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.