Not long ago I reread the childhood classic Anne of Green Gables, the story of a talkative, pigtailed orphan hailed by Mark Twain as "the most moving and delightful child . . . since the immortal Alice. "It was my hope that someday somebody would describe me this way, and most of the books I read between the ages of 9 and 13 I read for two reasons: to shape my personality and pick up fashion tips, which seemed to have a great deal to do with how "moving and delightful" one felt.
Anne of Green Gables is somewhat overstocked with too many cherry trees hanging like bridal veils over wooded walkways. The little heroine tends to get lost in a myriad of sunsets, winter wonderlands and autumn foliage displays that the author uses to illuminate her tale. But upon rereading the first several chapters, I remembered what originally caught me about Anne: her wardrobe. She began life "garbed in a very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish gray wincey." But she wound up as the flower of Prince Edward Island, and when she wasn't weeping, rejoicing or unwittingly charming another benefactor into submission, she was dreaming, "with parted lips and flushed cheeks," before a fire in a dress made of brown gloria with puffed sleeves that gave her confidence. Early on, I saw a connection between plot and wardrobe. That connection still holds up in my mind.
Of course, life off of Prince Edward Island does not seem to be quite so full of compassionate farmers drivinq toward the dry goods store to buy bolts of organdy for little girls. Just because one is dressed like an orphan doesn't mean that somebody in a position to correct the situation will, ipso facto, come along. In real life, millionaires are not attracted to Cinderella types, except as a sideline. They are attracted to other millionaires, and if you want to be legally attached to one, the best move might be to float a loan, load yourself up with gold bracelets and a couple of outfits that Lee Radziwill might wear to Bailey's Beach Club in Newport and then sit, "with parted lips and flushed cheeks," under a cabana, "dressed for success."
It is probably true that everybody, with few exceptions, dresses for success. Only our definitions of success differ, which explains why Mother Teresa wears a sari, Nancy Reagan wears Adolfo suits and my grandmother -- whose most successful act was sitting down -- wore long dresses and shoes that would melt or be horribly dis figured if she ever set foot outside.
It is even possible to dress in such a way that you are precluded from being successful in areas that are repugnant to you. Chinese women of the mandarin class cultivated long fingernails and bound feet. None of them ran toward a typewriter. If you don't want to take out the garbage, wear a leather skirt.
Superficially, fashion is a superficial matter. But behind every anorexic-looking model posturing before Machu Picchu are millions of human beings who stand ambivalently before their closets wondering what message they are capable of successfully communicating today.
I suppose that every woman's wish is to be breathtakingly beautiful until the last minute, at which moment everybody else would go blind. But it seems to me that one increasingly should strive to achieve a kind of plainness that, at the end of one's life, would verge upon transparency. Clothes should simply frame a picture that, at the end, would be perfectly clear.
So much for the theory. I am chagrined that plainness is finding me ahead of schedule, hovering above my head like a helicopter as I ransack Saks Fifth Avenue looking for fancier wrappings than I currently possess. Choosing the right clothes for one's station is difficult. The stations keep changing, as we drive farther into our lives.
Men, of course, have a far less difficult time of it. They wear the same thing for every season of their lives. Just the other day I saw a 35-year-old man talking at a pay phone who looked absolutely perfect: gray flannels, tweed sport coat, faded blue shirt, rep tie, polished shoes. "I could do that," I thought. All I would have to do is jump into approximately the same outfit that Thomas Edison wore 100 years ago, comb my hair and that would be it.
There have been times, however, when the same-time, same-station look that men have been cultivating for centuries is overwhelming. Several years ago, while sitting in the "cattle-call" corridor where Eastern shuttle passengers wait to be herded onto a plane, I sat across the aisle from 20 men, each of whom obviously considered himself the last word in quiet, expensive taste. And each was right. But without exception, they were Brooksweave clones of each other. I wanted to say, "Hey, don't you all see something funny going on here?" But each man was obliviously buried in The Wall Street Journal, a legal brief or a sheaf of letters that, with a slight change of ZIP code, could have been addressed to any one of them in the line.
Of course, not every man in the world dresses to have fun in a board room. Whenever I return from California (where men have discovered too many fashion options, if you ask me), I am struck by how stuffy and old-fashioned a city Washington is. Every downtown stoplight turns green to unload a relentless stream of suited, tied and somber men carrying briefcases. The last time anybody saw a briefcase in Mendocino County was when somebody driving to Sacramento got lost.
Stripping the fashion problem down to its bare bones, you have the universal dilemma of human beings having to start over every day with an unclothed body that must be draped before they leave the house. Actually, not everybody thinks this is a necessity. Not long ago, I met a man who had spent several years in a Israeli kibbutz. When he returned to his home town of Vancouver, he found such an appalling lack of sensitivity to practically everything he stood for that he "forced the system to confront its own hypocrisy" by walking naked through the streets. I wasn't sure what to make of his reasoning. He was, after all, telling me this story fully clothed. Nudism, I concluded was a one-shot performance. What does one wear in downtown Vancouver, thou9h, when you aren't forcing the city to confront its hypocrisy? Opinions differ. But most of us don't fall too far from our family tree.
