Mix, Match; Repeat

Two encounters over the space of 20+ years give me food for thought about my relationship with clothing. And how I handle presumptuous comments.

You don’t care much about clothes, do you?

I turn to look at the well-turned-out guy on my right, although ‘look’ may not be the most apt verb, for something between a blank stare and a flat one. Standing around in the hotel parking lot, waiting for our ride out to dinner, our proposal team is shifting from foot to foot, no longer having the energy for milling about. I am dressed neatly, for sure, and presentably, or so I thought. 

Nonetheless, nearing the end of week two of this away-from-home work effort, the mix-and-match wardrobe I selected to accommodate the constraints of air travel is undoubtedly showing signs of repetition. It isn’t the first time.

Hey, you got some new pants!

It’s the mid-1980s and the speaker is a third-year student: old enough to know better than to make a rude personal remark to a lecturer who holds his mark in her hands, young enough to care more about the laugh right now than the mark at the end of the term. I turn to look at him, although ‘look’ may not be the most apt verb, given that the resulting look is somewhere between a blank stare and an incredulous one.

I beg your pardon?

Buddy either doesn’t hear my tone or doesn’t care, now that he’s launched. He explains that I’ve worn the same pair of slacks to every class this term, but today, finally, I’m wearing a different pair. As I think about what to say, many thoughts go through my mind.

How this is my first job since graduating with my MBA, and the first time in a long time that I have needed a full suite of work clothes. 

How, as the sole wage earner in our family at the moment, I have gone the frugal route: a mix-and-match selection of slacks and tops. 

How I had not thought about the fact that swapping out the combinations every day means that a class scheduled for every other day might well be treated to the same combination — or, evidently, the same pair of pants — more than is reasonable.

How I have no memory of what I’ve worn to the classes I’ve been teaching; how I’m a bit surprised that anyone else would either.

And, finally, how none of this is buddy’s business anyway. Not my economic or family circumstances, not my workplace dress strategy, not my lack of interest in what I  wear.

But he’s still standing there, looking pleased with himself and, evidently, waiting for some response.  Rather less pleased, I’m not sure how to respond, so I smile briefly in acknowledgement and carry on.

After class I make my way back to the office I share with the second-most-junior member of the faculty.  I think how unlikely it is that my student would make a similar comment to the full professors who always wear jeans, although I can’t decide whether it’s their gender or their tenure that would exempt them.

You don’t care much about clothes, do you?

Back in the parking lot, I look thoughtfully at this other young man, who is–as always–dressed smartly, not to say expensively. At least this time I think I know that gender is the issue, that I have violated his expectations of women. At least this time, I have no doubts about how to handle it. Show no weakness.

No, not much, I reply indifferently, and I see by the expression on his face that we are done with this topic.

And that’s OK by me. I really don’t care much about clothes.

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19 Responses to Mix, Match; Repeat

  1. Alison says:

    And yet WE love you anyway! I too tend to be blind to clothes most of the time, and I’ve finally got a job where I wear a Lab Coat. It’s great! all they see is your collar, and about 18″ of pant leg.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – There you go – maybe clothes-awareness should have been part of the vocational aptitude testing we did in high school! “If’n you don’t care, don’t go into marketing. Not any aspect of marketing.”

  2. When John and I were the local artists “darlings” of the diplomatic circuit and invited to various “do’s” we needed new clothes. For our first foray into society, John took himself to the (long gone) bespoke Ottawa tailor Seguin Tatz and said to Mr. Tatz or was it Seguin? “I’m going to a diplomatic affair…dress me.” An hour later, out walked John Benn in a cream linen sports jacket, a pale peach shirt, a luscious tie (and puff for his pocket), darker cream slacks, penny loafers and silk socks. And, a fine white straw hat.

    The effect on our host — The High Commissioner of Trinadad and Tobago –was all John could have hoped. Having seen John wear nothing but stained jeans and patched jean shirt over the past months, the normally serenely charming and unflappable (and impeccably-dressed, always) HC’s jaw literally dropped open. (He was probably relieved, as well.)

    He recovered quickly enough and eagerly (it seemed to me) introduced us around to his stately guests, one of whom offered to drive us home in his decade-equivalent, air-conditioned, leather-interior Lexus. And wouldn’t it be the night to find both elevators were down and we had to climb 19 floors to our apartment on the most humid night of the summer.

    The outfit continued to impress. Lady Day, the wife of the British High Commissioner called it John’s “tidy” clothes. We also learned the many dress codes written on the bottom of all those “stiffies” (thick, gold-embossed invitations) and could dress appropriately. It was fun. For a while.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – My mind boggles at John in a cream linen sports jacket. But I bet he carried it off with aplomb. What were you wearing?

