What Shall I Wear?

Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.
— Marc Jacobs

The last time Jerry and I went to town, we did our usual town chores: got groceries, picked up some lumber for his building project, exchanged my library books.

When we got home, we both changed clothes before we went out to walk the dog. The clothes we wear to town are a bit nicer, more coordinated, and cleaner than those we don at home.

clothes - high heeled shoes

Later in the afternoon I visited a ranch woman from this community who lives with her daughter in another state, but comes back to her ranch once a month or so. Throughout my childhood, she was the style icon in our church, always perfectly dressed in suits and high heels, her long hair neatly wrapped and decorated, and wearing perfectly applied makeup. Even in church, I heard murmurs of envy and caught sidelong glances from other women.

On this day, I was interviewing her for a local history, collecting her memories of the county inhabitants. She had dressed for our interview in a stylish suit, nylons, high heels and earrings. I was, of course, wearing sweat pants and a loose t-shirt because I had changed when we got home from town. As I was putting on my coat to leave, another question occurred to me.

When she lived on the ranch, I asked, did she differentiate between “town clothes” and work clothes? And how does she dress now that her home is an assisted living unit in a town?

Oh yes! “I still won’t wear jeans to town,” she said. “Or shorts.”

She’s not ignoring the fact that she has left her ranch and lives in a metropolis, but her terminology remains the same: when she leaves home, she is going “to town”; she doesn’t consider jeans or shorts appropriate to her age and social status.

As we talked, it became clear that she had two additional categories of clothing: church duds, and tattered old rags for particularly messy ranch jobs.

Now in her nineties, she’s developed these habits through the years, and she’s unlikely to change. I’m twenty years younger, and raised by a woman of her generation, but I’ve made compromises. I often wear jeans or sweatpants to town, but I’d never wear shorts in public– at least not in this state. I’ve rarely worn shorts on vacations a long way away from home.

She wears her clothes, as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.
— Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738?

My mother was raised in the country, so she trained me in this general concept when I was five years old and we still lived in town. She required me to get into “after-school clothes” before I was allowed to play cowboys and Indians in the alley with the neighbor boy. Lacy dresses and uncomfortable patent leather dress shoes were only for church. I wonder if my avoidance of church stems from that discomfort.

Clothes - after school cowboy 1950While she thought I was too young to make my own clothing choices, Mother saw me dressed and then sent me out to play while she got ready. My father would be wearing his suit, sitting in the car, waiting. I was– and am– utterly unable to go outside without pulling a weed, picking up a rock, kneeling to look at a bug or a plant. When I did so in my dress clothes, my mother’s fury was loud, colorful, and usually painful.

Clothes - patent leather shoes and fancy dress 1951As soon as I was old enough to get a horse, Mother discovered more clothing nuances. When I rode horseback, I must wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect the complexion she was sure would help me attract boys, since, she said, I wasn’t particularly beautiful.

She insisted I wear riding boots because ordinary shoes might get caught in a stirrup so I could be injured or killed if the horse bolted. I needed overshoes to cover either work or school shoes when it was muddy. I never wore sandals; rattlesnakes could be anywhere outside.

Like many country kids, I grew up, went to school, and learned a profession. As a college teacher, I dressed in suits, though I never wore high heels. Eventually, I moved back to the ranch, where I am now able to work in my own office, on my own time, and in clothing that I choose.

Naturally, with my partner Jerry, a retired highway department engineer, I have simplified my clothes stratification. Jerry was required to wear a jacket, dress pants, and a tie to work every day for thirty-five years. On “casual Fridays,” he could skip the tie. His only rebellion during his work years was to cut his hair only when one of his bosses insisted he do so. As a joke, he once directed his barber to leave a long, slender tail of hair hanging down his back, and got away with it for days before one of his superiors happened to notice his back view and laughed, but threatened to get the scissors. I cut the rattail off to the tune of considerable cussing.

So when he retired, Jerry got rid of most of his ties. He keeps his dress jacket in a bag in the basement and wears it only for funerals. When he’s in his wood or blacksmith shop, his work clothes are clearly identifiable by sawdust, grease stains, threadbare spots, and sometimes patches or rips. When he heads for town, he usually puts on a clean tee-shirt and jeans unless we are hauling the garbage in the pickup.

My work is mostly gardening or writing in my office, so the first requirement for my daily work clothes is comfort. For ordinary trips to town, I may wear pants or an ankle-length denim skirt. For an evening out or a speech, I wear a long skirt. I don’t wear short-sleeved shirts; I’m over 70.

Time and circumstance dictate my gardening wardrobe. I prefer loose-fitting denim coveralls with long-sleeved shirts (against thorns, mosquitoes and flies), tall boots (against rattlesnakes) and a broad-brimmed hat (skin cancer.)

Clothes - gardening hat and overalls 2013

Visitors who arrive in sandals or flip-flops give me nightmares. Not only are they ignoring or uninformed about rattlesnakes and stickers, they haven’t given much thought to strolling through pastures frequented by cows.

I don’t attend church regularly, but for funerals, I wear a skirt. Even with my loose dress code, I have been astonished to see women at funerals wearing pants, and even jeans or shorts. Men appear in everything from shorts to coveralls.

What about church, I asked my retired rancher friend; what does she wear to church?

“It’s a matter of respect,” she retorted. “I dress up when we go to church. That means I wear a dress. My son-in-law, on the other hand . . .”

