On the weekend I was treated to a Canadian stage adaptation of the book Love, Loss, and What I Wore
by Ilene Beckerman. The original book was a collection of memories and drawings by Beckerman, who was a grandmother, not a novelist, who just wanted to record something for her children and grandchildren, to give them a sense of who she was when she was young. Chick-lit novelists and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron expanded on the simple premise to create a stage play which is more like a reading, not only using Beckerman’s stories but a variety of stories from various characters.
The cast of accomplished actresses includes Canada’s formidable fairy godmother of fashion media, Jeanne Beker. Beker’s at the top of her game right now – writing books, designing clothes, and celebrating a 25 year run as the face and force of Fashion Television. I can only hope that at Beker’s age, I’ll have a fraction of the hotness she’s got – her career is on fire. As an actress, she’s amazing when she tones it down (as she tells a story of being a breast cancer survivor), though when she tones it up (as when she mimics a teenager) she gets very brassy. The stand-out story of the night was actress Sheila McCarthy’s rant against the burden of handbags, which I found relatable and hilarious. Sometimes it seemed like the humour was a bit old-fashioned, designed to appeal to moms and grandmas, but overall it was an entertaining evening and probably just the thing to bring your mom or your grandma to, if she doesn’t mind a bit of swearing.
In the play, the character who corresponds with Beckerman, played by Barbara Budd, even shows the audience how to draw a simple figure, encouraging them to record drawings of their own sartorial memories. In the spirit of the play, I was inspired to sketch and remember a few things from my own brief history, though I had to stop at the point where love and loss really started to come into play. I’ll save that for when I’m much older. Its funny how so many of my early memories involve clothes, and often some kind of distress. Maybe its because distress is such a strong emotion, it sticks.
My Nana used to knit all of her grandchildren matching sweaters and hats. I had a white sweater and a maroon coloured hat with a white pompom. One of my very earliest memories is chewing the pompom off of this hat, and then feeling, with great intensity, regret. I didn’t know why I had done such a thing, and I couldn’t put the pompom back on.
One Christmas, my cousins came to visit, and we were all dressed up in our best clothes for pictures. My cousin Sarah, who is the same age as me, had a new white dress and white stockings and white shoes, and she looked so exquisite. I had a hand-me-down dress which was all different colours, I think the skirt was striped and the top was white with plaid trim, and I wore with it itchy, fuzzy red wool stockings which fell down with the crotch around my knees, and black shoes. I remember being photographed next to Sarah and feeling deep envy.
When I was around four years old, I remember dressing myself for the first time, by myself. Alone in my room, I tugged every item of clothing I owned out of the dresser, and put things on and took things off for what seemed like hours until I had successfully assembled an outfit, a pink top and a maroon-red pair of corduroy overalls. Feeling very proud, I ran downstairs to show my mom, and the first thing she said to me was that pink and red clashed. I had no idea what clashing meant and didn’t understand what I had done wrong. The funny thing about this story is that my Mom is anything but a fashion expert, quite the opposite, and what she said was just something she remembered her mom saying, and she remembers this story with a similar sort of bemusement for totally different reasons.
When I first went to school in the cold winter, my mom would put hat and mittens on me every morning. She put a little white hat on my head that tied under the chin. At school, a redheaded boy in the grade ahead of me told me it was a baby hat. I don’t think I had ever been insulted before in my life. It was massively distressing and affected me all year – not just with a total revulsion towards anything babyish or hats, but I remember actively avoiding this little boy, literally hiding from him, for the remainder of the school year, not that he would have noticed.
When I was in middle school, I realized I needed glasses when I had to copy notes from the boy who sat behind me. My first pair of glasses, which I chose, were large and round and unstylish, and by grade 8 I totally regretted my choice. Unable to get new glasses due to the expense, and not being devious enough to break them by “accident”, my response was to wear my hair over my head and wear a very floppy, suede hat overtop that almost totally obscured my entire face. I looked like Cousin It. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t even want to take my hat off for the school formal dance at the end of the year, to the objection of my mom, who once again remembers saying something her mother would say: “you can’t go to town in that hat”. For grade 9, I decided to homeschool, thus achieving total invisibility.
When I was in my early teens, flared pants became fashionable. Unfortunately, all of my pants were tapered, and terribly uncool. Since I was wholly unable to find any flared pants in the church thrift store, I looked through my parent’s old clothes and found my dad‘s wedding suit, made of corduroy, naturally. The pants were massively flared, and even though I was a tiny 90 pound girl and my dad was a 6 foot tall man, I wore these pants, using his old ties as a belt to keep them from falling down. I wore these pants so constantly, I wore holes through the knees, and patched them, and then wore holes through the patches, until they were literally rags and my parents finally relented and gave me $80 (a price they found ridiculous for a pair of pants) to go buy a pair of flares from Jean Machine at the Quinte Mall.
Raver pants became the thing as I entered my mid teens, and again I couldn’t figure out a way to get them. I remember seeing a copy of Seventeen Magazine, either at a friend’s house or somehow acquired, which had a teeny tiny little quarter-page feature in it about a teenaged girl who made her own DIY raver pants. I obsessed over this article (much like I did over these ones, later). She would achieve this by laying another pair of pants on a piece of fabric and tracing over them, but bigger. I thought I could do this, and the first clothes I ever made were a series of these pants using old fabric my Oma got from the Levi’s factory. They were horribly cut and sewn. I didn’t finish the hem or the waist, and I couldn’t figure out how to insert a zipper so instead I just made them too big so I could tie them on with a strip of selvage. I wore these pants all the time.
I was telling the stories in this post to my mom on the phone and we both shed a few tears and laughed a bit. She said how all of these stories reveal just how clueless she is when it comes to style. I think what they all have in common is how strongly I always felt that I was wearing the wrong things, and how little resources I had to do anything about it, and how this struggle, these intense feelings of distress, so completely defined the path I would choose for my life and my career. Now, at the age of 27, I am often filled with a inordinate sense of wholeness as I wear clothes that I love and feel comfortable and attractive in. I can never take this feeling for granted.
The coolest thing about Love, Loss and What I Wore, is that it is a meme. What items do you remember that defined a moment of your life? There’s something about this simple idea which is so irresistible.