      • I honestly don’t remember! But I did have a gorgeous pair of slacks made for me — fine green-grey wool, lined — about that time. If you have never had slacks cut just for you, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s like not wearing clothes, incredible.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – I hate buying pants: they never fit me. (Maybe that’s another reason I only had two.) I am clearly not standardly proportioned: they are too long in the rise or too short in the leg or too wide in the waist (once they fir over my hips) or all of these bad things simultaneously. The Big Guy buys pants without trying them on. And they fit. I will take your recommendation under advisement, but as I approach retirement, I may never need another pair of dress pants.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Joan spent 15 years in an office where people noticed clothes, the last seven or so as a manager who had to present the right impression for others to follow. When we moved out here, she brought the full wardrobe with her. Last summer, she took most of it to the Thrift Shop for resale — still unworn. In our part of the world, we joke, “black tie” means “clean jeans!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – In my most recent office employment (as opposed to working on contract), the secretaries usually dressed better than I did. A friend who was a city manager used to talk about the folks who had no idea of what went with what. I can dress (and I’m quite particular about the colours I’ll put together, refusing to combine a greyed tone with what I see as a clear tone), but the formal aspects and even the variety are sort of wasted on me. I’d do fine where ‘black tie’ means ‘clean jeans.’

  4. Anne Longworth Marshall says:

    I am of the “make do with what you have” school of thought in most areas of my life. Most of my jobs have required minimal effort in the “what to wear” dilemma. The other day at the music school where I teach, the receptionist, 30 years my junior and very fashion-conscious, complimented me on how coordinated my outfit was. I was amazed! And, I must admit, rather pleased that for once I had gotten it right!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Anne – Almost disconcerting, eh? If it were me, I’d wonder what I’d done differently – and whether I could reproduce it! As for making do, a good friend is still wearing plaid shorts. No idea how old they are, but they still fit (a whole other story, for most of us) so what the heck.

  5. One of our sons, who was schizophrenic for ten years and healed through music therapy, has clung to the punk subculture that was the only social group that did not reject him and objectify him during his illness. The chief visual identifiers of that group are the pseudo-military camouflage pants, rude t -shirts, tattoos, and pseudo-Aboriginal Mohawk hairstyles that proclaim their battle to preserve an individual identity in a world that has methodically tortured them. Thus garbed, he had met several times with a lawyer over an incident of false accusations against him of assault against a woman, an act unthinkable to him. The attorney had instructed him to dress suitably for court. On that day, he arrived in his new three-piece black suit, black shirt, and scarlet silk tie, his hair shampooed from green or blue colouring and tidily combed. My husband fielded a frantic phone call from the attorney: Where was Dan? He had looked for him in court in vain. “He left in plenty of time to get to the court.” The lawyer looked again and with new eyes found his gentle, civilized, tall and handsome client. Dan was exonerated of the charges against him; how much that judgement had to do with his attire remains a mystery. I happen to know that if he had any good reason to do so that Dan would enjoy dressing as for court every day. The issues raised by Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus remain with us.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – That’s an amazing story of how we ‘judge books by their covers.’ Not at the same level, by any means, but the same kind of incident occurred when one of my nieces was applying for a visa to work in the USA. The lawyer helping her with the application advised her to present herself at the border in a skirt and blouse and pantyhose, rather than her usual garb of jeans. When people don’t know us, they go by what they see.

  6. M.McQuillan says:

    I find the clothes horses a funny set. So is it more important to own a lot of items that you wear infrequently, or a few items, heavy on the quality, rather then quantity and like yo said, mix & match? I assume the clothing critics are insecure about what they wear or how it is perceived, but project this on people like you who show up not to impress with their outfit, but with their ideas. Many I know who wear the designer labels, want you to notice the label over the person – why? What also matters is what is the definition of ‘casual wear’ or formal wear? Many people view ‘casual’ as what they wear in their home can also be worn outside the home; which leads to those often shared photos of shoppers in Wal-Mart stores wearing the most hideous clothing outfits. So if you reflect on these folk, Isabel, you have nothing to worry about.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      M. – You’re undoubtedly right that there are folks who value “the label” in a way that I find sort of obscure. But I also know folks who – if they don’t exactly live for fashion, certainly love it. They get a kick out of clothes in a way that I don’t. Maybe what I have (I speak as if it were a condition and maybe it is) – treating clothes as mostly utilitarian – is a bit like being colour blind.

  7. My favouite remark re clothes came from a lusciously fun and indiscreet Hungarian woman of a certain age. She wore her thin white underpants and skimpy top to sit on the dock at their cottage, easily seen by people trolling up and down in their little motorboats just feet away. Her daughter cried, “Mom!” when her mother spread out her legs. “Whaaat?!” said her mother, “I’ve got IT covered.”

  8. My favourite remark re clothes came from a lusciously fun and indiscreet Hungarian woman of a certain age. She wore her thin white underpants and skimpy top to sit on the dock at their cottage, easily seen by people trolling up and down in their little motorboats just feet away. Her daughter cried, “Mom!” when her mother spread out her legs. “Whaaat?!” said her mother, “I’ve got IT covered.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Odd, isn’t it, that we won’t go outside in our underwear (some notable exceptions notwithstanding) but will wear even skimpier, more revealing bathing suits or (in the case of actresses and such) evening dresses that leave not much to the imagination. Our modesty constraints are a curious jumble.

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