What Not to Wear
Dressing up usually requires a committee
By Jane Borden
The long arc of life bends toward self-sufficiency. In this arc, one gains the right to dress oneself relatively early. Sometime after holding your own spoon but before blowing your own nose, you receive the liberty of choosing your clothing. Unless you join the military or a cult, this right is inalienable. My case, however, is a little muddier, somewhere in between. To use another metaphor: I may be the editor of the fashion magazine of my life, but my mother is the publisher, and the holidays are a special annual issue.
I was in high school when I first lost the responsibility to pick out my clothes. I won’t say the privilege was taken from me. I’m pretty sure I surrendered it. Because I went to boarding school, whatever I packed in my suitcase would constitute my entire closet for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break and Mom didn’t trust me to choose wisely. I’d given her reason not to.
My sense of style in high school is best described as technical. For example, if a plaid skirt contains a bright orange stripe, and you pair it with a hideous, bright orange turtleneck, you technically match. Similarly, if one succeeds in her goal of collecting jeans in every color of the basic ROY-G-BIV rainbow, it is technically accurate to describe her wardrobe as complete. Whether Mom anticipated my inability to pack appropriately or simply discovered it the first time I traveled home from school, I don’t remember. All I know is that some time around the age of 15, I started receiving phone calls in advance.
She asked what was in my closet, I told her, and then she said either yes or no. Repeat per every dressy item in my closet. Meanwhile, I jotted notes on a list, attaching outfits to events, as we went. Because our family is both social and large, there were always several holiday events to consider, and each required a different level of formality. I should have appreciated the outsourcing of such a huge undertaking. But I was 15. Gratitude conceded to adolescence. I groaned and sighed. I took great offense. What was wrong with yellow jeans? The proletariat will rise! She started requesting that certain items of clothing simply remain on hand in my closet at home.
Somehow we got through high school. When I went to college at Chapel Hill, however, the suitcase-packing phone calls followed me. I’m sure I rolled my eyes, but by then we were following routine. Besides, the cold war of our fashion stalemate produced spoils in the form of free dresses. To be clear, I’m sure mom took me shopping in order to be generous, and to spend time with me doing something feminine, frivolous and fun. If I also walked away with something appropriate for the Christmas Eve cocktail party, then bonus for her. Bonus for me too, of course. Although these were items I never would have bought for myself, don’t get me wrong, I liked the non-Jane dresses very much. In fact, I still do — fancy clothes hold up well when worn only a few times per decade.
After college, when the annual accounting continued, I began to feel uneasy with our routine. According to my diploma, my rent receipts and Uncle Sam, I was an adult. Adults dress themselves. Then again, Uncle Sam is also grown up, and he could use a stylist. Still, I was finally developing a fashion sense of my own. And I wanted to show it off. I was a New Yorker. New Yorkers have style! But invariably, my choices were deemed too casual. Of course they were, I walked everywhere. The proletariat does not take taxis!
It only took a couple of nights of my sisters helping me build Frankenstein ensembles from unworn pieces in their own suitcases — more of a calculus problem than you’d think — for my mother and me to slip back into our routine. Bonus: this time when she took me shopping for things I would never buy myself, the stores were in New York. Sometimes, we even took taxis. Did I ever intentionally bring home ugly clothes, just so she would see a need to buy me more? No, but only because I never needed to, on account of doing it naturally.
In my 30s, I finally gained a sense of the kind of garments appropriate for my family’s holiday parties. I could be trusted to bring home what was needed for specific events. Occasionally I even took risks that paid off. Mostly, though, I recycled items she had purchased in the past. Either way, I stopped needing her advice as much. But habits have inertia and we mostly continued per usual.
The day before my engagement party in New York, however, when I reached for my phone to call her, I stopped short. In a moment of self-awareness, I finally said to myself, “I am a 33-year-old woman. I’m getting married. I can pick out my own damn clothes.” The proletariat needs no ruler! This stops now, I thought. Then I called her anyway. OH
Jane Borden grew up in Greensboro and lives in Los Angeles, where she occasionally attends a fancy brunch in a classic cocktail dress from the early aughts, and always stuns.