Yesterday, noticing that most of my summer Ts were worn out, stretched, or otherwise unspectacular, I tried to go shopping. I thought I'd go to some cheapo stores and just pick up a few summer tops to perk up the old wardrobe. So, when my husband came home to give me a break from kid care, instead of going somewhere to do work, I biked to a corner on Michigan Ave with Top Shop, H&M and the Water Tower Place.
Top Shop was depressing. The clothes were clearly all made of much younger gals than me. There were lots of belly shirts, see through blouses, super short minis, and cutout dresses. I felt myself dreading when my daughter reaches her teens and hoping fashion would change significantly by then. I thought how glad I was that when I was young, it was the era of punk and post punk, when you were not expected to be "sexy" in any conventional way and when combat boots and a vintage 50s dress with dyed asymmetrical hair were the height of cool. Our clothes were not so body conscious (in fact, some looked like trash bags) and there did not seem to be such a mandate to be "hot" as there is now. Funky, punky, aggressive, edgy and witty were more the adjectives we craved for our appearance.
H&M had clothes that looked like something I might wear -- basic striped Ts -- but when I tried them on, nothing fit. I realized, once again, that while I am not hugely overweight, my body is out of sync with clothing designed for younger bodies. I tried a few tops with what I imagined were waist ties, but the tie hit me at some bizarre point midway between what I think of as my waist (a space that has always been more imagined than real, as I never really indent at the middle) and what I would consider an empire waist, just below the hooters. All this did was thicken me. Then I tried a little summer dress. Again, the waist fell in some nowhere-land -- it must be my descending boobs -- and the length managed to chop my thighs in a way that made my legs look like massive tree trunks. (I am 5' 2", so I am not sure how these would fit on people of normal height.)
Moving to the Water Tower mall, I tried Banana Republic, my old standby. But even there, I failed. Instead of overly young, much of the clothing seemed too corporate. As a teacher, who mostly works at home or bikes to coffee shops and libraries to work in the summer, I do not need fancy silk blouses. And the more casual stuff they had was misshapen, too, but in different ways from H&M. Instead of clothes that seemed cut for tiny dolls, the clothes at banana seemed too big. The T-shirts were all long and baggy, cut to hit my thighs, even in the smallest size.
Some of this, I know, relates to how messed up our body images are. The youthful shops aim for the anorectic crowd who all want to be size 0. The older shops target obese Americans and alter all their sizing so that we do not know how fat we have gotten. (I have dropped multiple sizes since high school while weighing more now than then). So, a small is now built for someone who is not really small but smaller than the very fat person who used to shop in a specialty shop like Lane Bryant but now wears a medium in many stores.
I now understand how women of a certain age become frowzy. The temptation to start wearing Birkenstocks and granny dresses, or pull-up pants and Ts with funny cats on them starts to make sense when you see the alternatives. Better than trying to fit a youthful style, perhaps. For me, vintage is the answer. A few months back, I scored a gorgeous fifties floral dress, a sixties polka dot and a 70s Pucci, all in one day. All fit my body perfectly and did not make me feel like I was trying to compete with teenagers, but rather hoping to have cocktails with the grown ups, watch art films, or have meetings in skyscrapers. I'll continue to go backwards, not to some imagined youth in myself, but to an older style.