I’m wandering down the hallway, past conference rooms and faculty offices, to the open area where the copy machine co-exists with the kitchen and the mail cubbies. My head is down, and I’m mulling the copies I’m collecting and the next steps in the project. I look up to see a vibrant young faculty colleague, who stops abruptly.
She says to me, surprised, “YOU look nice.”
I grin at her implication, and she back pedals.
“I mean, you ALWAYS look nice. But today–” she sputters, and then she recovers. “Well,” she says. “That’s a great color on you!”
I thank her kindly as I gather in the pages of my report; she scoops her mail from its compartment and hurries back to her office.
I know why she was startled. That day, I wore a DRESS to work. It may have been the first time in five years,– or more,–that I went to work in something other than slacks.
For me–and, I’m guessing, for lots of other women my age–there’s still a hint of victory and empowerment in the freedom to wear pants. In the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the years of my early childhood, women wore dresses–they wore them to school and church and work. They wore them around the house; they wore them to burp babies and mop floors.
Think Beaver’s mama with those pearls and the perfectly baked roast on the immaculate, groaning board when the family gathered for dinner. I came into clarity in THOSE days.
House-dresses: that was what we called the work-in-the-home uniform our mothers wore. The garments were cotton, often, and easily cleaned, although still they needed to be ironed. (Everything needed to be ironed in those days; hence the presence, in every home I knew, of a bushel basket full of tightly rolled clothes and household linens, sprinkled with water from a glass ketchup bottle with holes poked in its lid. Dampened so the wrinkles wouldn’t completely set, the clean laundry waited for ironing day. The basket never really emptied, even though, in that era, we weren’t nearly so profligate about throwing gently worn clothing into the wash.)
The five-and-dime had racks of inexpensive house-dresses for five, or six, or (oh, extravagance!) nine dollars; those dresses, which buttoned all the way down the front, had flowers printed on yokes and hems and plackets. They were plaid and gingham and checked and striped. There was a clear attempt by manufacturers to dress up a garment that symbolized long days of unending work.
At home, my mother wore ankle socks to work in, and cheap white canvas sneakers. To go out, even to the grocery store, the rules said a woman must wear hose. Before Mom would drive the tank-like Buick to the Nu-Way to go shopping, she would go trudging upstairs to snap on her stockings.
She favored the kind with seams in the back, still available even though they were passing quickly out of style. She held them up with garters–not at all a risque’ endeavor, as those garters were attached to a iron-paneled girdle. My wiry little mother–5’4″ and 120 pounds–had no real reason for that kind of reigning in. But women, in those days, wore girdles. A careening child who banged up against a mama’s belly would boomerang; those tummies were tautly stretched trampolines of rayon and elastic.
Hose were also required at church and ladies’ club meetings and at the playing of cards around card tables in polished living rooms. Card club had its requirements, for sure, and ash trays, lipstick, and panty girdles were chief among them.
There were strict gender rules governing dressing, of course. Boys could go shirtless. Girls: never. Boys never wore skirts, unless they were Scottish, like my uncles, who wore kilts for ceremonial events. And kilts, they sternly explained, were NOT women’s skirts. Girls did not wear pants to church, ever; they did wear hats there, always. Boys NEVER wore hats in church. Even when I was very young, the rules seemed random and unfair.
Little girls like me got away with pants at times. I had three older brothers, and I was the glad recipient of hand-me-down blue jeans (we called them dungarees; I don’t know why) and corduroy pants with warm flannel linings. I could wear those out to play in mud and rain and snow. Summer brought shorts. (I don’t remember my mother in pants, in those early days, but she and her contemporaries gladly donned demure shorts in the summer.)
The first chinks in the must-wear-dresses armor that I remember were wool plaid bermuda shorts, which high school and college girls wore to football games and dances. The bermudas were topped by crew-neck cable knit sweaters worn over shirts with button-down collars. The outfit required that knee-high socks matched the sweater; those socks must stay crisply up and never slouch. I remember my babysitter, Phyllis, showing me her secret trick: rubber bands. She slipped tight rubber bands under the tops of her knee socks, folding the ribbing over. Just below the knees, she had angry red indentations, but her knee socks never faltered.
Little girls wore anklets or sturdily knit knee highs; wearing stockings was an eagerly sought rite of passage to glamorous teenager-hood. My first adventure into big-girl hosiery involved a panty girdle and stockings that clipped on. That must have been grade six or so; by the middle of that year, the revolutionary new panty hose had hit the scene.
