(Me, snapped by my partner)
Women in Clothes is a diverse collection of stories, musings, and memories, about how clothes shape women’s lives and views of the world, and it also includes lovely photographic taxonomies of women’s personal clothing and accessory collections. Inspired by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton’s anthology Women in Clothes, I decided to write a spontaneous post about my sometimes embarrassing sometimes empowering relationship to clothing (using a few past Instagram selfies).
I grew up poor, the poorest kid in my class. My mom, who went to school for dance and art, never became an artist. She married my dad, who also went to art school (for sculpture and jewelry design), had three kids, separated from and eventually divorced my dad (when I was 5), went back to school in her 40s, and eventually became a successful massage therapist and ran her own business. We lived with my mom, and my dad was unable to contribute to our lives financially, although he was supportive in other ways.
I knew I was the poorest kid in my class. I would frequently sleep over at my wealthier friends’ houses, stuffing a garbage bag full of clothes and toys to bring with me, but the few times I had a friend over, a girl who lived in a mansion in the suburbs, I would tell her we were renovating the top floors of our house, even though there were separate entrances to the other units and it was very obviously a duplex. My mom slept on a pullout bed in the living room. I would covet and borrow my friends’ clothes, and they would constantly give me makeovers, putting butterfly clips in my hair and letting me wear their designer brand name clothes.
My wardrobe for many years was a mix of my brother’s and sister’s hand-me-downs, since I was the youngest, or else finds from Value Village. When I was very young I wore frilly dresses and was chubby. Later, in the upper grades of elementary school, I was skinny, gawky, and looked like a tomboy for a year or two, but I don’t remember if this was by choice or because of the resources at hand. Clothing did not mean much to me up until grades 5 or 6 when I began to notice how much nicer my classmates’ clothes were than mine.
When I was 11 -12, I sometimes wore “sexy” clothes to elementary school. I remember one bright red cinched spandex tube top that I wore with fashionably ripped jeans and Sketchers. I don’t even think it was meant to be a shirt. A few teachers told me that this was inappropriate, and they gave me a large crumpled t-shirt from the lost and found to wear for the rest of the day. I felt I could harness a power in these “sexy” clothes, but I had zero clue as to what that power was, and I felt so ashamed when they forbid me from wearing them. The tube top looked something like this:
I had this black Nike hoodie from Value Village that said “Just Do It” in bright orange writing. My mom bought it for me sometime in elementary school, and I loved it. I would hide in it and feel so safe; then kids started laughing at me and I didn’t understand why. Later, I realized with horror that “it” to a bunch of preteens was obviously a reference to sex, and I never wore it again.
For summer camp one year, I wore a t-shirt that had a tiny man, a convict I think, with a slingshot and the writing “It’s Always Funny Until Someone Loses an Eye”; I thought it was so cool and wore it on the bus, but then I remember kids looking at me like I was a freak, and I changed on the bus and stopped wearing it that summer. My mom had purchased it at Value Village for me. I wore it on the camp bus that day with an oversized faded blue denim baseball cap that fell over my eyes.
When I was a kid I also had an oversized Peewee Herman t-shirt that I couldn’t care less about (maybe a hand-me-down), and now I am heartbroken about that indifference. I don’t wear t-shirts very often anymore, except for big vintage t-shirt sometimes to sleep in the winter time. I like dresses now, and high wasted blue jeans with simple or vintage tops and eclectic accessories; I often experiment with different looks, and I don’t think that I have great taste in clothing.
Over the past two years I have changed my hair colour so frequently (it has been red, black, blue, pink, blond, purple, and now light brown again), that my hair is probably my main accessory; there is a power in changing your hair colour, taking control of your appearance in that way. I love colour too, so I appreciate seeing people who aren’t afraid to experiment, that stand out from a crowd. I have never felt comfortable with my hair, so I am always open to experiment. Whenever I shave my head or have a pixie cut, I feel lighter, but then I do notice people react to me differently and make assumptions about who I am, and I have felt like I have to find other ways to compensate, to bring certain qualities of myself back out again, like wearing large earrings, or wearing very cute dresses.
During my later years of elementary school, I began stealing clothes from my older sister. She was working at her first part time jobs, at a restaurant and Dairy Queen, I think, and that meant she was able to spend money on clothes at the mall. Stealing from her was not so difficult, as she usually ran track early in the morning, and we shared a bedroom and a closet until I was thirteen. I felt anxious at school sometimes though, worried about returning the clothing exactly where it was in the closet before she noticed, or she would kill me. We fought all the time.
