February 6, 2006

FICTION WRITER'S WORKSHOP: "Cool to be Cold" (Winning Essay)

By Bonni Brodnick

When I was growing up, there was a strict seasonal dress code for boys and girls. Undershirts, layer number one, and turtlenecks, layer number two, were de rigueur winter- wear. If you didn’t have a turtleneck, a dickey sufficed. An itchy wool sweater made for toasty layer number three. We wore thick, pilled tights under corduroy pants in winter and stiff new blue jeans in spring. There was no white after Labor Day, and anyone who wore sneakers in the winter was considered completely déclassé.

Jumping ahead three decades or so, and I now have two teenagers. They ask for only three things (okay, four, if you count the latest iPod): blue jeans, sneakers and polo shirts. They ask for these winter, spring, summer and fall. For my 17-year old son, the blue jeans have to be two sizes bigger than his waist so that they look like they will literally slip off should he bend down to pick up something (which would be a miracle, especially if he did this in his bedroom).

On the other hand, my 15-year old daughter’s blue jeans have to be skin tight, with just a sliver of belly showing. The pant length is carefully calibrated, sometimes even brought to the tailor for exactness, to drag just a smidge below shoe level. It’s actually fashionable to wear pants that are too long and become ripped at the hem. (I’m wondering how this would look with my new pair of grey wool slacks. Should I forego hemming to look fashion-forward? Will ripped hems dragged under my Ferragamo loafers make me feel young again?)

I’m also trying to be broad-minded and understand why my children covet blue jeans that look like they’ve been worn for decades by someone else. Today, jeans come with the knees and back pockets thread-bare from wear. Some even come with the knees pre-torn. How convenient! How fashionable!

On a family trip to Maine when I was 10-years old, I remember my parents bought me a pair of brand new Levi’s. The legs were as stiff as planks. Literally, the fabric was so petrified that it almost cut my legs when I pulled them on. With a few washings, I knew they would break in. But, they couldn’t look too broken in. That would be “L-7.” (Translation: “square”.) To be chic, unlike today, my new blue jeans needed to look forever new.

In the late-1960s, the thermometer outside our kitchen door and the calendar on the fridge dictated the day’s outfit. If it were a mild spring day, for example, bring out the Twiggy mini-dress and slip into the windowpane stockings. If it were a brisk wintry day, pull on the long-johns and stretch pants, or pilled tights and corduroys, and hope to God no one sees that you’re wearing an undershirt when you change for gym. Wasn’t it time to be wearing a bra? Telling the older girls that you tried, but it kept coming up when you raised your arms, was definitely something to keep mum.

Throughout the year, the fashionistas had a slow transition from no sleeves, to short sleeves, to three-quarter to long-sleeve shirts. Never, ever would we wear a short-sleeve Polo shirt in the dead of winter. Goosebumps were embarrassing back then. If I tell my son and daughter this, they think I’m completely Victorian. For up-to-the minute, cutting edge, hot-off-the runway fashion ideas, it’s “Go back to reading Ladies’ Home Journal, Mom.”

We were a polished-shoe family, no doubt because my father was with Brown Shoe Company. Remember Buster Brown Shoes? We were prescribed snow boots and leather shoes, not sneakers, which were accepted footwear for gym and spring/summer ONLY. Worn out of season and you were one not to be reckoned with.

But when sneakers were in the season, oh the joy! to wear a spiffy pair of new white Keds that first day playing dodge ball on the playground. The laces had to be pure white, too. The other seasons of the year, we wore shiny polished loafers or patent leather party shoes, and thick-insulated, water-proof boots. (Note: The patent leather Maryjanes were polished with Vaseline and a tissue. Fashion protocol was that you were supposed to be able to see your reflection in the toes of the shoes. Oh, but wait. What if your partner at ballroom dance school used your shoes as a reflector for looking up your dress at your underwear? Fear at every turn, my friends.)

Today, my teenage son sports a pair of blue canvas-thin Converse All-Stars sneakers all year round. There’s nothing between his feet and the snow but his Converse All-Stars. It’s a chilling thought to this Baby Boomer who wore snow boots and layers of knee socks all winter long.

“Don’t you want to wear boots? There are two-feet of snow out there!” I bark.

“I’m just walking to the bus. Besides, Mom, it’s cool.”

Cool? How about numbing? Does any teenager care about keeping their feet, knees and arms warm anymore? Seeking coolness year-round is now the ubiquitous adolescent mode, both literally and figuratively.

I recently dressed up in a (warm) (long-sleeved) (no belly showing) velvet outfit for a Saturday night on the town. I even wore (foot-protective) suede dress pumps, what I consider appropriate attire for a winter soiree. Before leaving the house, my 14-year old daughter said,

“Wow, Mom, you look hot!”

I’m still trying to figure out the compliment. Does that mean I looked cool?

# # #

No comments:

Blog Archive