I’m standing (im)patiently in line at my local Barnes & Noble, my attention riveted by a woman at the checkout counter. Putting aside the Blackberry she’s fiddling with while the cashier, polite and as efficient as she can be, does her best to move the transaction along, it is her pencil-cut white shorts, halfway down her narrow hips, that have me wide-eyed with wonder. “You think she knows?” asks the woman ahead of me in line. I shake my head. “Too much multi-tasking.” Exposed black undies (in a bookstore, to boot) speak volumes about obliviousness. The woman behind me chimes in, maybe it’s a style. We are patient, curious, no cattiness here, just chit-chatting our way to the next open register. “If it were a guy with his shorts hanging out, would we give it a second thought?” posits the woman behind me. “Should someone tell her?” asks the woman in front me, though she admits maybe she wouldn’t care if she “had a butt like hers.” Subsumed in her query is simple consideration, the kind you would give a woman who leaves a restroom with her skirt inadvertently lifted or toilet tissue stuck to her shoe. At the same time, it is hard to resist the measuring up, woman to woman, about the same age, fifty-ish. I nod in the direction of the register, open now to the next customer, throwing out one parting query before she heads over. “Would you tell a guy his fly is open?” She gets my point: “If it were my son, yes I would.”
“Did she have a good body?” asks my husband when I relate the story over dinner. He wants details. Bikinis? Lace or cotton? How low-cut? “Not the point,” I point out. He is relentless. “Admit it – if she were fifty pounds overweight, the conversation would have taken a decidedly different turn.” I take a sip of wine, Jumilla, ask him to please pass the salad. He continues to bait me. I decide to indulge him. “The point is not weight or body type.” The hint of berries in the wine washes over my palate. “It’s about not caring – or being aware of – how you present yourself. It’s about being a grown woman and adopting the style of a teenager. And yes, it’s about taste .” Or the lack of it.
The fashion police (aka my daughter) are out in full force when I reach for my denim jacket. Didn’t I know (duh!) it’s a big no-no, denim jacket with jeans? Maybe I did (I shrug), maybe I just didn’t care. It’s a roomy jacket, vintage design, a remnant of tapestry pieced into the back. I remember buying it, a crafts fair years ago. I had my choice of designs but this one, a tapestry of books, appealed to me most. Tongue in cheek, I think of it as my book jacket. I have another jean-style jacket, soft green, more cropped and form-fitting, something I picked up at Anthropologie, shopping with my daughter. I hang up the ‘book’ jacket, put on the green one. Out we go.
“Cute top,” says my friend. H&M, I tell her, two for the price of one, a mother-daughter moment. How could I resist? “Isn’t it great,” she goes on, “that we can still dress cute at sixty?” We are long-time yoga buddies, dressed for vinyasa (Lululemon for her, Be Present for me), minutes before class. We are both sixty-ish, spirits (in training) in a world gone more material than ever. Is there something of a paradox here, grown women enticed by a marketing culture that encourages us to dress like our daughters? Is it the ‘sixty’ that gives me pause? Or the ‘cute’? Tell my mother she looked cute in something, at any age, and she would bristle. No woman should ever be called cute, she insisted. Girls are cute. Boys are cute. Little dogs are cute (she hated cats).
There’s a photograph of my mother, long disappeared, now a picture imprinted in my mind. It is New Year’s Eve, early1960s, and she is wearing a shimmering white sheath, silver threads running through it, a mandarin collar, hair done in the style of Elizabeth Taylor. She took pride in the way she looked, welcomed those occasions when a little more than day make-up was required. I loved slipping into her shoes. There was one pair I borrowed (permanently), in my twenties, a sexy high-heeled mule, black suede with accents of gold leather, open toe. The base is a slight platform made of two different types of wood, and the heel is a skinny ziggurat of brass. Putting aside the sheer, original beauty of the design, the shoe reveals something about my mother’s sense of style. Even Christian Louboutin would be impressed.
Things have a way of coming full circle. I’m walking around my house, breaking in a pair of satin pink-wisteria-orange-toned slingbacks. There is a tie-dye look to them, summer Manolos, a smashing complement to the gorgeous pink satin dress my daughter will wear to the wedding of a good friend. It was my daughter’s idea, get mom a pair of spiffy shoes, let her borrow them. Not that she wouldn’t love them for herself, but a working girl on a budget knows her limitations, and it is indeed the thought that counts here: ever since the day she herself was granted entry into Manolo world as a rite of a passage, twenty-one years old, a gift card with the insistence that she treat herself to that special pair of shoes, she has wanted her mom to walk down the same runway. A year later, another passage, some of that graduation gelt would be put aside for another pair of Manolos, one last treat before leaving the safe haven of college for the insecurity of the real world, overworked and underpaid. There was hesitation (should I? shouldn’t I?) but weighed against the impracticality of the purchase was the sense of self and style the shoes brought. Act confident, I would say, you become confident. Look great, my mother would say, you feel great.
