Dressing to impress: The impulse never fades

October 31, 1999|By Susan Reimer

Congratulations are in order. We have been nominated for "Best Dressed." I say "we" because, though it is my daughter's name on the ballot in this middle-school contest, it is my name on the credit card that is funding her campaign. (Reluctantly funding it. I am not soft money.)

When Jessie came home with the news of her nomination, her smile was so broad that all her braces showed. (She is also up for "Best Smile" and, considering the cost of her orthodontics, I can only be grateful that she is not also up for "Best Car.")

It is hard not to be happy for a child who is this excited, but the news was not met with unanimous congratulations in our house. My son used it as further evidence for his claim that his sister will never make it into college. And my husband looked at me as if I had left the front door open to burglars.

"Didn't you take care of this?" his reproachful expression suggested.

He apparently believes that marrying a ground-zero feminist should have inoculated female offspring against such concerns, as if you could breed personal appearance issues out of the species. He feels as if a latent gene from me has surfaced in our daughter and and turned her into a Seventeen magazine paper doll.

I did my part, I tell him defensively. I've been saying all the right stuff since she started dressing herself for pre-school: "Clothes are fun, but they go out of fashion. It is who you are inside that counts."

Apparently, I have been talking into the wind, because if clothes didn't matter, it wouldn't take 45 minutes, three phone calls and an ankle-deep pile of discards to get dressed. You shouldn't be weeping with frustration and demanding an immediate mall trip if you are content with your inner self.

I don't know how Jessie got on the ballot to begin with. How can you tell exactly who is best dressed if everyone is dressed the same?

School uniforms? The joke is on us. There is a school uniform, it just changes every couple of weeks. Scrunchies are out, hair ribbons are in. Nike is out, New Balance is in. Flairs are out, boot cuts are in -- for this tick of the clock, anyway.

And nobody wears a skirt unless everyone does. No one goes "scrub" unless everyone goes "scrub." Sorting out who is best dressed among this sameness must be the most challenging intellectual task of the middle-school day.

I would join my husband and son in their disapproval if I could, but my daughter's campaign for "Best Dressed" has forced my own clothing issues out of the closet, so to speak.

How am I supposed to talk her out of this race when during my own adolescence I'd have given anything to be on the ballot for "Best Dressed?" My clothes-horse yearnings of those years were so powerful that I feel them still.

Excuse me while I date myself, but I ached for a pastel rainbow of Villager cable-knit sweaters, plaid skirts, matching tights and oxford-cloth, button-down shirts -- with head bands to match, a charm bracelet and penny loafers.

Even now, I worry more about the "grooming and dress" category on my annual work review than I do about the "volume of acceptable work" judgments my bosses must make. I still set out my clothes every night so I can accessorize in a leisurely yet thoughtful way.

How am I supposed to convince my daughter that a "Best Dressed" title is to be scorned when I'd have died for it 30 years ago? And, I'm afraid, still would today.

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