My shopping done at the loved/hated big box store, I decided to go into a small eatery attached to one side to indulge myself in a fabulous hot concoction of sugar, caffeine, and a lot of I don’t give a rat’s about additives. Oh my, that is one mighty good potable and drinking it likely shortens my life, but do I care?
Sitting there looking out at the big, busy store I thought how smart we all are these days because now we dress so comfortably. Sneakers. Sweatshirts and sweatpants. Pants on women. Big, loose sweaters, big warm loose jackets, hats of choice. It’s just great we do that. I sat there watching all that humanity streaming in and out and I remembered.
Remembered what, you ask. OK, so you’re not asking but I’ll tell you anyway. It was not all that long ago (we oldsters always say that when in fact those things really were all that long ago) anyway, back in the day no one dressed comfortably to go abroad. (“Abroad” is a snooty way of saying “leaving the house to go anywhere,” not necessarily to Europe.)
Yes, back in the day, whatever that day was, when one wanted to go to the movies or shopping or traveling, one got gussied up. I had a dear friend named Margo. Talk about June Cleaver. A clone! Margo always dressed up to greet her husband at the door when he got home. She had a fabulous dinner prepared, candles lit, martinis chilling, music playing. Her hair was done, expensive subtle perfume in proper places on her body, expensive subtle jewelry also in proper places on her body, seams razor straight, heels high—Margo was one classy lady. I always had a fantasy I’d grow up to be exactly like Margo; never came close. Just ask Mongo.
I well remember sitting in her serene, perfect parlour and saying, “Hey Margo!” She graciously let me call her by her first name. Her son and I were exchanging newly born hormonal rustlings, and Margo was well aware but never made much of it. I said to her, “Margo, I gotta go to the city on Saturday to the Museum of Natural History and I’m gonna wear blue jeans and Keds and my big sloppy joe sweater. I just don’t want to dress up and walk on those hard floors all day.”
Now Margo wasn’t a blancher but she pretty much blanched at that. “Now Elsie,” she said, in her well modulated tones. “My dear, you can NOT go into New York City unless you dress up. It simply isn’t done. You must wear suitable pumps (snooty word for “dressy shoes”) and nylons with very very straight seams, and of course a girdle, clean and appropriate underwear, a nice understated dress with a crisp, clean white collar if possible, a warm but fashionable coat, shoes the same color as the hem of your dress and a small, elegant purse to match the shoes. Understated make-up of course, and for heaven’s sake, have those nails done, and oh, you simply must do something about that wild hair of yours; all those curls flying all over the place. I mean really, Elsie darling, you simply cannot go to New York City in DUNGAREES! It just is not done!”
I loved that elegant woman and so did as she bid and spent a miserable day at that glorious museum clumping about on those cold marble floors, cursing Margo for forcing me to wear that girdle to hold up those torturous stockings with their impossible, ropey seams. Girdles, unless you were severely undernourished, maybe flattened a woman’s butt and belly, but gave her a big, wobbling water-ballooned top from her waist to her arm pits. So that afternoon in that hallowed old museum, I stomped into the lady’s loo, stripped off that girdle from hell and the stockings too, stuffed them all into a waste bin and marched defiantly out of that bathroom with, gasp, bare legs, my feet crammed into black suede high heeled pumps. The relief was palpable, although tromping about in those shoes with no stockings quickly became another painful ordeal. But at least there was no longer any girdle/garter/stocking/seam pain. Life is all about compromise, right? For me, it was an OK trade-off and once on the Staten Island ferry going home, I kicked off those pumps and trod about the decks of The Gold Star Mother utterly barefooted. Exhale! I never dared tell Margo. She’d have scolded.
And so I sat there that recent afternoon at that sticky table drinking that concoction with extra whipped cream, and looked at all those people in their sloppy, roomy, comfortable clothing and thought, “you guys have no idea how lucky you are to live now.” We all have discomforts with which to deal, but one of them today doesn’t have to be restrictive, painful stupid clothing.
I tried to imagine had that big store been open in the 1800s, how women in long skirts, petticoats, corsets, bustles and huge hats would have managed in those aisles. I mean every time they turned around they’d have wiped a shelf clean of inventory with just their caged backsides. And the men; they didn’t get away with much. Starched shirts, black woolen suits, derbies. Oh my, people back then must have been some gamey.
People in those days couldn’t even swim in comfort. Women had to be nearly completely covered up because showing limbs—(they weren’t ever called “legs” by your better class of people) showing one’s female limbs was considered beyond scandalous. And their bathing attire was usually woolen so I reckon between the sand and salt water, there were serious chafe issues.
Men too couldn’t expose much of themselves at the beach; tank tops were OK for their manly chests, and bathing trunks were OK too, but they often wore long black tights. Oh boy, swimming back then, could that actually have been fun? Makes one wonder when skinny dipping was invented, but certainly not why.
I finally drained that hot, life shortening and wonderful libation to which I confess I’ve become permanently addicted, stood and looked around at that mob of people making their purchases, congratulating them silently on their intelligent haute couture.
A well turned out woman did enter the store about that time and I looked at her shoes. They were very high heeled which I’ll admit can make a woman’s legs look gorgeous, but oh my, women who wear those things are pitched forward while walking around on the balls of their feet and their poor toes are squashed crookedly and painfully into the points of those shoes. She clicked across the floor and people looked at her because oh, she was so beautifully dressed, and yet I thought she had not come so far from women’s binding their feet or wearing high button shoes. Well, as my old wise grandmother used to say, “Elsie, beauty requires that we suffer pain.” Of all her many homilies, that was my least favorite.
Well, perhaps on some level it’s still true. Women in particular still suffer a lot of unnecessary physical pain to be someone else’s idea of beautiful. Ever chatted with someone who’s endured a chemical peel? But in fact we really have come a long way, and I for one applaud it. Onward!
Click on LC Van Savage for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.