Fashion has always eluded me. By the time I clue in to the latest trend, it has hit the clearance racks, which is why I’ve never spent much on clothes and often look a bit outdated.
It all started in my primary years when my mother was dressing me in polyester dresses, cardigan sweaters worn over the shoulders with only the top button done, knee socks, saddle shoes, and my hair tied in thick yarn bows. Even when I was allowed to get a pair of groovy gauchos, I still had to wear the stinking saddle shoes. Add to that my chunky frame and a huge split between my front teeth, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
I remember one August back in the late 70s, when my mother dragged my brother and me downtown to do some back to school shopping. Our first stop was Troutman’s, a musty old department store on the main street. At 13, I thought it was an “old lady store,” and never much set foot in the place except on half days when my friends and I would stop in to see the latest Bonnie Bell Lip Gloss flavor behind the makeup counter.
I associated the place with a mild level of anxiety, a direct result of the years when my parents would take my brother and me there at Christmas time to sit on Santa’s lap. No candy cane was worth the building terror that I experienced every year as the line inched forward. I loved Santa when he was that elusive guy up at the North Pole I wrote letters to, but put me in his lap and he may as well be the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
My mother took me to the juniors section, and started sifting through racks of slacks, while I watched my mischievous older brother occupy himself over by some mannequins. For a moment, he disappeared behind a display. As he popped out the other side with a smirk on his face, I noticed that the wig on one of the mannequins had been tugged off to one side, exposing her bald head and knocking her sunglasses askew. He could barely contain his laughter, and I started to snicker too.
“Here dumpling, go try these on.”
My mother handed me a pile of outfits and I reluctantly faced the harshly-lit dressing room. One by one, I tried the outfits my mother had put together. Plum slacks and a cowel neck. Khaki gauchos and a blouse with a bow at the neck. Blue chinos and a plaid shirt. I just wanted to crawl under a rock.
Our next stop was Pflorsheim Shoes, another place my friends and I went to on half days. The store had one of those old stand alone penny gum machines that spit out five or six square pellets in green, yellow, orange, white, pink and red. Curiously, they all tasted the same, except the red one, which was cinnamon.
But we weren’t there to buy gum, we were there to find me the one pair of school shoes I would be imprisoned in my entire 7th grade year. Mercifully, we passed by the saddle shoes and headed for a rack of brown leather. A salesman in shirtsleeves and tie knelt to measure my foot and brought out an array that could best be described as dumpy, frumpy, plain and nondescript.
As the salesman fitted me in the shoes, I tried to think of what my best friend would do. But she never shopped in these stores. She was totally cute, hip and trendy, and used her mother’s employee discount at a chic little boutique called “The Cubby Hole” across the street in upscale Brody’s Department Store. She had just purchased a satin jacket, rainbow suspenders, a Coneheads t-shirt, designer jeans and a huge plastic comb for her back pocket.
But my parents were more conservative than hers, so I didn’t even think to ask for anything satin or rainbow. I knew it was brown leather or nothing.
Having remembered something my best friend said about new “preppy” styles, I settled on a pair of plain Bass loafers and hoped my back to school shopping agony would soon be over.
As the years rolled by, I continued to make obvious fashion mistakes like the bang roll, my suede green Pumas, the lace-collared peach dress with the massive shoulder pads, and that time I got a perm. But, through it all, I learned to overcompensate for my lack of fashion sense with my developing sense of humor, and although I was always somewhat uncomfortable in my clothes, I found a comfortable security in making people laugh.
Now, as an adult, I wish I hadn’t worried so much about my clothes when I was a kid. Much older and a little wiser, I know that developing a strong sense of character is more important than a sense of style. That being said, I need to go shopping. I heard there’s a big sale on parachute pants and crop tops.