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Autobiography of a Wardrobe
Chapter 1: Sash/How I Was Born
Five-year-old B. in a daffodil-yellow pinafore and a white blouse with puffed sleeves stands at the end of a chintz couch, in the midst of grandparents, aunts, and parents. The pinafore has embroidery on the skirt and a wide yellow sash tied at the back of the waist. B. is leaning into the mother, who is sitting on the couch holding a baby brother. On B.'s feet are red "party shoes" with ankle straps and white socks. At her right temple, a white barrette holds back straight, fine dishwater-blond hair.
This dress can stand as well as any for My birth. Wardrobes start out like children, without conscious identity. I was the emanation of the family at the Country Club on a spring day, in a large midwestern city, just after midcentury. Technically, I suppose I'd been born earlier, in a downtown cathedral, as a long, white, lace-trimmed christening gown (overly long, because that's how the Middle Ages phrased its wish for babies to live and grow). Or else in the preverbal moment when the very small B. took out the red corduroy overalls.
But that day at the Club was when I first knew Myself, when I suddenly heard what B. was saying to Me: "You smell clean. You are the color of lemon pie. You have a story on your skirt."
Adults had bent down to read the embroidery on the skirt, then patted B.'s head. What they'd seen were red-thread birds and brown-thread squiggles among green-thread sprinkles, and underneath, the sewn red words "The early bird gets the worm."
Only Americans had put words on clothes-then. At that moment (it was the 1950s), words on clothes were a new idea. In this case they were a message from the business community that had bought the dress.
The rest of Me that day matched the style of the little girls' clothes in books read to B. at home: Peter Pan, The Little Princess, the ubiquitous Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. B. was sashed, buttoned, and hairbrushed into an immaculate Edwardian wrapping, missing only Alice's horizontally striped stockings.
How did I, a wardrobe, know I was antique at birth? That's what I do. I pick up intimations of sartorial history.
Other family members in that tableau were not thinking "history," but merely checking off the right thing on each other: cinch belts on the young aunts; tweed suits on the older ladies; red bow ties on the older men; spectator pumps on the young mother. And for a small female like B., it was de rigueur to wear a crisp sashed cotton dress and these exact red shoes with a thin strap around the ankle and a red grosgrain bow (like a bow tie) on the toe. This dress code had come from the young mother. Astonished, like so many postwar brides, at having been promoted from ingenue to matron, she couldn't yet imagine a new era. She dressed B. as if she were not her child, but a version of herself as a child, before the war.
So: I came into being in the last moments of that two-centuries-old institution called Childhood, in which everything was ironed: collars, sashes, sailor suits. Nowadays it's different. The other day B. saw a mother and small daughter in a New York café. (This is how we communicate: B. sees something and I breathe it in, and catalogue it.) The little girl was wearing a small wrinkled jeans cargo skirt and a miniature cardigan sweater; her mother had on a large cotton pinafore.
When I was born, old persons' garments and young persons' garments belonged to very separate spheres. In My childhood I was more like the 1835 wardrobe of young Toni Buddenbrooks than like today's American child wardrobes. On the first page of that wonderful capitalist saga by Thomas Mann, eight-year-old Toni, "in a dress of shimmering silk," reads aloud to her extended family, the catechism about the Lord having made man and all he owns. And everyone laughs at a little girl spouting the capitalist creed.
It was the same a hundred-odd years later at the country club. B., through Me, reflected back what the family wanted to see.
But she herself was not convinced. What she did most of that day was stare at the words on her skirt and think, "Does the early bird really get the worm? What if another bird came later? Maybe another worm would be emerging and the late bird would get that worm."
B. looked properly docile on the outside; on the inside she was full of questions. And her first questions were about Me.
Chapter 2: Ancestors
Behind the yellow-pinafored B., the mother, seated on the couch, holding the little brother, wears a light blue shirtwaist dress with a full skirt, a thin white belt, and navy-and-white spectator pumps. And behind the couch the father paces, wearing white shirtsleeves and a blue plaid bow tie, holding an amber-colored drink in his hand.
