During my childhood I would go home with my best friend after school about once a week. She had two younger brothers, one of whom was young enough to be having an afternoon nap when we arrived, making it necessary for us to be extremely quiet because her mother would not be happy with us if we wakened him. So we would tiptoe into the back door and make our way stealthily to my friend’s bedroom. Our quiet play usually consisted of reading or dressing/undressing our Barbie dolls. Conversing in stage whispers, we had to suppress our giggles before they turned into noisy fits of laughter.
While we were playing, I was aware of my friend’s mother rustling around in her bedroom next door. I could hear the closet door opening and closing, the whisk of hangars passed across the clothes rod, followed by the sounds of zippers being zipped, snaps being snapped. Periodic efficient clicks ensued, sounds I recognized as the opening and closing of lipsticks and compacts.
By the time the baby was awake, my friend’s mother would emerge from her room dressed in a slim skirt and matching sweater, with a pair of black low-heeled pumps on her feet. She always wore a pearl studs in her pierced ears, and soft pink lipstick. Her gray hair, though cut short, was neatly styled and freshly brushed. She would lift the baby gently out of his crib and set him to play in his playpen, then go into the kitchen and finish preparing dinner.
This transformation was a mystery to me. My own mother dressed each day in plain slacks and tops, which she wore all day unless she was going out, at which time she often put on an ensemble similar to my friend’s mothers. One day my curiosity got the better of me. “Why does your mom get dressed up every afternoon?” I asked my friend.
I could see she had never paid this much attention. “I don’t know,” she said. “Probably because she wants to look nice for my dad when he gets home from work."
Keep in mind that this was the mid 1960’s, an era when women in their mid-30’s were mostly at home all day raising the children. When the men came in after a hard day at the office, wives still felt it was their duty to have a hot meal prepared, the children clean, tidy, and quiet. Sometimes they also felt it behooved them to look attractive.
Obviously this made an impression on me because I’m still remembering it 50 years later (as I sit here wearing black yoga pants and a 10 year old Tabor Hill Winery t-shirt topped with an Eddie Bauer thermal sweatshirt.) I am home all day today, working around the house and at my desk, so I will most likely have this outfit on when my husband comes home at the end of his work day (at which point he will change into gray fleece pants and an oversized flannel shirt.)
I guess I started thinking about this after watching Downton Abbey the other night. As we watch, we chuckle at the number of times everyone changes their clothes at Downton. The ladies will wear one outfit for breakfast, another for riding or walks in the morning, still another for afternoon tea, and a final full dress affair for dinner. Each outfit requires the assistance of their ladies maid to lay out the pieces, tighten the corsets, fasten the jewelry clasps, and smooth on the gloves. The men don’t have it much better with their stiff shirt fronts, high starched collars, and innumerable hats, all of which signify their social class and status, so must be chosen with care and attention to detail.
Thing have drastically changed in the dress up department in the past 100 years - even in the past 40 or 50. Perhaps we have devolved too far into casual complacency when it comes to our appearance. I was certainly brought up to dress nicely, and even though my mother didn’t “dress for dinner,” she believed in people looking stylish and wearing good clothes. She often bemoaned that my father, if left to his own devices, would dress “as if he just got off the boat,” while my clothes were always purchased at quality stores like J.L. Hudson or Jacobsons- no K-Mart, Montgomery Wards or Sears duds for me. So I grew up loving clothes, although I went through a period of being very chubby and buying clothing was a completely demoralizing experience. But by the time I reached puberty, the baby fat distributed itself nicely into a Junior size 3, and I became a clothes horse of the first order. The hardest part of going to a Catholic high school was being forced to wear a uniform every day. It was torture for a young style maven like me.
As a adult, when I worked in a high school I usually dressed in what’s known as business causal. I wanted to set a good example for the teenage girls, who mostly came to school in outfits that could have been plucked from the floor of their brothers closet. Later, when I was working in an office, I continued to dress professionally, adding blazers and skirts to my office wardrobe. I enjoyed dressing up each day, although as I aged it was harder to keep up with style trends without looking ridiculous.
“Dress codes” for school and work had begun to disappear in the 1970’s and were all but gone by the 21st century. The year I started high school was the first year that girls were allowed to wear pants to school in the public schools. (Yes, I am that old.) I remember the school administration tried to prevent the change by quoting “scientific evidence” that young people performed better in school if they were "dressed up.”
I can’t quote you those studies, but I can tell you from personal experience there might be something to that - at least for some people. I do feel more confident and focused when I’m wearing a smart looking outfit. It’s only common sense - if you feel attractive you have more confidence which can translate into better performance. It’s akin to drinking coffee from a beautiful china cup. It always seems to taste better when you do. And sexist or not, most men- at least men of a certain age- will tell you they appreciate a woman who is “dressed up,” especially if she’s wearing a skirt or dress. (I know. But they can’t help it.) Besides, I appreciate a man in a classically tailored navy suit with a crisp white shirt and beautiful silk tie.
Still, I’m not interested in dressing like the Edwardians at Downton Abbey. Nor do I really want to feel compelled to put on a smart looking outfit each afternoon to wear while we eat dinner in front of the TV like my friend’s mother did in the 1960’s. And since I’m home all the time, I realize I’ve let my appearance slide. I tend to reach for the same pair of jeans and black tops every day. My yoga pants beckon when it’s time to watch TV or settle into the reading chair. I wonder: Would my writing go better if I put on slacks and a tailored shirt? Would I be more inclined to practice piano seriously if I were wore a flowing skirt to the piano bench?
Perhaps that’s a good experiment to try, one of these cold winter days when I’m home alone and feeling like playing dress up.