Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two memories of past outfits, both influenced by books.

 I am going through file after file looking for notes or articles that I've compiled over the past four years in anticipation of writing this next (last!) chapter. As I've done so, I've discovered a couple of bits and pieces that I wrote for friends' projects and forgot to give them (sorry Kate!) or wrote with the vague intention of crafting them into a personal essay before probably deciding that I should really get back to work (like I should be doing now?)

So it is that I present to you two fragments in which I catalogue two outfits that are bright in my memory for various reasons. They are not the high point of my life in clothes (vomit. My life in clothes? Aka the name of my B-grade autobiography) but they are languishing on my hard drive so here! I hope you enjoy 'em.


i.                     Not quite Claudia Kishi
 A cliché of certain girls of my generation, I too was sucked into the Stoney Brook world of the Babysitter’s Club (the BSC for those playing at home) and who should catch the eye of my fledgling sense of style than the maven herself, Claudia Kishi. The artistic, dreamy Japanese-American Vice President, whose horrifically bad spelling is only redeemed by her snazzy personal style. This is a character who would team one wooden parrot earring with one dangling plastic earring in the shape of a lightning bolt, worn with a painter’s smock, ripped jeans, mismatched knee-high socks and platform sandals. In other words, just the type of bohemian visual supernova that a girl like me yearned to emulate, stranded as I was in suburbia and awash in peers who lived their lives in the almost-but-not-quite surfbrand labels Hot Tuna, Bad Girl and Cheetah.

I remember staring nervously into the depths of my built-in cupboard, pushing the flimsy chipboard sliding door as far over as it would go to try and make my scant collection of clothes seem more full of prospect. It seemed best to build my homage to Claudia with the clothes I wore least, in the surety that combining them would, through some alchemical process, render them as cool as her vintage blouses and acidwash jeans sounded. I built a winning ensemble around a sleeveless onesie, made of that hypercolour fabric that that turns a different colour in flushing splotches at the application of heat, be it from the iron or (embarrassingly as I got older) the clammy heat of armpits and the small of my back. My onesie was a pale coral colour and I dressed it without a shirt underneath, with socks under rubber thongs and one earring. The effect was, if somewhat unusual, dashing. I stepped out of my room in a slightly anxious flush of suspense, waiting for my mother’s gaze (and judgement) to fall upon me. “You are not going out in that!” Instantly, I felt deeply misunderstood, indignant. It was as if a phantasm of Claudia rose behind me, stood at my right shoulder and egged me on. “But it’s like in the Babysitter’s Club, Mum! I’m like Claudia Kishi” Her steely gaze ended the discussion and I dragged my resentful self back into my room.

ii.                   Not quite a Sweet Valley twin
Years later, I experienced a similar scorn at the behest of my peers at youth group. Again indoctrinated by the style of American girl culture, I was inspired by the jaunty layering of the girls with Whitsundays smiles of Jessica Wakefield and the Unicorn Club. Luckily for me, I was the proud owner of a shrunken knitted vest that Mum had let me choose from the Recycled Rags stall she co-ordinated at our church fête every year. It was just the thing, and to hold it and know it was mine was a fierce pleasure the likes of which I had rarely felt before. It was the hungry pleasure of having something I had longed for without knowing I longed for it, visceral in the teeth-sinking satisfaction of it. It was not only a matter of replicating what those girls looked like but somehow, by imitating them, to be made in their likeness so that I too would be effortlessly social, smiling, beautiful. Such were the inarticulate longings of my fourteen-year-old self.

Unfortunately, the other girls at youth group had missed the memo. I could not have anticipated their response as I dressed, but I only thought of them in an abstract way, anyway. They were shadows flickering at the corner of my mind which, like a mirror, was reflecting the dream self I desired to be with the real fleshly self hastily buttoning my blue sateen Miss Shop blouse, this corporeal teenager hurrying to the chimerical self lingering in the play of possibility, of shadow and light. I wore a short skirt- it must have been black- and blushed pre-emptively at my daring. The blue shirt smoothed over my flat chest and over that, the precious white wool vest, with its two pearlescent plastic buttons at the nape of the neck. It was slightly cropped, allowing the dovetails of the blue blouse to skim free and visible at the bottom.

I brushed my hair up, shimmering with nervous excitement. The collision of my desire with the gentle weight of these garments had heightened my senses, so walking out of my front door to the church next door, I was keenly aware of the setting sun, its rays too distant to carry warmth in their dying glow. I smelt the early back-burning on the evening air, the hale smoky tang at one with the residual heat of the day, like a wave absorbing my clammy palms, my heart which was primed with the anticipation of being the height of fashion.  Proud and a little uncertain, I walked into the loose cluster of girls congregated around the frangipani tree bordering my garden and the church property.

So they stood in knee-length boardies, singlet tops with spaghetti straps or Chesty Bonds singlets, the thinness of their cotton fabric countered by the juicy colours they were manufactured in that year, the hot magentas, tangerines and limes at odds with the black and blues of the favoured boardies of all discerning Year Eight girls at the time. “What are you wearing?” squawked Deirdre. She was tall, broad-shouldered and new to the group. She came with the vague threat of being from the same school as all the rest, with a reputation of being a bit of a bully, the kind of girl you needed to befriend before she could decide she didn’t like you.

“You look dumb! Why are you wearing two tops? It’s too hot.” But worse than her scornful scattershot sentences was her laughter, bitchy and genuine. And dumb I was in the face of her smirk. How could I explain what that outfit had meant to me? The sophisticated edge I had inhabited a moment before disintegrated and left me exposed. The shame that had lain latent on the other side of the knife’s edge of my risk enveloped me. I was suddenly convinced that I did indeed look silly, that my layering was redundant, my skirt too short.


I fled back home, deaf to the calls of the youth group leaders bringing up the rear, rounding everyone into the church hall for games. I don’t remember what clothes I grabbed to replace the scorned outfit but I do remember being deeply relieved that I only lived next door and that, most important of all at fourteen, that none of the boys had been there to witness my gaffe. 

(And I guess it’s lucky for me that I never got it into my head to emulate Anne Shirley’s puffed sleeves or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pinafores or things could have got a whole lot more interesting.)

(One day a psychologist is going to explain the significance of how my identity was shaped by the books I read. Things happen to me and in reflection I decide something like 'it's okay, it was also like this for Emily' (of New Moon, duh).)

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