“Cute,” remarks my husband, hearing the clomp clomp before he sees me, a mismatch of Gap khaki capris and la crème de les chausseures. He does not say a word about this maternal indulgence (collusion, he would call it, secretly amused at what it is that mothers and daughters do with, and for, each other). Nor does he say what I know he’s thinking (yes, they’re elegantly designed, beautifully made, even if wildly overvalued). “Don’t you think they’ll look great with jeans?” He nods, sure, whatever. Not that he wouldn’t appreciate seeing me in fitted jeans, my legs elongated by sexy tapered heels. Even better a skirt, preferably a mini. I can pull off the look, I have the legs, why not? It is the rationale of a dare, the crux of defiance. And yet, for all that it reveals, a mini skirt insists on keeping something masked. You’re making too much of this, I can hear my husband say. You should feel good, you can still look hot. At least he doesn’t say cute.
Times change, styles (and Attitude) evolve, disappear, return. It was a mod mod world when the mini skirt came on the scene, the lid on repression knocked off its hinges, freedom of expression in full flower. If the mini never really left, just got pushed to the back of the closet in the decades that followed, it left its mark in the youth culture that has us in its thrall. Irony of ironies: Gap-lore has it that the iconic store was named to mark the generational gulf that existed when it opened in 1969, San Francisco becoming the first jeans-only retail outlet. Who could have predicted that it would spawn more than 3,000 stores worldwide, in essence becoming the pioneer for a way of shopping, Baby Boomers and their Gen Y offspring in adjoining dressing rooms? Or that fashion, dominated by the monkey-see/monkey-do mentality of market forces, would become so homogenized? The chains may do a good job of making clothes affordable, but we all pay a high price in the loss of originality.
Which brings me back to my Manolos and the mini skirt. For all the mother-daughter bonding that shopping brings, my daughter has her own sense of style and I have mine. Yet somewhere between her Vans’ sneakers and my sporty Arche, her Steve Madden and my Cole Haan, there is common ground. It may be the Stuart Weitzman pumps or Sigerson-Morrison boots we both try on. Those Gap tank tops and Banana Republic tees for everyday wear, the occasional American Eagle button-down, those French Sole ballet slippers and Victoria’s Secret leggings. But I draw the line at very low rise jeans and boots with shorts, pajama pants with the VS Pink logo and, yes, dresses or skirts that make me tug at the hem when I’m seated. Maybe it’s simply a question of taste and comfort. Or maybe it has something to do with being a little more true to the person inside the persona. In Carolyn Heilbrun’s eloquent book, Writing a Woman’s Life, there are pithy epigraphs beginning each chapter, among my favorites this one from a poem by Maxine Kumin: “When Sleeping Beauty wakes up/she is almost fifty years old.” It may have been Carrie Bradshaw who brought out the Cinderella, Manolo-longing in my daughter, but there’s something to be said for having a mother who knows it doesn’t take much to acquire a taste for the feel of a cashmere sweater or the suppleness of a shoe designed to last. A mother who’s been there/done that – Hippie bell bottoms, Annie Hall la-de-da trousers, fitted vamp jumpsuits – and knows that the way we dress is but one of the many ways we tell stories about ourselves.
I’m in a funky clothing store, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with my two dearest friends, one a month older than me, one almost a year younger. We look young for our age, feel the pinch of youth even more shopping together in a store that’s as close to retro East Village hip as you can get in New Hampshire. There is everything here from glitter to linen, more low-brow than high, no brand names I recognize. We browse the racks, hold things up for each other’s approval, decide which might be worth trying on. One of us has experienced the loss of a husband, one has never married. The one who has lost a husband, only a year ago, is trying on a new life, cooking meals in a new home for friends old and new. No need to dress for success (telecommuting for years now) except for the occasional business trip, and I take pride in personally having helped her divest, items of clothing no longer worth keeping even for the sentimental value. The three of us are having a ball, in and out dressing rooms, reminded of a time, just yesterday it seems, when we all lived in the place John Lennon called the center of the universe, NYC, a place only one of us still calls home (though living in an exurban town only an hour north, and going in as often as I need, sometimes makes me feel as if I never left). The friend who is too young to be a widow tries on a baby doll top (colorful bra peeking through) and leggings. She looks fantastic, all smiles, even if uncertain whether this is the right look. The other friend and I nod – yes yes – don’t give it a second thought. We continue picking through the racks – everything from Cher to Grace Kelly here, both reminders in their distinct, iconic way that it is not styles, changing with each season, that define the woman so much as it is the woman who defines her style.