Ilene Beckerman’s book Love, Loss and What I Wore — now a play by Nora and Delia Ephron — was first published in 1995. I gave it to several of my friends as gifts. It’s a playful, poignant book about important events in women’s lives, happy or sad, and how we can picture what we were wearing at the time. I invite you to share your memorable outings and outfits.
One of my first memories is of a red and black plaid, taffeta, pleated skirt my mother made for me to wear to birthday parties. I watched her sew it, entirely by hand. I loved it and I hated it because it made noise against my legs and I couldn’t run.
My First Communion dress was a big disappointment to me, and my first indoctrination in “good taste.” The girl next door had a cream-colored, long-sleeved, satin dress, embroidered with pearls, which I coveted. My mother thought it was in poor taste for a 7-year-old. I had a plain, dotted, Swiss pinafore from Marshall Field, embroidered with very pale blue. One accessory (they actually sold these!) was a garter belt that went around the waist and over the shoulders to hold up white stockings on skinny legs. Seriously.
Funny how a white First Communion dress can lead to a preference for basic black.
My Catholic school uniform, navy wool jumper with a white zipper blouse and a red beanie was fine, and I still think school uniforms are a good idea. The end of the year was usually a photo finish between your height and the length of the jumper. When we hit puberty, we tightened the belts, trying to create some sort of curves. I constantly lost the beanies, but I think they were only 75 cents or so.
I often wore 3-inch heels during my first years of teaching in an old building that had well-worn marble stairs. And usually my hands were so full, I couldn’t hold onto the banister. I knew I was acting nutty at the time, but that didn’t stop me. With all due respect to people who have always dressed for comfort, there is a mystical relationship between a woman and her shoes that is the subject of another entire blog.
When I went to the MLK March on Washington in 1963, I wore a three-piece knit dress that I had trimmed with braid a la Chanel. Also pantyhose and sensible shoes so I wouldn’t get arrested. Huh?
I bought my wedding dress — 1964 — on sale — at Marshall Field. Very simple, no train. After all, I was the ripe old age of 24. Seriously, I was practically the last one of my friends to marry. My maid of honor and I wore flat oversize Chanel bows instead of headdresses. See where this is going?
While I was hugely pregnant, I went door-to-door for Eugene McCarthy in a navy blue maternity dress and sandals, chosen for comfort. But when it came time to go to the hospital, I put on full makeup and a black dress with big white buttons, plus pantyhose and heels — I think some moron told me it’s important to get dressed up to go to the hospital, or you’ll “let yourself go” later.
For the second child, I wore a fake fur coat with leather trim. Also put on makeup before walking out the door, which was risky since I barely made it to the hospital.
Beckerman also says we remember what we wore to our divorce: for me, a maxi skirt, cashmere sweater and the most wonderful pair of flat brown leather boots I ever owned — 1985.
Two of Beckerman’s favorite topics — and the most vexing for me — are purses and dressing rooms. I have a faux-Chanel purse with a gold chain that I’ve had for about 40 years. Its glory has faded, but oh, the places it’s been. Now I must exercise a laser eye when buying a purse. It has to have an outside envelope — or two — so I don’t have to scramble for my cellphone or my CTA pass or my movie tickets. It must be small and lightweight but large enough for my asthma inhaler and emergency pills. Alas, appearance is still important.
I no longer like to shop. Too many choices, not enough money. And I hate dressing rooms. Neither Ilene Beckerman or Nora Ephron can match what Candace Bergen said about dressing rooms: “There’s nothing more depressing for a woman than trying on a bathing suit in a dressing room with a three-way mirror and fluorescent lights.”
Finally, it seems like pleats are a constant in my life — my first party skirt, and an assortment of high school and college staples.
Even now I have permanent pleats on my elbows and knees.