Friday, October 18, 2013

The Drama of a Dress

Some Thoughts After Seeing Love, Loss and What I Wore

We complain when the media focuses on what a woman wears, instead of on what she says We probably know more about Hilary Clinton’s choice of pant suits than about her specific political positions. Yet we flock to see a show that is about the clothes we wear and have worn through out our lives.

That’s what Love, Loss and What I Wore, described as an intimate collection of stories by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron , based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, which closed recently after a successful run at the Philadelphia Theater Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia is about. The play, staged like a reading - five women seated on stools with only a few drawings on an easel to illustrate some of the fashions mentioned - manages nevertheless to evoke memories in the audience composed mostly of women, even on a Friday evening, of our own experiences with fashion over the years. 

Clothes are significant. They reveal our status, our aspirations, and our passions. They act as disguises when we want to hide because we’re in a bad mood, and they reveal our bodies when we want to entice. They also tell our histories. Women used to make quilts out of old clothes not only because they were sometimes the only fabrics available, but as a way of retelling the story of the wearer, the lived experiences of those cloths, the cold nights, the bad dates, the happy births and weddings.

So the dresses seen in illustration or only mentioned by the five actresses – they all wore subdued black – reminded us of ourselves, and the audience responded. They were in on the joke. They understood the excitement of the new dress, the hopes pinned on looking just right, and the heartbreaking memories associated with a particular dress worn for an occasion that went awry - my prom dress of white tulle with a scalloped blue hem and the boy who went with me; the red shoes I was wearing when I fell down and hurt my ankle and my life went in a different direction than the one I had intended.

When one actress talked abut her mother forcing her to wear outfits, I squirmed, remembering the matchy-matchy plaid, scratchy, wool outfits my mother made me wear when I went off to college - it was the sixties and jeans had become the new wardrobe staple. I hid the outfit under the bed and wore it when I went home at break. Others laughed loudly at the memory and embarrassment of trying on bras – training bras, minus cup sizes, the domineering sales women and the fear of beign seen.

Shared dressing rooms, a closet full of nothing to wear, the sense of guilt when a provocative mini skirt leads to rape. The challenge of shoes too high, too low, but never just right. Breasts and breast cancer and a new view of one’s body. The play touched on them all, and touched us as well.

We can often remember exactly what we were wearing when that particular wonderful, awful, unforgettable thing happened. I had a favorite brown dress. I wore it on the plane to my Mexican divorce on the week before New York was about change the law and make Mexican divorces illegal. I planned to change into an un-favorite brown dress but couldn’t because my suitcase wouldn’t open and I was forced to wear the good dress, forever tainted by the occasion. Then there was my hippy stage – long hair, long dress, John Lennon glasses, and my sexy European stage, a barely-there see-through bikini, and a dress made out of a scarf, which I now wear as just a scarf around my neck.

I still remember taking my mother’s clothes home after her death – the smell of Estee clung to them even after they were dry-cleaned and dry-cleaned again. All those boxy bright outfits stared at me for months until I boxed them up again and gave them to Good Will. Someone else walked anout wearing her scents, he clothes, because I clearly couldn’t

Do our clothes carry our spirit with them? I have to admit that I hate to walk into a vintage shop, the in word for second-hand or used. The word that makes it acceptable to wear hand-me-downs. For me they seem to carry the energy and scents, however pleasant, of their previous wearers. All their stories as well. My own energy and scent and story too, I guess, since I dutifully recycle all those no longer wearable - due to changing styles or changes body size - clothes I had so carefully selected.

I have owned a lot of beautiful clothes over the years. A lot of serviceable jeans and t-shirts too. Each one said something about me – how I saw myself at that moment in time, how much I could afford or was willing to spend on myself. When I pass them on, I’m letting go of that moment, that me.

Is going to a show about clothes frivolous? Perhaps. But it’s also a chance to look at ourselves, even laugh at ourselves, and understand that we are part of some age-old heritage of women who see clothing as costume and signifier.

Do I wish the press covered substance more than clothing - absolutely.  Think how lucky we are that Supreme Court justices wear robes, or coverage might focus on Justice Ginsberg’s blue dress instead of her opinions. But we shouldn’t have to wear a uniform to have our minds explored as well as our bodies and the fashions in which we clothe them. Clothes do matter, they just shouldn’t take precedence over our bodies, our voices, or our thoughts.

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