In the early 1970s, when I was in high school, a boy in my class had an older sister who worked for Glamour magazine. She edited its wickedly fascinating “Dos and Don’ts” column, with its pictures of ordinary young women going about their lives in various stages of street-scene activity. Unbeknownst to them, they were about to become anonymously immortalized as representing either sartorial savvy or a cautionary tale. If a face happened to be included in a photograph, black bars strategically placed across the eyes shielded one’s identity, sparing any number of poor girls the humiliation of being caught in broad daylight wearing ankle-strapped platform shoes with palazzo pants that were, sadly, too short. And with a panty-line to boot.
Believe me, having that kind of second-degree proximity to a fashion arbiter did make me think twice before getting dressed for school in the morning.
There’s little evidence in my own photographic archives to suggest that I had a terrible sense of style, or was prone to making serial fashion mistakes. In fact, I like to think that I was something of a snappy dresser, despite coming of age in the 1970s. Yes, I once purchased a belted polyester pantsuit, and I wore it with ankle-strap platform shoes. No, no pictures of the atrocity exist.
I did, however, come across this photo. What’s so wrong with it? you might ask. Well, quite a lot, actually.
The real fashion mistake here, aside from the tight curls that looked as though Harpo Marx dipped his head into a bowl of India ink, is the fact that this woman is not dressing for who she was.
Can’t blame her, really; she didn’t even know who she was.
The bridge in the backdrop of this studio portrait is fake. Even the pearls. And yes, the dress was polyester.
It was 1983, and she had dressed to play a role—the role of a certain kind of wife, a certain kind of woman. She was just starting to become who she was going to be…who she was meant to be. But she wasn’t there yet.
The word “corporate” comes to mind. This is a corporate look, whereas the woman fastened into it has a creative temperament. There was a poet and writer inside, struggling to get out, but it would be a year or so before the chrysalis would crack.
It was a film that would do it. She had recently seen Educating Rita, in which a character (played by Julie Walters) undergoes a metamorphosis through the study of literature, helped along with the tutorial guidance of Michael Caine’s character. Rita’s costume changes chart her evolution from tarty hairdresser—a streak of pink in her blond hair to match the color of her smock—to bohemian college student, dressed in studied earth tones, her hair allowed its natural brown. At the end of the film, Rita’s transformation is complete. Frank, her professor, presents her with a graduation gift: a dress. He bought it, he says, with “an educated woman” in mind.
“What kind of education were you giving her?” Rita jokingly asks.
I suppose the point of all this is that nothing represents our true selves better than our clothes. They are fashion markers charting the evolution of our growth and (at the risk of getting all New-Age-y), our self-actualization. In truth, the woman you see pictured here wasn’t representing herself falsely after all. Like Rita, her dress just hadn’t caught up yet with her education.
Forever 51 said:
Really like this–and sooooo true! But is do love the pearls!
Thanks! If only they had been real….
Lois Alter Mark said:
You look just like Marie Osmond, Marci! You were adorable then and you are adorable now!
Awwww….thanks Lois! I used to get that a lot about Marie Osmond. Other notables I would remind people of: Carrie Fisher and Marlo Thomas. Thanks again for your sweet words! xoxom
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Julie Danis said:
Take a look at my photo and recognize another creative spirit wrapped in a bow tie! Thanks Marcie.
Ginger Kay said:
I’m not sure I agree. I think our actions say more about our true selves than our wardrobes. A good part of how we dress is cultural; we’re not all working off the same norms. I do agree that our clothing can be a wonderful, fun means of self expression, or a way to blend into societal roles.
Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful response to my post, Ginger! I agree with you in that our actions reveal who we are, but choosing one’s wardrobe is also a type of action, no? You are absolutely correct in that cultural norms dictate one’s attire. And I think that was kind of my point: the community of which I was a part—and community is the essence of the cultural—held certain expectations that I, in my early twenties, was eager to embrace. My manner of dress illustrated that. When I returned to college to obtain my bachelor’s degree, I was ensconced in a completely different community, and I found myself wanting to fit in with that culture. What I learned was that culture was more closely aligned with who I essentially was, or at lease was becoming. Thank you SO MUCH for prodding me to think through this some more. And thanks to Chloe Jeffreys, Sharon Hodor Greenthal, and Anne Jenkins Parris for another great topic for GenFab!
