We may want to dress just like our mothers. Or we may want, for many reasons, to avoid our culture of origin, seeing it as baggage. No belting leather lined with watered silk, either. In my experience, however, cultural avoidance is a waste of time. We don’t have to fully embrace our backgrounds, if we don’t want. But what our grandmothers ate and what language our fathers spoke tends to matter in ways we can’t always predict. I have found it useful to pick a position vis-a-vis my heritage and stand there on both feet.
I spent some part of my life trying NOT to dress preppy. Didn’t want the label. I would refuse to try things on, “No, that will make me look too preppy.” When you are blonde, mid-height, mid-weight, and your nose is longish and uppish, preppy comes with the visual territory.
As I aged, and my confidence inexplicably increased, things changed. (Before I proceed let me say that this may apply only to me. I don’t pretend to speak with the voice of authority. Only the voice of hours of anxiety and analysis. Occasional rapture.) In my 50′s I chose to expand the concept of preppy to include me as I am. Executive fiat. High WASPs can be preppy, if they like. Preppies can be High WASPs, if they choose. No requirements. I like classic clothing, I like simple clothing, I like clothes with a design sensibility that sounds a little “Ding!”. Sometimes preppy. A little bit elegant. I don’t like frumpy clothing, I don’t like obviously outdated clothing, I can’t even do overly girly, but I don’t want to venture into butch. Somewhere in that Venn diagram is the High WASP x Northern California style that I was both born into and chose.
However, perfect things to wear did not at the point of realization start to fall out of the sky onto my head. I had to find a place, or places, to buy them. When I was working, I had this figured out. Now in uncharted territory, I ask myself this question.
There used to be High WASP retailers. Do they still exist?
I thought about the retailers vying for my dollar. My, “I can dress you head to toe!” dollar. My, “I know who you are, I know what you want, come here my dear, and let me Cinderella you.” dollar. Those siren calls, oh pink, oh shine, oh brocade, oh serge. The mainstream US suspects. Anthropologie, GAP, Ann Taylor, Talbots, Lilly Pulitzer, J. Crew. I decided to do some on the ground research. Yesterday I went to J. Crew. Research purposes only, you understand.
Boy do they do retail right or what? At least in the High WASP good taste diary.
I walked into the store. Stopped. Looked around. Before me was a torso mannequin, wearing a skirt, ruffled blouse, mohair cardigan, and multiple strands of large crystal necklaces. I could feel tingling in my fingertips and electricity in my mouth. The desire to become. The feeling, “Oh yes! I DO want to put myself in your hands. Make me like you. Find me colors that are a flag of beautiful and let me wave as I set sail.”
I don’t even like ruffles. Then there were these:
I walked slowly around the store, inner voices chanting in growing volume, “Yes….” A bag on display. The same bag. Over and over again. Looked uncannily like a certain Louis Vuitton sparkly metallic eggplant tote. I mean Amarante.
They had pumps. Lots of pumps. With 2.5 inch heels. But not a speck of dowdy, what with the toes peeping and the pearliness shimmering and all.
Let me explain right off the bat that High WASPs don’t really buy accessories. Well, sure, shoes and bags, but since servants became prohibitively expensive nobody is carrying me or my belongings around. I am obliged to do it for myself and therefore need shoes and bags. We don’t buy fashion jewelry. We have the stuff mom and dad gave us, the gold Georg Jensen bracelet our dotty grandmother gave us the same year she gave the boy cousins shampoo and notepads shaped like pianos. We buy ourselves new diamond earrings sometimes. Sometimes our sisters and brothers give us Me and Ro for our 50th birthday.
We just don’t do what our mothers called “costume jewelry.” It makes us feel like we are trying, which, no matter how shimmery or adorable the effect, causes far too much emotional overhead.
We will, however, fall prey to the same lure as others. When we see that sparkly stuff all perfectly layered in its multi-color glory around the mannequin’s neck we get excited. We want to buy something. Something else, maybe, but something. The remainder of the family fortune calls to us, “You can afford it.” The “it” isn’t even specified.
J. Crew got me. No, no, I didn’t buy anything, I was too busy thinking. I can’t buy and think at the same time. But here’s what they did so well. So evilly well:
- Showed me a way I might like to think I looked, all the details included. Didn’t require too much of a leap of faith. Didn’t have to step away from the High WASP comfort zone. After all, how always useful is a buttoned shirt and a pencil skirt?
- Convinced me, and this is key, that I couldn’t do it myself. The color. Perfect and out of reach.
I couldn’t possibly be sure enough to wear an apricot shirt with a purple-pink skirt and brick pearl pumps. I know what shoes to wear with navy blue. I know that by heart, in my blood, in my sleep. For apricot, I need J. Crew’s help. For purple I need a whole army of reassurance. I need the salesperson to rave over how cute it all is. I want the salesperson to rave over how cute it is.
See what I mean? You can tell. These are the feverish rantings of a woman infected by retail. Damned by her heritage and doomed by her desires. Let us hope it is not terminal. If I bought anything, it would be for research purposes only. You believe me. I know you do. High WASPs don’t tell fibs. Well. Mostly. I might never be able to do apricot and would have to go for light blue instead. But I would blame it on the apricot.
All images J. Crew