I came of age during the late 1980s, in the cutthroat teenage world depicted in Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” and John Hughes’s “The Breakfast Club.” At my suburban middle school in 1988, social acceptance was largely determined by what brand of clothing I wore. The mandate: Wear what’s cool, or face social crucifixion and exile. It was my ninth ring of hell.
Some of the girls would grab at the back of people’s shirt collars in class, to inspect the tag inside. If it did not match the brand name they had decided was cool, the victim would be publicly ostracized. Generic clothing labels led to personal labels — loser, nerd, weirdo, freak and even slut. Yes, clothing choices somehow became emblematic of girls’ (nonexistent) sexual habits.
I knew girls so desperate to avoid this torment they would use small nail scissors to cut tags from name-brand clothes at the mall, then sew them onto their knockoff brand apparel. My parents refused to indulge my desperate pleas for more fashionable clothes. My mother once told me the brand Benetton was a communicable disease infecting my brain.
I often wonder if the boys of my generation were spared by the fashion police. As a mother of a soon-to-be middle school boy, I am hoping his experiences are healthier than the ones I had. However inconsequential a brand name is to me now, I know the torment that resulted from the wrong clothes did not feel trivial to my adolescent self.
Until recently, my son had not taken an interest in clothes. He would simply wear what I handed him or what he found in his drawers without question. Then the pleather jacket showed up.
My mother’s calling is mining thrift stores for treasures, and on one of her hunts, she discovered a black pleather jacket she knew her grandson would love. She was right. It is supple and adorned with gold zippered pockets. The zipper on the front crosses the body at a diagonal and the collar is pointed, and it has a silky hot pink lining.
The lining and the fitted cut of the jacket make it stereotypically feminine. But my son was oblivious. He was excited by what he perceived as the instant coolness of the pleather. He proudly proclaimed he would be wearing this “leather” jacket every single day of middle school. Awesome. Let the modern medieval fashion torture begin.
I was happy for him. But inside, I also felt this tugging need to tell him it was in fact a girl’s jacket. I consider myself a liberal. A feminist. An open-minded, educated and empathetic person. But as a high school English teacher and survivor of middle school circa 1988, I also know how cruel kids can be. I checked with my husband, a psychologist who also endured middle school horrors. He agreed. We should gently tell our son it was a girl’s jacket. We wanted him to wear the jacket proudly but also to be prepared for any disparaging comments. I rationalized it this way: Better to know in advance what you are walking into, right?
We were wrong. Our plan backfired. And we got schooled by a much more evolved human being than the ones we knew — and were — in 1988.
“I don’t care if it has a pink lining!” he said. “And nobody else will either. Why did you have to say anything at all? Why can’t a boy wear a jacket with a stupid pink lining?”
He stormed off but not before he balled up the jacket and shoved it in the kitchen garbage can.
It was the classic epiphany moment I teach my students about in literature. I had projected an experience I had nearly 30 years ago onto my child, a boy who has grown up in a world where gender is fluid and optional, where men wear skinny jeans and women wear boyfriend jeans. Where people can simply marry whom they love, regardless of sex, and where progress toward gender equality seems to be happening. What the hell had I been thinking?
I fished the jacket out of the garbage. I sat next to him on his bed and apologized. I told him he was right, and I was wrong. Pink linings do not matter.
“Do you like the jacket?” I asked.
“Yes, I just wish you hadn’t said anything,” he replied.
“I would have loved to have had a jacket like that when I was your age,” I said.
“Are you trying to say it’s a girl’s jacket again, Mom,” he asked, getting frustrated.
“No, no, I mean, no,” I said. “I’m just saying that it’s really cool, and it looks good on you.”
A small smile appeared on his face, “I know you and Dad are old and don’t really get it, but kids can wear what they want now, okay?”
He was right. And as parents, maybe we have done at least one thing right, raising him to feel this way.
Pink linings do not matter. But silver ones do.
Kelsey Francis is a freelance writer, high school English teacher and mother living in Lake Placid, N.Y.