Asking Amy Issue #6: We Wear What We Are

Stories of Garments, Sewing, Wearing, Glo-ing

I open my wardrobe:

(That time I attended Mardi Gras costumed as Eileen Fisher)

I have a friend who methodically switches her clothing from winter to summer (and then back again) twice a year. Garments are examined, cleaned, repaired, and then packed away. This ritual has always reminded me of the wonderful scene in one of my favorite movies, Gosford Park, where head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (played by Helen Mirren), notes in a ledger which of the grand household’s linens have been used, so she can always rotate fresh ones in.

The scene, played at the end of the film, comes after she has had a stunning and shocking emotional reveal. The ledger marks her character’s return.

It is a tiny moment, but it is one I love. If I were more organized (or at all organized), I’d keep such a ledger — but it would be for my clothes.

Growing up as I did, on a dairy farm just outside a village of 500 people, I never knew what to do about my secret love of clothes. My mother discouraged any talk about what she called “looks,” and so I kept my desire to wear knee-high go-go boots, fur coats, taffeta ball gowns, riding breeches, waistcoats, silk pajamas, tuxedos and flapper dresses — to myself.

Headed out to the barn with my sisters, trudging through the snow for the evening milking, I fantasized about what it would be like to own the perfect coat, versus the one I was wearing, which was — like most of my clothes — handed down from an older sibling.

Once or twice a year my mother would pull out her old black Singer sewing machine and let me pick out a Butterick pattern and fabric from Woolworths, and she would whip me up an outfit, which I would wear to school — and …

I would feel AMAZING.

(It was called a “maxi vest” and I loved it! (Glowering ancestor sold separately)

The character I play in my own life has had a few stunningly emotional reveals, many eventful moments, and even more quotidian “happenings,” and I can remember every single thing I’ve ever worn for every one of them.

I’ve been the bride at two weddings, and so naturally I can picture those momentous occasions (vintage flapper for #1, Italian silk for #2), but I also remember what I was wearing the day my ex-husband got remarried and I spent the afternoon getting drunk by myself at the Oak Room (unfortunate white ankle jeans, what-was-I-thinking double breasted blue wool blazer, Belgian loafers).

In 2009, I was in New York City for a meeting, and — alone in the city, I went to see an off-Broadway show called: “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.” The show — a series of monologues, was based on a book by Ilene Beckerman, and written by sisters Nora and Delia Ephron. In an interview, Nora Ephron said she identified with the stories in Love, Loss, and What I Wore because the book "is not about fashion; it is about what clothes really are to us, those moments when we are constantly trying to find our identity through them."

I could write a very thick book called "My Fashion Fails,” but — as someone who is a collector of clothing, I have definitely forged my identity through my wardrobe. I’ve been wearing “pre-worn” clothing all of my adult life, and so most of my favorite clothes — found at rummage sales and re-sale shops —originated with someone else.

(This is what I wore for my “employee photo” on the first day at my first professional job — NBC News, Washington, DC, 1983: Featuring men’s trousers, men’s shirt, suspenders — all bought at The Christ Child Opportunity Shop in DC. I still have the shirt!)

I guess I am still most comfortable wearing what are essentially hand-me-downs.

Worn Stories:

Last week I watched the WONDERFUL series “Worn Stories” on Netflix. Each half-hour episode tells the story of an individual’s very deep connection to one item: One coat, one scarf, one pair of boots. As these people tell their stories, you see how deeply and beautifully we all inhabit the characters we play, and how our clothing helps us tell our story.

With the exception of the knee-high go-go boots, I now have at least one of every item on my childhood wish list — including the riding breeches and boots — purchased at our local feed store during a brief period when I was trying to learn how to ride a horse.

Turns out, I really only wanted to look like I knew how to ride a horse.

And this outfit: put together for my ONE foray into fly-fishing.

Mission Very Much Accomplished

In Praise of Dresses

Dresses and dresses and dresses. Even though I wear trousers at least 98% of the time … I LOVE dresses.

Here is one of my favorites. I got it at H & M in New York City around 16 years ago for $23 (I may have forgotten the year I bought it, but I’ll never forget that price).