Helene Bludman said:
I see the Marie Osmond resemblance as well. You may not have been self-actualized yet, but you look comfortable within your skin. Were you?
That’s a fantastic question, Helene. I think I was but only insofar as I didn’t know any differently yet, if that makes sense. I was a young mother and I loved being a mother. (Still do, of course!) But I still had some growing to do; I didn’t go away to college after high school, and chipped away at my education in fits and starts until I finally got my bachelor’s degree at 35. Boy, another question to make me think! Thanks for asking it!
Loved this. So powerful and I think you’ve really got most of us thinking, are we dressing for who we are, who we will be, or who we aspire to be.
Thank you, Bonnie. I’m still thinking it through as I read some of these comments! I know that at this point in my life, the outside absolutely mirrors the inside, and the inside is settled and happy and completely (finally!) “self-actualized.” I’m not fond of that clinical term but I’m too lazy to come up with another! Thanks again for your great comment.
The Chloe Chronicles said:
It’s really true, isn’t it? My history in clothing does tell a story about my life. It tells about the times I’ve lived in, and the part I played in those times.
I have pictures that are fake, too. Times when I’m smiling when really I was not smiling inside. Times when I was being other than who I am because I believed the person within was unacceptable. The best part of midlife is letting all of that go. Time seems to be passing quickly by, and there is too little time left to spend it pretending.
I’m glad your creative person was set free. That’s a good, good thing.
Michelle kelly-flanagan said:
That was the film that we both loved so much – one of our first conversations was about this life changing film. It took awhile for us to “educate” ourselves and put that first foot in front of the one that followed along the path to a world we just glimpsed back then, but look at us now.
Clothing is more complicated than it first appears, isn’t it? Is it about expression or fitting in or function? It takes a lot of years, some luck and self-awareness to get the outfit that’s individual, appropriate, and comfortable all at once.
D. A. Wolf said:
Oh, I love this post for its insight and honesty, Marci. You are fortunate if you began to emerge from your chrysalis this early. Some of us are much, much slower, and stay wrapped so tightly in that corporate life once trapped inside its confines.
How beautifully you describe our fashion choices as representing us. Sometimes they help us be who we think we’re supposed to be. At other times, they reinforce our ability to blossom.
You make a good point–the best-dressed person is making a fashion faux pas if their clothes don’t reflect who they really are. Nice post!
This is so true. Such a thrill in meeting you only after the real you, the writerly you, emerged.
I agree that clothes tell the story of who we are, except that in many cases (mine again and again throughout the years) we wear what we can afford rather than what we really wish to wear…and be.
Great post, Marci.
mindy trotta said:
Beautiful smile, Marci! Funny how we can be clothed in truth or falseness. And most often, if we’re lucky, no one will know which is which other than ourselves.
Carpool Goddess (@CarpoolGoddess) said:
When my hair was short I used to get a lot of the Marie Osmond comments too. You looked so cute! I have many photos of myself that make me wonder who or what I was trying to be. I think it’s part of growing up and growing into ourselves.
You have fabulous teeth. Marie would be jealous.
What a sweet picture, and a happy smile. Great post, I think a large part of what makes one think of a fashion faux-pas is that the things we wear now weren’t available back when these pics were taken, as well as the fact that those clothes are no longer available now. I had a polyester dress, and slacks too!
Great post…didn’t we see that movie together? You were a butterfly waiting to spread your wings…
Mary….is that you? Yes we did see Educating Rita together…that film changed my life and you sat right next to me while it was happening! Thanks so much for your note.
I really like your thoughts and approach on this; and I agree that how we dress tells the stories of who we are at various times in our lives. Come to think of it, I’ve never felt more myself (or dress more how I want) than I do right now.
Thanks so much, Darryle! It feels good to be comfortable not only in one’s skin, but also in one’s clothes, doesn’t it?