Then when I was 12, my Safta (grandmother on my dad’s side) who lived overseas sent me some money for my bat mitzvah. I never had a bat mitzvah because it was too expensive, and it seemed to only be socially unacceptable if the boy in the family did not have his. Also, we weren’t very religious. My grandmother sent money anyways, to treat all of her grandchildren as equals. She sent me more money than I had seen in my entire life. I always wonder if she knew how crazy that was.
I spent it all in less than three months. My parents gave me complete control. I went with my wealthy friend to the mall half a dozen times, and I impressed her by spending almost a hundred dollars each time. I imagined that she was jealous of me. I had beautiful clothes for about a year, and then I went through puberty and outgrew everything.
I remember from this time period: a long-sleeved polyester stretchy shirt with blue sky, clouds, and rainbows, and a velvet purple shirt with long flared sleeves, and tight dark denim jeans with shiny silk threading, all from Le Chateau. I felt like a princess that year. I felt so beautiful. Although it was like a wasted wish a genie had granted me, it was also a year of masquerade and magical thinking. So maybe it was worth it. The long-sleeve cloud shirt looked like this:
When I was in high school my mom worked really hard to make sure we had new clothes, and every Hanukkah my sister and I would go with her to the shopping mall or Winners to pick out a few new outfits; the summertime before camp was also a time of surplus clothing, a few items extra that we didn’t really need. When I was sixteen I landed my first job as a cashier and “customer service representative” at Value Village, and I grew to love thrifting and discovering those rare articles of clothing that become treasures (or you never ever wore, but they reminded you of a person you would like to be). I remember some of the regular customers were so endearing. I helped an older woman buy gifts for her dozens of grandchildren every few months, and another man, who wore a Power Puff Girls backpack, regularly came for toys and would often ask to see the “treasures” locked inside the glass case at the front of the store. We were not allowed to purchase anything during our shift, store policy, so I often hid the things I discovered and coveted, until the end of my shift. There were many older women who worked there, who had extremely difficult lives, and had to deal with health problems and unbearably perky younger managers. I remember I wore a dark green velvet shirt to work one day, an Elvin sort-of-cloak thing, that did up in the front with two ancient looking bronze clasps, had long sleeves, and dipped way down in the back; one of the older ladies admired my shirt and pulled me aside to tell me that if I ever wanted to attract a man in life, that was the way to dress, in long flowing velvet. An ex-boyfriend always made fun of me for that cloak and called me a magician. Velvet does give me confidence though, although it is, I acknowledge, a ridiculous fabric. When I sold prints of my drawings in front of the liquor mart when I was 19, I wore blue velvet. There’s so many cultural allusions and mythologies attached to velvet—David Lynch’s seedy Blue Velvet (1986), for example; it’s fun to play with.
My mom often gives me accessories and clothing that belonged to her when she was younger, or my grandmother, or my great grandmother. She says this is because I don’t lose things; I am the family archivist in this way. I have my Great Granny Annie’s black Persian lamb fur coat, complete with a rabbit collar. I would never buy a new fur coat, and I have only worn this once, but it makes me feel connected to my elegant great grandmother, who once ran a ladies’ fashion department. One day I know I will have the right occasion to wear it again, and it makes me feel glamorous knowing that I can. I also have several delicate embroidered leather gloves that belonged to my mother’s mother. I have an evil-looking costume ring that belonged to her as well that I call my magician’s ring.
Visiting home in Winnipeg for a friend’s wedding, trying on my great grandmother’s fur coat two winters ago, bringing it back to Toronto with me
People notice your clothes and make assumptions about you, and this is both frustrating and exhilarating; it is a relief in a way, if you are shy or have social anxiety, to be able to express who you are without having to speak or be in the spotlight. A few years ago, I bought a ridiculous Michael Kors maxi dress at a second-hand store; it is extremely long, with a lime green geometric pattern, tie-up sash at the waste, and gold collar. Not once have I worn this dress, but I feel powerful with it in my closet, like a weapon. I want to become the woman who is confident enough to wear this dress, and it makes me hopeful for this future.
As I write this, I am wearing a dark red velvet summer dress, vintage from the 1990s, while working at one of my library jobs. I purchased it a few days ago at Black Market in Toronto, where everything in the entire store, including vintage jackets, is $10 or less!
A Halloween look (Lydia Deetz, Beetlejuice) that would maybe be my ideal way to dress
I would love to read posts about other women’s clothing memories if you would like to join in?