It is tan, it has pockets, it has a voluminous parachute skirt that hides a multitude of lumps and bumps, and it swishes when I walk.

When I went through Instagram looking for a picture of me wearing this dress, I found around 15 of them. Over the years I’ve worn this dress to the opera, to weddings, parties, church, and for probably a dozen tapings of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

And THIS dress:

We call it The Button Dress. Because it has buttons on it. I got the fabric, I got the buttons, I drew a picture of it on a piece of paper, and a woman who had a little dress-making shop in our apartment building made it for Emily — 26 years ago. (My mother taught me a great many things, but — unlike both of my sisters — I never learned to sew.)

I haven’t worn a dress in over a year, but on my clothes tree, two dresses stand at the ready — one ready to be worn until it is worn out, and the other… there because I love my memories of the little girl who once wore it.

My favorite fashion stories of the week:

Amanda Gorman gracing the cover of Vogue — and proving there is nothing she cannot do — or wear …

Future fashion icon Kamryn Gardner, age 7, who convinced Old Navy to make trousers for girls with REAL POCKETS!

“I wrote to them because I would like a place to put my hands and a place to hold my stuff,” said Kamryn, a first-grader at Evening Star Elementary. “I want my pants to have real pockets like my brother’s pants.”

Well done, Kamryn. We all owe you.


Railey Jane Savage’s JUNK FOOD:

… A feature where our essayist examines her life through what’s playing on her VCR

This week’s installment:

But what will I wear?

Railey writes:

“Betty Boop. Mr. Bean. Fran Leibowitz. Railey Jane Savage. What do these personalities have in common? Dedication to an outfit. 

The life-age of my ensemble pales in comparison to Leibowitz’s suit, but my black dress, black leggings, and black sweater have served me well for the past 8-10 years. (Though look out, Fran - I’m a fan of a great big blazer.)

I’ve always liked to wear black, but about a decade ago I stopped looking for anything else. Part of this was because I fell into a steep depression that left me unable to make rational choices - I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone pick out an outfit - so a nondescript black shift quickly moved from being a convenient thing to wear, to the only thing I wore. It was really hard. On me, and the dress. 

When Prince Albert died in 1861 his beloved queen, Victoria, donned traditional mourning clothes for a non-traditional length of time: forty years. Until her death in 1901 Victoria wore only black garments - touches of white, mauve, or pearl did not detract from the overall effect. I think about her clothes a lot.

Without the need to be utilitarian (she was the Queen of England, after all) what Victoria wore was a distinct choice and statement on the persistence of grief. But it was in my grief that I found the beauty and freedom inherent in not choosing something to wear every morning.

Victoria made an active choice to wear only black, and I made the active choice to not make the choice anymore. 

Betty Boop and Mr. Bean are cartoons (Rowan Atkinson is living, breathing animation) whose characteristics are reinforced by their costumes - Mr. Bean’s caricature of a functioning human, Ms. Boop’s toeing the line between sexy and sad - but Fran Leibowitz and I are humans with all the wonderful, terrible privileges innate to free will. Is choosing to not choose somehow underutilizing that free will? I think not, for I have found comfort and renewed focus without the burden of tiny choices.

I’d argue Fran Leibowitz is iconic both thanks to, and in spite of, her outfit. And though I don’t aspire to be the next Boop, Bean, or Leibowitz, I remain dedicated to my outfit.”

(Railey Jane Savage wears, and writes, from her home in Ludlowville, NY)

Laura Likes:

Where my friend Laura recommends great things:

Laura writes:

“I have a sweater that I bought in 1985 for what I thought was a scandalous price at the time. I think it was about $85 (tax, title, and destination fees extra). I looked at a cost conversion calculator and that comes out to a little over $200 in today's dollars. But I'm telling you, I fell in LOVE with this sweater.

I have never been much of a clothes horse -- utilitarian all the way (lots of rock band t-shirts). I've only had a couple of jobs where I had to dress up for work, and I've always carried more weight than I would have liked, so: not super-into fashion.

