on the theme of clothing...but we'll have to see where it goes. Or maybe just two or three topics.)

Later,

Joan

Thursday, Dec 29, 2005

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