Today my colleagues and I received notification to attend a meeting next week to discuss the “Attire Policy”. The juxtaposition of this notice with a few other recent events has caused me to coagulate into words another thread in my life which doesn’t generally warrant much conscious attention.
My parents belong to a generation that dressed up to go to movies, eat out, and even to visit friends. It’s understandable as going to the movies or out for a meal before the rise of supermarkets and suburban shopping-centres entailed a trip ‘into town’. Also, being part of a post-war generation, either would have been a rarer event than they are today. I clearly remember numerous lamentations as fewer people dressed formally to go out socially.
Growing up in a rural environment, the clothing of choice in my formative years involved whatever we wore before t-shirts were invented and comfortable pants, generally shorts unless the season dictated long pants. At that age ironing of clothes didn’t cross my mind and I should be somewhat ashamed that I bitch about it in our day and age. Around age six I was given a pale blue, unspeakably frilly dress by someone who lived near Kearsney College : the memory cells are obstinately blank on particular identity but I remember their house which must have been within a few houses of where I now know Alan Paton lived. The dress is just as firmly etched in my mind. Blue was my favourite colour and I have never outgrown that particular preference. However I think I must have been born with an innate dislike of frills, although I’m not aware of anyone in the family known to detest them so presumably it’s not hereditary. (Reading this, Kimberley thinks it may be genetic as she also has a profound dislike of them). More practically, it could have had something to do with my tendency at the time to nick through barbed wire fences wherever my fancy took me. Maybe I converted some of my normal clothes into frills and never recovered from the consequences . . . I really don’t know but remain a committed frillophobe.
Equally I remember the first of only two outings on stage for dramatic purposes. In Class Two we put on a production involving fairies and a garden. The details are immersed in a pale yellow cloud of tulle. This resembles almost exactly the tutu I had to wear. So great is the mental scar, I clearly remember that at some point I had to step forward, bend down to pick up a couple of flowers and say “oh look at these beautiful flowers”. The stress and resulting flashbacks would not have happened if I’d been a Denim Fairy or a Green Toad instead of The Frighteningly Frilly Fairy introduced to the audience as The Yellow Fairy.
As an adult I’ve addressed a number of conferences and audiences from local to international in nature and find it a lot less daunting appearing in front of large numbers of people who are hopefully more interested in what’s coming out of my head than what I’m wearing.
When I think of the speakers who’ve made an impression on me it is impossible to recall what any of them were wearing on any given occasion : Clem Sunter, Albie Sachs, Kate O’Regan . . . They held audiences in their palms, I can even recall facial expressions, but don’t ask me about their choice of clothing. Haven’t a clue.
My daughter is much more of a girl than me ; half an hour to get ready to go anywhere, even the supermarket. At the moment her boyfriend still finds it amusing. Fast forward five years . . . But on the other hand, we only unpacked the box our combined cosmetic collections travelled in during our recent move about two weeks ago. We moved three and a half months earlier. Kimberley doesn’t need make-up to look stunning. I don’t mind wearing make-up, I just usually forget when I have other things on my mind. Among the items we unpacked, I unearthed the first cosmetic item I ever purchased : a very very green eyeshadow from the mid-Seventies. This shocked even Kimberley who pronounced that it smells like wax crayon. I have absolutely no intention of using it on anything but don’t want to part with a personal relic. Who else do you know who still has their first item of make-up? Anyway, if I threw it away now I’d probably have HazMat on my heels in milliseconds.
Back on the work front. As I approached my first winter in the formal employment sector, I asked the Chief Librarian at the time whether I was allowed to wear jeans to work. Her answer has remained with me as clear as a bell. “You don’t have to wear anything if you don’t want to. We just appreciate it if you do”, accompanied by a peal of laughter.
This policy has shaped my approach to dressing ever since. I am never seen in public without a stitch on. I tend to dress primarily with comfort in mind, love natural fibres – that’s related, isn’t it? – and don’t often notice what others are wearing.
There is another principle that I’d have sworn was burned into my DNA, but apparently not. In Standard Five the boys’ and girls’ changing rooms were adjacent to each other, we then formed parallel lines before going in to swim at opposite ends of the school pool. On this occasion, being in a hurry to get to the business part of the lesson, I leapt out of my clothes, into my costume seemingly without touching ground, and out into the queue. Thank heavens one of the girls noticed first that my costume was on back to front. If they’d been timing me I’d still hold the land speed record back to the change room. After thirty something years without a glitch that I can recall, about a month ago I arrived at work very early one (dark) morning to chuckles from one of the very few other people in the building. My top was on inside out.
Dressing super-formally for work has backfired on me. Without being too specific, some years ago I was called on to attend a fairly high profile function. I was travelling with and attending in the company of an eminent person and made quite a lot more effort with my appearance than usual. My personality flaws are no secret and the inability to resist a dare lead to my wearing a pair of those panty-free pantihose, the stockings with lace edges that stay up like magic (in the ads). As my dress and jacket more than covered everything to just above my knees I had no concern in the world. Until I was halfway across the lounge and felt one stocking jump over the widest part of my thigh and enthusiastically start winding itself downwards. Fortunately a group of friends was not far off so I could pause without drawing undue attention. As can be expected of most of my friends, they were seized with hilarity that I didn’t share. The function was about to start at any minute and obviously I couldn’t stay in the middle of the floor so I made like Donald Duck in the direction of the ladies’ room. Somehow I made it with my honour intact and slightly above my hemline. I just didn’t walk around much for the rest of the evening. I won the dare but have not worn those stockings since.
At about the same time (possibly still deliriously light-headed after getting the divorce behind me) I wore the same dress but with a different jacket and high-heeled boots to work on a day that I needed to visit the Surveyor-General’s Office. I’d visited quite regularly and still have a number of friends down there. None of them had been treated to the sight of me in formal dress. That dress hasn’t been worn since then either, come to think of it. What I hadn’t bargained on until I was halfway down one of Pietermaritzburg’s main streets is the static from the stockings that made my dress misbehave and think itself a blouse. The trip down escapes my recall but there was plenty of time to realise I wouldn’t be able to leave the vertical. The first two men braved the vision but my sense of humour overcame me when the third came into the room and spluttered before taking a bite out of his coffee mug. The return trip was a nightmare. Halfway up the block I noticed someone of my acquaintance coming in my direction. I rather rudely managed to duck behind a lamppost and thought I’d got away with it. A good couple of months later he phoned me at work and said “I *thought* I’d recognised you in Pietermaritz Street not so long ago”. The lesson was learned and now I dress in clothes that can be subdued. Comfortable clothes rarely think for themselves.
My footwear has also been moderated since I wore a pair of killer stilettos to work just for the hell of it. Getting caught abseiling along the passage wall by an attorney could have been worse. Next time I might slip right off my heels.
In my defence, I don’t remember going to the supermarket in a tracksuit ; I don’t own a pair of Crocs ; and I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas – not in broad daylight anyway, but that’s another story. Conversely, my wardrobe is spilling over with t-shirts and denims ; I could live in slops and rejoiced when ‘stokies’ came back on the market.
And I’m happy like that. Free as a bee.