I used to have a photo of myself at about age ten in one of my “good” dresses: white nylon with black and gold swirls, and little string bows at the neck and waist. The patch pockets are so droopy they look as if I’ve been carrying baseballs in them. My arms hang at my sides, my hands deep inside a pair of my mother’s huge white gloves. It’s a photo of a girl whose mother was trying to get her to stop riding her bike and wearing her cowboy hat and holster so much, and start looking like a “young lady.”
As a child in the 1950s in rural Ontario, I simply wore what my mother bought or made for me: dresses—cotton in the summer, corduroy or wool in the winter, taffeta or nylon for special occasions. These dresses were just smaller, more colorful versions of the ones most women wore: a plain high-neck bodice, short sleeves, and a gathered skirt (think Edith Bunker). One day when I was twelve, while my friend and I were swimming, I noticed that her bathing suit was tight, stretchy, and chartreuse, and mine was saggy, baggy, and navy blue. Suddenly, with all my heart, I wanted one like hers. That was the day I began noticing what other girls were wearing, the day I realized things had to change. And that meant my mother had to change.
First I had to get her to understand that my clothes were all wrong; then I had to have a say in choosing them. My fashion guides were mail-order catalogues, Archie comics, a few copies of Teen magazine, and American Bandstand. Every day after school, I hurried home to watch it—study it—trying to learn new steps like the Stroll and the Hand Jive, and paying close attention to what the girls were wearing. That’s how I discovered that dresses were out, and jumpers and straight or full skirts were in, and worn with blouses with Peter Pan collars, sweaters—pullovers, cardigans, twin sets—and thick white bobby socks with white bucks, saddle shoes, or T-straps. This was my prescription for what to wear.
I had won my first victory in the clothes war with my mother the year before, when I convinced her to let me wear short socks instead of brown lisle stockings held up with a twisty garter belt. I also got her to make me a full summer skirt—a “swing skirt”—with a border pattern, a sophisticated city skyline against a star-studded sky. I also had a large, ruffled crinoline that required regular soaking in starch to make it stiff, but that also made it very prickly and hard to cram under my school desk when I sat down.
My mother’s shopping loyalties lay entirely with Eaton’s, one of two big department stores in Toronto; every summer we went there to buy her four new dresses and a hat. Since her arthritis limited our shopping time, I was usually left ordering my own clothes from clothes from Eaton’s catalogue—but I didn’t mind. It gave me lots of time to pick and choose. Back then, kids all across Canada were familiar with the catalogues from Eaton’s and Simpson’s, and we greeted them with a mix of awe and naked greed. I thought those books—600 glossy pages for Spring-Summer and again for Fall-Winter, plus a slimmer one before Christmas—contained just about everything anyone could ever want. My friends and I would pore over page after page of indoor clothes, outdoor clothes, underwear, shoes, boots, as well as the pages of jewelry, living room furniture, bedroom furniture, drapes, rugs, kitchen appliances, irons, radios, china, bathtubs, musical instruments, car seat covers, watches, fountain pens, bricklaying tools, farm equipment, toilet seats, horse tack, linoleum, even prefab house plans plus materials as we dreamed and planned for what we wanted for Christmas or birthdays. Old catalogues went to the younger girls for making clothes for their paper dolls, and to the older girls for “Dream Home” assignments for Home Ec class. Boys tucked old catalogues into their socks for hockey shin pads, and the remaining pages often ended up as toilet paper in the outhouses.
As high school approached, I became more and more worried about fitting in. I had thick glasses and a terrible haircut and I was much too tall; at least I might try to get the right clothes! And a brassiere. I knew it would be hard to convince my mother to buy me one since, God knows, I didn’t actually need one , but I finally came up with a brilliant argument: modesty. How could she refuse a defense against sin? I’d already studied the pages of brassieres, girdles, and corsets in the catalogue, but I still had some anxious moments trying to decide which size to pick based on the discreet, roundabout instructions involving “bust” and cup sizes, made all the more puzzling since I didn’t appear to have a bust. How did one evaluate and choose something touted as “a net for freedom”? I finally picked one: The cups were solid and cone-shaped, many-layered, and many-stitched, the kind people call “bullet bras.”
If I could show my mother that I needed things like pajamas or a winter coat, she would pay for them, but she would always choose the more expensive, matronly, solid, last-forever, dress-length brown woolen coat, not the little red “car coat” I had my eye on. The biggest challenge was being allowed to buy pants—my father disapproved of pants for girls, but my mother convinced him to allow me shorts and pedal pushers for the summer, and slacks for bowling and skating in the winter. For things they wouldn’t buy, I had saved-up birthday money plus whatever I’d earned from baby-sitting for $.25 an hour and picking raspberries for $.05 a pint basket.
I know I spent far too much time worrying over what to buy; worrying that if I chose something very, very wrong, then I’d have to show up all year long looking terrible or ridiculous; worrying that I should have bought the blue one, not the pink; worrying that one of the popular girls might have ordered the same thing, and I would look pathetic for trying to imitate her. However, I slowly managed to accumulate some clothes that I thought were, if not completely right, at least semi-right or not dreadfully wrong . I also obsessed over what kind of heels to buy in light of my blossoming neurosis about my height—I convinced myself that I would be more popular if I kept people from noticing I was 5’11” in my bare feet. At school we had to wear flats, but heels were considered necessary for anything “dressy,” including church. Every Sunday morning, I would check my Missal to see how long the Gospel reading was going to be: long Gospels meant more time standing up for the reading, and therefore more time for people to notice how grossly tall I was, which called for shorter, less fashionable heels.
If you’d asked me what I was doing with all those catalogues when I was growing up, I’d have said I was “just shopping.” It didn’t occur to me that I was also being given unsubtle lessons in how to be a modern, up-to-date young woman, starting with the key belief that buying things will make you happy, supported by the concept that the modern woman does not weave or sew or knit: She shops.
Before I finally realized that what lies in our hearts and souls is far more important than the cut of our clothes, I spent years scrupulously conforming to the fashion lessons I was taught. I obeyed instructions about which parts of my body must, or must not, be covered; which body parts should have hair and which not; which clothes I was allowed to wear as a girl. All these rules were reinforced by the time-honored view that women’s bodies are never okay as they are; that they always need fixing: altering, coloring, enhancing in one way or another, again with the investments of time and money. It became clear that I could never be really sure I’d got it right. That’s what kept me wondering, and kept me shopping.
Sixty years later, I’m still being told how to look. I live in a world where there seems to be yet another truth universally acknowledged: We older women will look and feel better if we don’t “let ourselves go.” A lot of time and ink is spent giving us advice about avoiding “mistakes” in our clothes, hair, and makeup, all so that we can endeavor to look younger, stylish, graceful, energetic, sexy, and unwrinkled. Within the ever-growing body of advice about “optimal aging” that tells us to eat well, sleep well, exercise well, we are inundated with recommendations for anti-aging foods, anti-aging supplements, and anti-aging creams. We’re still being told that our worth as women lies in our youth and beauty. And to achieve these impossible goals, we still need to shop.