Panty hose were a clear advance, but they were imperfect at first. Colors were sparse–you could have ‘nude,’ or you could have ‘suntan’; forget anything else, no matter your skin tone. Fit was tricky. To get the waistband accurate, the legs might be too short–awkward!–or too long: puddly. I was devastated by my best friend’s mother’s critique of my appearance as narrator at our sixth grade holiday program:
–Red velvet dress: very nice.
–Panty hose: very droopy.
Manufacturers quickly made improvements, and walking into seventh grade, we were a panty-hose clad girl army.
The mamas at this time were moving, too–they were, in the aftermath of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and a new movement of women into the workplace, wearing slacks. They were dress slacks, to be sure–I can’t remember Mom putting on a pair of jeans until well into the 1970’s–and those panty girdles were dropped, too, by many. A woman could look very professional with knee high sheer stockings under the nicely creased pants.
I walked into high school wearing a dress and panty hose, and I walked out wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket. It was 1969 when I began, and at my small city high school, the dress code still demanded that girls wear skirts. We grumbled and muttered; many parents, my mother among them, maintained that slacks, in those days of mini-skirts, were actually a more modest, less provocative way of dressing.
The next year the school relented so far as to allow pant suits, horrible inventions for the most part. I remember my first one: it was turquoise polyester. The pants had an elastic waist. There was a voluminous turquoise vest, and a silky, long sleeved rayon blouse in a wild print. The whole thing was breathless and scary looking, and the pants, when the waistband stayed where it was supposed to stay, were too short.
That era was short-lived, thank goodness. By my junior year, the school had thrown in the towel, so to speak. Long bell-bottom jeans became our uniform–they were best if the legs were so long we trod on the backs, breaking down the fibers with our heels. Scraggly dangling threads trailed behind you if your jeans were long enough for you to be cool. I liked to wear dressy tops–velvet jackets, suede vests, gauzy long sleeved shirts–and glitzy costume jewelry to contrast the distressed denim.
Dresses were for fairly formal events–proms and awards ceremonies, for instance. My graduation dress was so mini that two years later, in college, I wore it as a tunic. (Another argument for long graduation gowns.)
Fashion, in those wild days of the 1970’s, became a statement of many things. Some august males–priests, pundits, and politicians–snickered at the thought that women felt their clothing was such a big deal. But the ability to wear pants represented new worlds open to women and girls–professionals worlds like police work and manufacturing engineering and piloting and medicine. Close-to-home worlds like Little League baseball and varsity tennis and other sports opened their doors. There was even a girl kicker on a local high school football team, a thing that would have been completely impossible just five years before.
Clothes were important. Gloria Steinem reminded us that the political WAS personal. And vice versa, as well.
I wore dresses, a lot, when I got my first teaching job at a wonderful little inner-city Catholic school. I shifted more and more to dress pants and jackets as I moved into the post-secondary world, until finally–after marriage and kids and long, long commutes shaped my style in a kind of whirlwind fashion tumbler,–I didn’t wear outfits, very darned often, that demanded a pair of panty hose.
Even though I’ve left the teaching realm and work year-round, the Fall semester still brings that sense of openness and possibility that ‘back to school’ engenders. There’s a feeling that it’s time to buff up the wardrobe, to get my new fall clothes in line. So this year, I threw open my closet doors to investigate, and I thought–Gosh all get-out, I actually own a couple of dresses. And some suits with skirts. And a fun plaid full length maxi.
Why, I wondered, don’t I ever wear those?
So I decided that, once a week from now on, I’ll dress up. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d done so until I encountered that young faculty member’s shock.
I like both things–the dressy, official feel of a jacketed suit, the free-wheeling freedom of a nice pair of slacks. I feel good–although differently good–in both. They remind me how much things have changed. They remind me that my generation–and the generations of women that follow us–has a wonderfully dazzling array of choices.
They remind me of the limitations women of my mother’s era, and oh, yea, those eras before, had to function within. They remind me that women in some other cultures don’t have nearly the options I am lucky enough to enjoy. I am the beneficiary of lots of gritty hard work and daring sacrifice by many determined people. (When I think that women in the United States were granted voting rights less than one hundred years ago–that there are women voting now who were born before their mothers had that right!–I am rocked into appreciation.)
The ability to choose, to carefully iron a nice skirt, to pick up a pair of comfortable and decidedly UN-droopy pair of panty hose at Kroger, and to choose a day, once a week, to ‘dress up,’ reminds me that I have a lot of freedom. It’s freedom that’s changed and grown and deepened during my very lifetime.
The personal IS political, isn’t it? So here’s what I’ve decided: every week, one day, I’m choosing to wear a skirt.