The Importance of Being Accessorized

I was raised to like clothes. For my family, they are a part of the foundation for having a good time. Food and drink, great people, and a good outfit - that's what a party is all about. The clothes may be found, made, or purchased; they may be old or new, but they are there, bringing people together, setting people apart, and inspiring all manner of remark. That's entertainment; and, in an overly crowded and noisy place, a way for the wearer to speak one's mind. We wore uniforms to school, fortunately for my mother, and even for us, because it made dressing in the morning not much of an issue, like it can be when there are choices. Day after day, the same blue plaid skirt and white blouse and blue sweater and white crew socks and blue-and-white oxfords. For variety, I would sometimes wear one element or another inside out; on occasion, I would turn my whole uniform backwards, anticipating, by twenty years, the current rage for deconstruction. The backwards thing was only good for a class or two. The inside-out thing could last all day. Of course, I had to avoid the more conscious nuns in the hall. We did have designated free dress days at school, to celebrate certain liturgical events. We spent hours the night before laying everything out, or even making something new. Once I made a hot pink, empire-style mini dress, with a huge fishnet appliqued across the bottom, and cloth fish caught in the mesh; another time I designed a short brown peasant dress, somehow cut from a single circle, with a giant, multi-colored peace-sign embroidered on the front. The peace sign stitchwork took several days to complete, and it was a bold move to sport this symbol at my conservative school. I wish I still had that dress. Free dress days were rare, because with everyone so busy looking around at what everyone else had worn, they resulted in a lost day at school. I spent them giddy and self-conscious in clothes that revealed the real me, or some such attempt to be. It never occurred to me that wearing my uniform backwards had already sent a fairly clear message. The night-before thing was something we had seen my mother do many a Christmas and Easter Eve, when she would work into the wee hours on our special outfits for Mass. This is documented by the subsequent pictures of the slew of us in velveteen or dimity, depending. These holiday costumes were as fresh as the fish from my father's boat, pert with sizing and perhaps pinned shut. They had been created at lightning speed in the dead of night by a maniac with sufficient inspiration to elevate even the most quotidian of circumstances to sartorial heights. If dressing up was fun, then dressing funny was even more fun, and she never failed us with outfits for parties and pageants and fancy balls. She even went so far as to make sure the dozen of us matched on family field trips to the zoo and family reunions - sewing dresses for the girls and herself, and shirts for the boys and my dad, out of the same striped cotton or corduroy that she had found on sale. This way, she said, if anyone got lost, they could be more easily found. True, there was safety and power in belonging to such a large group. The inclusion of our initials (JK for everyone except my mother) appliqued on the breast could make us positively famous, like we were a singing family act or something. New clothes, especially matching ones, afforded an added excitement to any excursion deemed to merit them, which is why, years later, fully grown and distinctly individual, we decided it would be "fun" to wear matching clothes to the Treasure Ball, the annual Mardi Gras Ball that our family has been attending together for years. Our youngest and most favored sibling was "King," making that Treasure Ball extra special, and my sister (the same one that gave me the plastic rod tags) came up with the plan. She provided each of us with four colors of taffeta, and instructed us to create something. We made the guys bow ties and cummerbunds for their tuxes; I even made Ed a cape. Then the girls made ballgowns in the style of their choice. It was quite festive, and great fun; the best Treasure Ball we have ever had. But then, that's what happens when you put forth a unified front. The result of all this has been the preoccupation on my part with what to wear; because I do have a lot of choices, and I am convinced that it matters, almost all of the time. I'm late for the office sometimes because I can't decide; a silly predicament which I can see coming, but can't do anything to stop. Like, maybe it's between seasons, or maybe I have a hip meeting and a square meeting on the same day, or maybe absolutely the only shirt I feel like wearing is at the cleaners; or else, the thing I really want to wear is the exact same thing I had on yesterday, or the exact same thing I wore the last time I met with X. What is really crazy is that I can remember what that was; in fact, I have a much better memory for what I was wearing when than I do for the names of world leaders; but then, I can usually control my wardrobe. Current events render me powerless. And accessories render me insane. How many times have I kept Ed waiting, often in the car with the motor running, while I accessorize? Hats, gloves, hankies, pins; certain shoes, specific socks, the right handbag, the appropriate perfume, the best shade of lipstick... all of this matters to me. Ed, no lightweight himself when it comes to clothes, may change his outfit several times before he's satisfied, and this affords him a small amount of tolerance for my own mercurial behavior in the closet. Plus, he does enjoy the little purses and the glasses and the rosettes; unless, of course, he is really hungry, or we are running way too late. He knows I have a need to accessorize, even though he's not sure why. It's Barbie, I've told him, a hundred times. Barbie, whose outfits came fully accessorized, sometimes down to the poodle on a leash, makes me do it. I learned from her, at a very young age, the importance of the pulled-together look, and how the wrong belt can undermine that, or the right scarf can simply scream High Fashion. I learned to sew on Barbie; at first, the shapeless shifts that a folded square of cloth could yield; later, exotic and highly detailed replicas of my own wardrobe, including the school uniform in which I spent so much of my time. My mother egged me on with ideas for ballgowns, wedding dresses, and trains, and showed me how to make matching purses and hats and jewelry for that incomparably cool doll. My sisters followed behind me with their own ideas, and our Barbies were the envy of every girl who wandered through our house. Our Barbie had a Scout uniform, surfer jams, and hippie clothes; an outfit for any mood; any and every look a girl could possibly want. I guess my brothers were watching, unless they were looking at my dad, who likes velveteen coats and plaid suits. It's his son who made a pair of shoes for himself from his pet snake upon its death; his son with the collection of hats. One brother can sew and makes a lot of his own clothes, including the hot pink fake fur tuxedo jacket that he wore to the Treasure Ball a couple of years ago. Another brother, the one we call "Hollywood," has always had a predilection for dressing well for every occasion, including fishing and football practice. His relentlessly manicured appearance and inability to dress casually is legendary. His wife tells me that in high school, she thought that "that guy in the slacks" out there on the practice field was really weird. "I can't believe I ended up married to him," she says. A lot of sewing and gluing and garage sale-hopping has gone into the fashion/anti-fashion consciousness of this family. Is it genetic, or is it learned, this urge to wear hats and loud ties, this need to decorate the self so individually? Ed, who reminds me that I was wearing something like a nurse's outfit when we first met, says we are "customized." I say it just comes naturally, and a lot of the time I don't even realize I'm doing it. Last fall we went with some friends to their ranch in West Texas, and I packed the closest thing I own to ranch clothes: floral trousers and t-shirt, turquoise tennis shoes and a plaid hat. One afternoon we went for a ride and I wore my "casual" coat: a boxy, Japanese-style jacket that I made from a tapestry fabric that was once a bedspread. I didn't think anything of it, but my denimed and booted companions did. One look at me was just too much, and from their affectionate laughter I heard Ed say, "You're a fucking maniac, Jerri." It was a term of endearment I will never forget.

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