The wardrobes of the mother and father were My immediate ancestors. The problem was: they were such young wardrobes (because of the war) that they didn't know themselves. Back home on a living room side table stood a head shot in a silver frame: the black-haired father as a full-dress marine. Uniforms had delayed his coming of age and his wardrobe's. Uniforms had crowded out all the other clothes until the end of the war, when he was twenty-four. But by then he was married and a father.
Now, at any rate, his wardrobe was in search of a self. For the Country Club lunch the father had put on the same dark gray suit as the family elders, but he'd taken off the jacket-that was daring. And his bow tie was not red like the elders' bow ties but made of faded blue plaid Madras (cotton cloth transplanted from southern India to the golf course). The blue Madras tie was attempting insouciance. Also if you got close to the father's white shirt you could see the slightly rough weave of Egyptian cotton. He liked the feel of that cotton and bought the finest shirts even on a young family's tight budget. At ankle level, his black socks were smooth: garters under his pants kept them up.
War had retarded the mother's wardrobe, too, but her clothes weren't even looking for a coherent self. The spectator pumps on her feet said "haute couture"; her dress said Oklahoma! She didn't see the contradiction. Besides, even holding her toddler-son and resting a hand on daughter-B.'s shoulder, she looked too young to be a mother.
She was not exactly invested in her relations with her wardrobe. She was so full of ideals, so thrilled by the new United Nations and the prospect of raising bright little tolerant children that she failed to pay it much attention.
The father was almost a dandy. The mother was not. She always looked slim and neat but liked shortcuts, such as dispensing with "rollers" to curl her hair. Instead she just flipped the ends up by tying a scarf around her head at night. Goodness mattered to her, not clothes. Clothes mattered to the father, not goodness.
B. was close to the mother and wary of the father. But I got more of My deep-down core identity from that father's wardrobe. I was imbued early on with the feel of those Egyptian cotton shirts and the pungent scent of Bay Rum that wafted from the bathroom in the mornings.
Maybe that's why I was interested, from the beginning, in the borderline where male and female clothes met but didn't fraternize-at least not in My early years (they would later).
Here's what My admiration of the father's wardrobe gave the young Me: a taste for rebellion. Or at least a strong impulse to resist the demure, the nice, the "girly."
Chapter 3: Grandmother
But you mustn't think Me an orphan without female elders. I had a splendid mentor: the wardrobe of the paternal grandmother.
In this Country Club tableau of My birth, this tall grandmother dominates, sitting in an armchair beside the chintz couch containing B. and mother and brother. A tweed suit jacket hangs like a cape on her shoulders. A double strand of pearls circles her neck, which rises to a long wrinkled face with marceled gray hair. Large pearl drops grace her ears. Removed and returned to her mouth in the flow of talk is a black cigarette holder containing a Benson and Hedges. Long legs with too-thin calves, encased in seamed stockings, end in fine-shaped walking shoes.
The paternal grandfather reclines in an adjacent armchair: bristle-mustached, a soft green-heather tweed jacket sheathing his portly form. Wardrobe-wise, he almost holds his own next to her.
Side by side on a couch opposite sit the other grandparents, the maternal ones, who, though richer, pale beside the paternal. He, small, Buddha-bald, drained of color in a beige three-piece suit; she, dark-haired, with slanting-down dark eyes, in a drooping knockoff of a Chanel suit.
At the end of the lunch the tall paternal grandmother leads the way out, heels clicking on the red tiled floor. She is helped into a long, pale beige, double-breasted polo coat with three close-together pairs of big, round mother-of-pearl buttons down the front.
This grandmother liked coats. People do, I think, who have itinerant childhoods. She had had a father trying to shake TB at a string of sanatoriums, trailed by his young family. Her polo coat from that faraway Country Club day is now hanging in the back of B.'s closet, a part of Me. B. wears it sometimes, but doesn't quite have the height to pull it off. Two other coats of the paternal grandmother hang there, too: a nut-brown fur cape (squirrel) that drips off B.'s back, and a long caramel brown suede coat with a red plaid lining and a tab collar.
This latter coat, My favorite, was made by Bonnie Cashin. It serves as proof that this grandmother loved her wardrobe enough to notice what Cashin and her twin American genius, Claire McCardell (I call them twins), were doing in the 1950s: devising the clean, modernist, unfussy shape for women to go with America's rise to mastery on the world stage. Remember that the world-mastery shape didn't swagger in those days. The Cashin-McCardell clothes were simple, sinuous, and meant for motion. Cashin's (and the grandmother's and B.'s) caramel brown suede coat hangs straight down, its plain façade broken only by five small brass buttons down its front and two breast-level pockets adorned with a button each. Such a shape serves above all to give the wearer room to stride out.
