Why the Clothes of My Past Stay Closeted




In a recent New York Times column, fashion editor Vanessa Friedman fielded a nervous question about whether older women could wear vintage. “Whatever clothes you remember from your own youth will look different through the lens of now,” she pointed out. “You have changed over the years, as has your body. What may once have felt frumpy to you may now seem elegant; what might have seemed like weak social signaling could now look sardonically cool.”

Mmmm. That satiny print polyester blouse and long, pale green microsuede skirt, sardonically cool?

The white hip-huggers with the floral sash belt, elegant?

Somehow I doubt it.

True, I dressed too old back then, sisterless in a house of old women. My mom was cooler than I was, slender, and, for all her insecurities, sure of her style. She did well with me when I was little, picking classy clean-lined clothes that were not girly, no flounces or florals. When I hit the tweens, though, she shunned the fads, knowing the money would feel wasted, and skipped me right to my thirties with schoolteacherish skirts and blouses.

In her defense, the seventies offered little that was elegant. She had grown up copying the Golden Age movie stars’ clothes, sewing them at home. Now she was faced with midi and maxi lengths she loathed, hippie funky frayed stuff that no doubt looked cheap or weird to her, tube tops and flared jeans, chokers and headbands, latigo and tie-dye and ponchos. I made a few stabs at with-it, but overall, I shared her revulsion—it was a bad decade, limping after the sixties and trying too hard, splayed in too many directions. Even now, I look at that list and wonder, had I worn it then, would I dare resurrect it?

I was awkward in an awkward decade, but luckily, clothes were an infrequent ordeal. I spent most of my time zipped into a hideous uniform at an all-girls school. Dances produced such a tizzy of indecision, I dreaded getting ready. Also I could not dance, and until college, I had fewer dates than fingers.

Once on campus, I leaned on preppy codes. Everybody wore the same minimal jewelry, had the same bob, carried the same monogrammed purse. Once you had the basics down, you coasted. Pastel oxford shirts and khaki skirts; tartan plaids and cashmere sweaters. Safe and boring. I could wear them now. They would still be safe and boring.

The conformity echoed the larger world; clothes are always about more than themselves. “Fashion is in the sky, in the street,” Coco Chanel said. “Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” And if you were not doing cocaine in New York, not much was happening. Culturally, the early eighties were a dismal time. Nobody showed up at political demonstrations or stayed up all night trying to solve the world’s problems. Half my class was in business school. My big stab at idiosyncrasy was majoring in philosophy, where nobody noticed what anyone wore.

What I miss—and would never dream of wearing now—are the clothes that came next. Ballet-length scoop-neck dresses, full-skirted and cap-sleeved. A white handkerchief-linen camisole with an embroidery inset that I wore the first time I dared go braless, and why I started with something so sheer I do not know. Go bold or stay home. A black spaghetti-strap chiffon dress. A top with a bold Mexican print and short puffy sleeves. A denim skirt that I sewed an eyelet petticoat beneath and wore with boots and a low-slung belt.

Go on, laugh at that last bit. A bit costumey, no? Still, these are the first clothes I remember loving. I was on my own now, making money and choices without the doubled consciousness of my mother’s reaction. The ick of the seventies was long gone, all those synthetics dissolved in a puddle of acid. And I had enough confidence to strike fashion’s tricky balance: conforming but standing out; expressing my individuality with a visual code everybody agreed upon. I put myself together and took myself apart a hundred different ways.

I miss the freedom, the sense of possibility. But there is a deeper reason I loved those clothes. We miss, I suspect, the clothes we wore when we first felt desirable and desired. Until my early twenties, clothes were a mildly interesting annoyance, a bit too fraught for my taste. The way they cast you “in” or “out” felt like Silly String, a messy and fragile entrapment. Then I realized that clothes were a language that, spoken freely, resonated with other time periods, cultures, symbols, ideas. They had expressive power. Not the navy suit power-dressing of the eighties; that only mimicked male clothes. How could we have failed to realize what a dangerous concession we were making? Real power was knowing who you were, not who someone else wanted you to be.

Maybe this is why, in those tween years, I sensed, to my self-absorbed shock, that my mom looked cooler than I did. She had passed that larval stage; she knew who she was and what she liked to wear. But she was not yet sure who I was. Treading lightly, wary of superimposing her own taste and throwing us into the shopping-mall explosions and sulks so common to mothers and daughters, she played it (too) safe. And because I did not yet have money of my own—babysitting only covered books and art supplies—I put up no fight. I did not yet know who I was, either.

Five decades later, my taste is so definite I have to bite my tongue, lest I sound like a dowager watching the ball, lorgnette to one eye, criticizing every gown. The chess game of desire has softened into a contented marriage. I have no interest in making statements; that invisibility other women bemoan feels like freedom. Who I am has ceased to mystify and begun to bore me. All I need is a little affordable elegance for special occasions, stitched from honest fabrics that will not kill the planet and cut to forgive the sags and billows of the sixties.

The idea of resurrecting clothes of my youth half a century later, redeeming the hot sting of embarrassment with carefully chosen accessories, intrigued me until I remembered what I would be resurrecting. All that Qiana and corduroy, tie-dyed gauze and princess-line polyester…. The wardrobe of my past will be no help. And why should it be? Those endless, faux-excited announcements of a previous decade’s return make me sigh. “The Sixties are back!” “The Eighties are in again!” Never lasts. Handed a kit of past looks to reinvent, designers play for a while. Fashionistas have fun learning a retro vocabulary. But the clothes do not match the spirit of the time.

Every age is new.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.