There are certain things that I inherently believe. I believe we all have a contract of some kind with the “invisible hand” that guides the universe. For some of us it’s pretty literal with fine print and lots of directions. And for the rest of us, it’s not.
I imagine when we are drop kicked back to earth from heaven like a soccer ball, some of us hear “Go back and save the whales.” And then are people like me who have a fuzzy memory of hearing a vague directive. I know when I plummeted back to earth I did not have a plan. I felt like an alien with thick glasses and bad hearing aids.
My germinal moments in life started with memories of what I was wearing, and continue to this day to evolve and revolve around clothing. And I now realize, 58 years into this relationship with my clothes, that clothing is my prop for self expression. Like a ventriloquist, clothing spoke the thoughts I could not. And clothing has led me on a journey back to myself.
My first memory was handed to me via my mother, the indomitable Dickey Queen. Yes, the Dickey Queen. I am part of a clothing lineage. The Dickey Queen told me that when I was in nursery school I made her wash and iron all of my outfits. I then made her line them up in the order I wished to wear them. She also said red was my favorite color.
I find that story hard to believe, but it’s too boring to make up. And if you know me, you know I've only worn black for last past 30 years.
At the age of 6 my world shattered. It was 1962 and my father left my mother – and me. My mother was 9 months pregnant with my sister, and we became the first divorced family in our small university town.
What I wore changed that year too. I refused to wear anything that matched, and I created my own strange garment pairings. When my own matched set of parents split up, I stopped wearing anything that matched. My form of grieving was to mimic the separation through my clothing. I was a misfit.
In high school my aversion to wearing things that matched worked in my favor. I was one of the first to wear dresses from the 1940s I found in thrift stores. I wore the retro dresses with lace up combat boots. Matched sets were OUT, and I was happy for the first time in my life not to be burdened by a what should I wear dilemma.
In 1979, I moved to San Francisco at the age of 23. There, funky clothing was totally in. I lived off Haight Street, and though it was not the heyday of the Haight/Ashbury movement, it was close enough for me. During my first summer there, the Dickey Queen came to visit me for two weeks. On our first night out, we passed a Free Box on Haight street filled with tantalizing clothing.
Free Boxes were commonplace in the late 70s. In that box, I remember finding a black cardigan with a rabbit fur collar. I put it on. Okay – none of us would do that now, but when you’re 23 and have no impulse control, you put that wonderful thang on before someone else snaps it up. The Dickey Queen was horrified that I was even looking in the box, and she never dreamed I’d actually pull something out and put it on. Seconds after I slipped this furry wonder onto my body, she jerked the sweater off me and said, “You don’t know who’s been wiping with that.” Yep. The image she conjured up had the desired effect. The sweater went back into the box.
My clothing journey became a CONSCIOUS one when I moved to Los Angeles and started working in the film industry.
My very first job was as a publicist at Media & Values Magazine. It was run by a progressive, very opportunistic nun who, in order to keep the magazine going, was in constant fundraising mode. On my third day there, Sister Liz told me that we would be going to an event that night. It was a private Salon at the home of a wealthy Hollywood fundraiser. She told me that Norman Lear and other luminaries would be there. Her parting words to me at the end of the day were, “Wear something elegant that will represent my magazine properly tonight.” I had lived in Los Angeles less than a week and the only clothing I had was all black. Specifically, black leggings and a black sweater from Lane Bryant that I constantly wore until they disintegrated.
Yikes! I had about $30 to my name, so I drove to Ross “Dress for Less” to get a frock for this event. And what a surprise was in store for me! I zipped to the plus size section, where I again found that loathsome phrase “Women’s World” (which must be a world the size of a pin-head, since that’s about how many things they had in my size from which to choose).
It was a horrible shopping experience. Nothing fit, nothing looked good on me, and I had to be at the event in one hour! I was panting with anxiety when I finally found a long slinky black knit dress - and bought it. To cover up my stomach and back, my roommate loaned me a kimono. I added a long strand of chunky amber to my ensemble, and zoomed off - hoping I looked acceptable to Sister Liz.
While the event was low-key, the people there were right out of PEOPLE MAGAZINE. I did indeed meet Norman Lear, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill was freshly anointed after his speech at the Democratic Convention, and no one really knew the Clintons yet. The room was filled with luminaries. And I was not nervous. I got a lot of compliments on my “stunning” outfit, and I suddenly made the connection - that I could make my own statement with clothing. I realized I had a unique eye.
I finally did it! I conjured myself. Black “under wear”, tribal jewelry and an Asian jacket created a gestalt that was and still is “me.”
And I have to say, I’m pretty sure that that evening was in my contract with the "invisible hand". And while I remained in contact with Norman Lear for many years, I did not go to any more high profile events for a long long time.
I didn’t have to. I was on my way to transforming my own life with “conscious adornment” as my prop. Designing clothing is another step in my journey – guiding women like me back to themselves.