I grew up sandwiched between two aunts, each of whom had a hammerlock on style. My artistic Aunt Irene was a woman of a thousand scarves. She draped, wound and pinned them over various outfits like flags that advanced her cause into battle. She had exquisite color sense, but you had the feeling that she stood before her closet in a dream state and dressed just before she woke up. When she walked into a room, she projected a thousand different exciting possibilities, any one of which she might drift toward, depending upon how the wind blew.
My other aunt, Dorothy, was of a more severe and logical temperament. Her closet held about five extremely expensive dresses, each one of which was suitable for having tea with De Gaulle. When she walked into a room, you immediately saw the difference between truth and fad. I believe that if her mother had not planted in her mind that she was the less beautiful of the two sisters, my Aunt Dorothy might have veered slightly to the left of the elegant, nailed-down look a little more frequently. But the timeless, couturier look suited her. Both aunts were concerned with what was "smart looking." It never occurred to me that I could imitate their efforts. Then, as now, it vas enough to simply look and love.
My mother, of course, did most of my raising. But she never cared much about fashion, or rather, she cared enough to wag, as went the very best, which was not affordable, and so -- for the majority of my childhood -- I remember her wearing Jean skirts, shorts or various tweed sweater-skirt outfits from a sister-in-law in Illinois. We used to call them "Bundles From Lake Forest." In all the Christmas pictures, she is wearing something from "the Bundle" that she has pulled on in order to look externally appropriate.
Internally, she was highly original -- climbing mystical staircases into secret rooms where Plotinus chatted with "the Water Babies." For years she shopped in thrift stores, with an occasional guilty splurge at I. Magnin's -- mostly for bath oil or a luffa sponge. She had the "inside-out" philosophy of appearances, caring more about what was invisible than what anybody with two eyes bought at a hardware store could see. Again, on one level, I agree with her. But recently I stumbled upon a devastating little pair of sentences that stopped me in my philosophical tracks with their accuracy. "Does God judge by appearances? I suspect He does."
Several years ago I was standing by the handbag counter at a local department store, when a woman came dashing in to see whether a particular Louis Vuitton bag that had been advertised in the paper that morning was still in stock. I had never seen a Louis Vuitton bag before, but I could not help but notice that the bag the saleslady brought up onto the counter was made of two-toned brown plastic, had "LV" written all over it and cost $250. Which seemed like about $225 too much to spend.
After several minutes, I asked the woman who was buying the bag why she was willing to spend that much money for a bag that wasn't even made of leather. She turned my criticism on its ear. "That's one of the good things about it," she countered. "Because it's plastic, it's washable. It will never stain." I did not mention that shower curtains had the same property. She was too enthusiastic to deter. "And then, of course, there's the fact that the Louis Vuitton's initials are on the outside." I asked her why that was better than her own. "Oh," she said, "whenever you carry a Louis Vuitton bag anywhere, you get better service. In hotels, for example, the bellboys notice you." She explained the mystique so humbly that I found myself won over -- to her, not Louis Vuitton.
There are some women, unlike the humble patron in Saks Fifth Avenue, who seem to dress effortlessly and well all the time. Like good cooks who carefully grind a thimbleful of ginger into a recipe, they pay attention to small details that make all the difference: the matching ribbon, lining or particular kind of button that somehow binds everythinq together, like hollandaise over broccoli. I am in awe of these women, but when in their presence I tend to lose myself in the shirring. The French seams seem more important than the contours of their mind.
There are other women who use clothes to distinguish themselves from the rest of their less evolved sisters. They make statements. I am a girl photographer, I am a natural woman, I am a compassionate but competent executive. Or, as is fashionable now, I am a little girl who doesn't know a home computer from a pin cushion. There is an entire line of clothing being produced these days that is both flattering and evocative of those days when we danced beneath Japanese lanterns, weighing passion against "getting a reputation." I have to slap my wrists every time I am within six blocks of Laura Ashley's store. "You are not 18," I tell myself sternly. "You are not even 36."
But there is another kind of woman that lately I have come to feel enormous across-the-street respect for. She is the old woman who is bucking the tide.
On the surface, she is laughable. With her dyed, Shirley Temple wig, false eyelashes and pancake makeup, she seems oblivious to the fact that she is not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- a Coppertone kid.
I saw one of these ladies recently. A tiny, slightly plump woman, she stood on a street corner in New York, balancin9 unsteadily upon four-inch spike heels. One had the feeling that her flesh was barely attached to her bones.
She was entirely lavender. Shoes, handbag, skirt, sweater and perky velvet bow in a mass of platinum curls. Her mouth was painted in a purple Clara Bow moue. I believe she had an An9ela Lansbury beauty mark on one cheek. It wasn't possible to judge her age exactly; her face was paved with so much makeup that the wrinkles had been filled in.
On the one hand, she was only another aging "Baby Jane" who was thumbing her nose at the retirement village. But as she made her tentative, escortless way between cars, she was a bright smudge of lavender on the landscape, an ancient butterfly who had made up her mind to flutter to the end. I appreciated the effort. It seemed like an act of courage and generosity combined. Perhaps she drinks, or runs up large, unpayable bills at Bloomingdale's. But does God judge by appearances? I suspect He does.