The paternal grandmother's clothes showed Me early on that the aim of a wardrobe should be to move freely, in concert with a body. As in a conversation.
Chapter 4: Dolls
Books about dolls gave the young B. her first great expectations about Me.
Sara Crewe, heroine of A Little Princess (1905), has a large intelligent-looking doll, Emily, with a lavish wardrobe, handmade at a real childrens, not a dolls, outfitter. Sara is the very rich little girl left by her father in a London boarding school who becomes the schools scullery maid when the father dies penniless in India, then its princess again when the fathers partner finds her by chance, in the garret, and showers her with presents (the sumptuous Emily sitting impassively throughout, in the corner, in a “frock” of lace or velvet or muslin).
Flora McFlimsey, in Miss Flora McFlimseys Christmas Eve (1949), is a doll herselfblond, quaint, forgotten in the attic with her trunk of elaborate old-fashioned clothes. Polished up along with her clothes, she triumphs on Christmas morning as a gift to a youngest daughter, in a family where older daughters dominate.
These two stories were read to B. at the time the father had just quit banking to be a commodity broker. Some days he came home rich and some days poor. The household was tense. A second little brother had arrived and another baby was on the way. Abandoned little girls in books made for good reading, especially if they had dolls or were dolls, with wardrobes. Into B.s young mind came the shadowy thought that a wardrobe might be enough of a companion to compensate for human neglect.
Thats how I started to be, in B.s mind, not just a bunch of clothes but a friend. A friend with many faces, who could respond, as no one else, to moods, needs, desires, and dreams.
A real doll appeared to underscore this thoughtCissy, from Madame Alexander. Cissy was discovered among many Cissies on a high shelf in Spicers Toy Store. She had lustrous black saran hair and forward-reaching tan vinyl arms, and wore a blue-and-green taffeta dress with white pantaloons showing underneath. But additional outfits could be bought for Cissy, complete with little purses and shoes. The additional outfits came singly in powder-blue boxes crisscrossed with flowers and Madames repeated signature, and on top, cellophane windows framing them.
Unfortunately none of these additional outfits could be bought right then since the family had come up against “a hard time with your dads job.” “Cissy really needs more clothes,” said B. “And she needs a friend. Shes my only older doll. The rest are babies.”
Christmas approached. Parental signals indicated a second Cissy in the offing.
But on the Christmas morning when the new Cissy should have sat among B.s presents, a strange doll appeared instead. She had dark brown, lusterless hair, not gleaming like Cissys. Her arms were hard, yellowish plastic instead of plump, pink vinyl. She had a shiny hard-plastic face with a childs full cheeks, and smallish eyes instead of the adolescent wide eyes of the new dolls like Cissy. And the “skin” of her face had little spidery cracks in it.
And yetthis strange new doll came with a trunk of her own, light blue, which opened into two parts, each lined with faded rose-sprigged fabric and each containing a row of miniature doll–size clothes on miniature hangers. Among the clothes were a doll-size light blue wool coat with black piping on the wide collar, a matching light blue beret with a black rim, a doll-size cotton lawn yellow-print summer dress with lace trim on puffed sleeves.
The clothes, a little faded like the doll, were anyway fascinating because they sported tucks and gathers, lace trim on sleeves, contrast-color piping on waists and hems, little pearl buttons on dresses, and small, doll-size sashes in back.
B. didnt know what to say to the mother, who was hovering nearby. The doll was named Sallie, the mother said. And the hair . . . “She has real human hair,” added the mother, as B. fingered the hair. “Its my own hair,” she explained. “Sallie was my doll, but she went to the hospital and got cleaned up, and she got new hairfrom me.”
B., kneeling on the floor, playing with Sallie, set her face in a mask of delight.
But sometimes a look of real wonder flitted across B.s set face, since I was there, whispering to her a surprising thought: that old doll clothes were more delicate, more intricate, more precious than any outfit Cissy would wear.
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