Friday, June 12, 2015

Shifting Natures

In the month of May, I added six dresses to my wardrobe. I soon assigned half of them to the Work side of my closet. I don’t need to dress in a business-like manner for my job. But during all of those years in retail, I collected clothing meant for the life that I desperately wanted but that I believed might never materialize. Casting those items aside seemed foolish.

It wasn’t simply the possession of the dresses that made me want to create a definitive style for Work Samantha. It was that I needed her. Work Samantha is an outlet for the more restrained side of my fashion nature, the side that dominated in my previous life. Work Samantha wears shift dresses and stripes. She wears skinny, olive wool pants and gray, glenplaid skimmers. She is structured, penned in, and held together. Sometimes she will wear a print with some color in it. Her presence allows me to continue wearing the clothes that I am not yet ready to part with while I explore who exactly California Samantha is and, in turn, what she likes to wear. But that's not the entire story. In recent years, I've rarely been one to choose how she dresses based on necessity alone. I also want Work Samantha, or at least elements of her. Those years back at home were so muddled that I like the idea of creating two style sides to myself, one serious and one less so.

It might seem disingenuous, this conscious play with the multiplicity of my nature, but the self is many things and sometimes I need to let one of the many parts of myself out for a bit of air.
I went back to Boston a few weeks ago for the first time since Thanksgiving. It was a relaxing trip, which I wasn’t exactly expecting for a number of reasons that aren’t worth exploring here. When I visit, my mother always tries to send me back with things. This habit was easier to indulge when I lived in Brooklyn. You can load someone down with food and beauty products when they are taking a four hour trip on a questionable bus. But flying cross country does not lend itself to such gifts. So I turned down the roasted Cornish hen that she offered and any number of other things but in the end decided to take a dress along.

My mother wasn’t sure that I would like it. This is a game that we’ve been playing for years. The things that she thinks I will love, I look at askance. The things that she is unsure of, I take to enthusiastically. It springs, I think, from our rather different styles and the rift in the mother/daughter relationship that often appears during the latter’s move into adulthood.

But I loved it instantly. The shape of the dress was simple. A shift dress with a high neck. Perfect for work in an office tower. On it was a print, one of those hand-drawn renderings of a stereotypical, pretty European streetscape. A street that one might see on a Rick Steves’ program on PBS. A picture that a freshman might buy from her college’s poster sale and put on her wall.

I never did that. I’m not a “pictures on the wall” person. The street scene that covered this new dress instead reminded me of an old dress. A very old dress. A dress that I believe still lives somewhere in my mother’s house.

Once I began attending a private, girls’ school in the fifth grade, the first day of school outfit became a big deal for me. My education prior to that had taken place at a small Catholic school where I was hemmed in by the constraints of my little plaid uniform. So it was with much thought that I approached this new opportunity. For the first few years, most of my ensembles were composed of pretty standard fare for a child of the early 90s. Pieces from Limited Too. White Keds worn with purple socks that I scrunched excessively. But eighth grade would see me finally break from all of that and transition into…Delia*s.

It wasn’t a unique shift in any way. It became obvious at the time of the brand's recent, and short-lived, demise just how important those clothes and that little square-shaped catalog had been to numerous others who had also come of age in the 1990s. But it was still a treat when my mother said that I could pick something out of it for that first day of school. 1996 had already been a big year for me. I turned 13. I got contact lenses. I had my first real crush. I wore my first, and last, crop top, which led to my first, and last, grounding. I felt ready for something that was not the dress of a child. Something that screamed ADULT.

The one that I chose was a shift dress covered in a print. A print of a stereotypical, pretty European streetscape. It was a little snug when it arrived but I dealt with it. I wasn’t going to let the continuing weight gain that started soon after I entered puberty stop me from wearing it on that first day. I had the rest of my adolescence to deal with those types of internal arguments. And I did feel like an adult in it. I stood up a little straighter. I walked a little differently.

Once the dramatics of the first day passed, I returned to the normal, everyday clothes one might expect of a young teenager not trying to make all that much noise. (There was a lot of Gap.) And for all of that excitement surrounding its arrival, I don’t remember wearing that dress more than once.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I wasted little time before I wore its cousin to work. As is always the case when I wear a color or a print, it got a handful of compliments. Instead of the usual clipped Thank You and subtle head shake that I usually give in response to such praise, I smiled broadly.