But I saw this sweater, and it pretty much matched my ideal -- the ur-sweater, as it were -- and I felt like I had to have it. I needed to raise the money to do it, so I sold some records and some books, and took on extra shifts at my part-time job and sweated bullets that it would be gone in the two weeks that I needed to come up with it. It wasn't.

It became mine. I loved it then, and I love it still, and I will never get rid of it. 

It's charcoal grey wool, with an odd subtle sort of honeycomb cable, and the yarn is studded with tiny flecks of brilliant color.

(In this extreme closeup, you can see flecks of woolen fireworks enlivening the charcoal grey)

It's heavy, roomy, warm and comforting, and I can't think of a single thing in my closet I like more. Seeing as how it's over 35 years old, I only haul it out periodically on days I need to be cheered up, or need confidence, or for special (chilly) occasions. 

This gives me the opportunity to tell you a bit about sweater maintenance, I suppose: Always store them folded, not on a hanger. Keep moths away -- I love cedar, but find it's not foolproof. However, no critters have attacked this one because I've always kept it in some kind of box (college, grad school, entry-level job) or storage bag (now).

(Certified FRESH)

I bought a bunch of these thick plastic bags designed so that you can stick your item in the bag, then use this small vacuum thingy that sucks all the air out of the bag so it doesn't take up so much room....but you can just use a big Ziploc-type bag and squeeze the air out.

Sweater Operating Instructions:

Don't forget to take the sweaters out of their kind of vaguely Seal-a-Meal™ containers and let them breathe a bit a couple of times over the summer. It sounds like a lot of work, but sweaters can be expensive, and it's a labor of love. Don't heave it into the washing machine. Hand-wash it, and use a special wool wash product. Don't tumble dry. Wash it only every 4 or 5 wearings, unless you spill something on it, then spot-treat. If, over the years, you stretch out the neck or cuffs, you can force them back into shape by dipping those parts (not the whole thing!) into hot water and drying them with a hair dryer. I can't say this is gospel for thick wool sweaters, but it's kept mine looking pretty good for more than three decades (if I do say so myself).”

[Laura Lorson writes, voices, and produces radio in Lawrence, Kansas.]

Emily Mason’s Targeted Upsell:

Our Consumer Correspondent’s weekly feature on what the Internet wants her to buy:

Emily writes:

“This week I was introduced to the Mask & Glo 7.0 skincare system via a targeted instagram ad.

I love a good face mask. According to the manufacturer, this is a great face mask. If you wear the Mask & Glo LED light mask for 15 minutes a day, it can cure a myriad of skin problems, such as fine lines, acne, and scarring. 

What it CAN’T cure is the debilitating trauma that will strike anyone who sees you wearing it: 

(I don’t know how she expects to drink that coffee and live...)

What you do is: Strap this onto your face

Plug it into a wall outlet — or a battery pack (batteries not included).

Hmmm. Electrifying!

But...Is there a third option?

Why am I seeing this ad?

No clue; whatever I did that led to the moment of pure terror upon seeing this eludes me. Once I figure it out I will never do it again, I promise!

Did they sell me?

Umm, no. No-Glo.

I am not convinced the benefits of strapping glorified Christmas lights to my face outweigh the risks of, you know, electrocution and heat damage. Granted, the website says this is “backed by science,” well, as long as it’s got sCiEnCe on its side... 

(Is it working!? Am I beautiful!?!?!?)

If internet vagueness doesn’t put you off, then allow me to tell you how much this little Wellness Hellscape costs: It is currently on sale for $120.

For that price, you can get 100 sheet masks; you know — those cloth ones that won’t require a paramedic on speed dial! 

I think the only reason to buy this is to scare the crap out of someone, and right now you can do that for free by going outside without a mask on.

I’ll pass on rejuvenated skin, but at least I won’t haunt anyone’s nightmares.

See you in wellness hell!”

[Emily Mason lives in Chicago, she classifies herself as a “curious consumer, but a tough sell,” which is probably why she gets so many targeted ads. You can follow her on twitter @themistakemaven and instagram @abitahooey]

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