Well, I’ll skip that part of our conversation. Let it suffice to say that apparently many people younger than I view these matters differently, and “respect” isn’t part of their criteria for choosing clothes.

I believe I’ll stick with Thoreau’s advice.

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
— Thoreau, Walden.

Considering Thoreau’s wisdom, I realize that there is a connection between writing and the clothes we choose to wear. Picture your at-home clothes as the rough draft of your writing. Like clothing, the rough draft needs to be roomy, loose-fitting enough to be comfortable. If you set out to Write A Poem, your language may be as stilted as high heels or a tight necktie. Naturally, if I am reading my poems to an audience, I dress in my best clothes that are still comfortable. But for writing, comfort comes first.

Just as your relaxing clothes need to be worn soft from use, so your language needs to be familiar, to slide easily to tongue or pen– not fancy words plucked from a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary. When you begin to write, tell the story as though you were speaking to a friend over lunch, not as though you are an English professor in front of a freshman class.

Similarly, the rhythm of your writing needs to begin, at least, with the familiar cadence of conversation rather than the footnoted formality of a Ph.D. thesis. Don’t begin by selecting a poetic form and trying to squeeze your words into it; let what you have to say dictate the form.

Virginia Woolf once said

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have . . . more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.

Just so does your poetry have more to do than merely to fill white space on a page. Carefully selected words can change our view of the world– and the world’s view of us. Take time to break in your words in multiple drafts of whatever you write.

Because poems, like clothes, mean nothing until someone lives in them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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11 thoughts on “What Shall I Wear?

  1. And here, readers, is a comment from the woman I was writing about! She’s an example to all of us.

    What fun to read your thoughts. I smiled as I read about me as seen by someone writing as if she were telling about this woman I don’t know. Yes, I still change clothes the minute I arrive home from church, the latest ‘adult center’ trip ( they don’t like us calling it ‘senior center’ or a class. Though at ninety some I still don’t want to wear out my ‘good clothes’. Heavens, I couldn’t wear out all those in many years anyway. I do live with my daughter full time, not any at an assisted living. When Janet needs to be away I go up to youngest daughter’s in Windsor, fifty miles north. I am so blessed to have any wish at beck and call besides being taken care of as if a valet never leaves me wanting. I do try to help out like vacuuming, baking, folding clothes, dish washer duty and changing décor monthly. That entails bringing things from the ranch and dragging last month’s back. Just not room to load my ‘junk’ all down here to leave permanently. I have 8 ladies I grew to know at the center, come for pot luck every other month. We’ve been doing this 4 years now. I fix the down stairs in a theme-color-scheme motif each time with the ultra appointed table. Now I have invited the 9 member staff of the adult center for a tea May 19 so I have an antique ‘bright silver’ (look that up on the internet) creamer-sugar-spoon holder all polished for vases as centerpiece, the mints made and frozen, the lists of dishes, what I will do each time of day that week in prep (so the scones come out of the oven 10 minutes before they are served toasty warm!!) Would you say I am trying too hard? Well isn’t it great I can do those frivolous things instead of shoveling grain into the grinder for the bulls?? But I must stop this endless epistle.

  2. Ah, Linda, I was sitting here in my bathrobe, reading contentedly along, thinking about how many times I change clothes in the course of a day. The stretchy pants are the standard go-to for daily wear (including under the bathrobe, because I don’t like drafts), but jeans for heavy weeding or weed-whacking. Different (clean) jeans for town, unless I’m going to be weeding there, or painting (even older jeans for that). If I happen to go riding, britches. And so on.

    But then, since you are you, you snapped me out of my attire-oriented reverie and turned the whole thing back to writing, and did so with a deft and perfect twist AND quotes. Bravo.

    I must quibble, though, with the dig against the thesaurus. I confess to a weakness for some of those stuffy dress-occassion-only words, even for at-home use, but I also find myself turning to my trusty Synonym Finder because my brain is so thoroughly unreliable. Most of the time the term I find when I go looking is a colloquialism that perfectly expresses what I want to say, but which I’d forgotten about.

  3. OK, I’ll back off the thesaurus remark a little, Andrea Jones, but you too must admit that as you read some writers, you may be enjoying the flow of language when suddenly– a word that CLANGS leaps into the middle of the poem. And that’s the point at which I believe the writer sometimes discards comfortable language for a tour of the thesaurus in an attempt to appear wiser, more linguistically supple. But even then, I probably shouldn’t disparage the attempt: the writer IS working to expand his or her vocabulary. And you’re right: we do forget some of the perfect phrases and need a reminder. So I stand — and sit– corrected!

  4. Betsy Vinz

    Sometimes when I read your essays I think you must live in my head, Linda. Most–if not all of them–have resonated with me in a way you’d not believe. I grew up on the east coast. Except for five years on the Jersey Shore in villages with informal, though very strict dress codes. How glad I am to finally be old enough to put all that behind me. As always, thank you, thank you!

  5. Jane Wolfe

    I enjoyed this essay and its connections to writing. I have three pairs of very worn comfy jeans that I wear while writing, gardening, and working around the house. This winter I have patched each pair in several places. My husband remarked I might have to buy a new pair. I replied, “not a chance since they have plenty of wear left in them.” Early in the morning, I love to pull them on with a t-shirt and shawl and carry a cup of tea to my writing desk. I will admit to wearing a pair of nice black or khaki colored dress slacks and a sweater to church or a funeral. I hope you are enjoying Spring.

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