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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


Updated: Dec 30, 2021

We may not like to admit it, especially if we are concerned with appearing too materialistic, but our clothes mean a lot to us. What we choose to wear for any given occasion broadcasts something about our lives and beliefs, and aims to project an image of ourselves that we have crafted.

One need only recognize the attention given to the outfits worn at the recent Biden Inauguration. Are the designers American? Do the colors selected convey a political affiliation? Men as well as women are scrutinized for their choices.

My interest in clothing has recently gravitated to the area of comfort. The Covid lockdown and my age have surely played a role. Nevertheless, I found it so refreshing to see Vice President Kamala Harris throughout her campaign appearing in pants suits, just as Hillary Clinton had done. Opting for comfort, these women were broadcasting their seriousness along with their desire to be viewed as doers, not women who will fuss with their clothing. As a woman, I appreciated the style of many of the pants suits, pared with functional and often colorful blouses and a touch of jewelry. That seems to be saying: I am still attractive, but I mean business.

As any woman knows, by wearing slacks, she can eschew the use of pantyhose, which eliminates the time-consuming and annoying battle to pull them up and straighten them without snagging them. Surely, if a public woman's stocking had a run, which would be obvious if she were wearing a dress or skirt, the press would notice immediately. And once the pantyhose have been pulled up and straightened, the battle is not yet over since the procedure has to be repeated if the wearer needs to use the bathroom at some point. Pantyhose are the "improvement" over individual stockings worn with garter belts from a previous era. It's anyone's guess which is more trouble.

I recently read that when The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on television in the early sixties, Mary Tyler Moore, cast as Laura Petrie, insisted on wearing slacks and ballet flats. Producers and advertisers were chagrined but Moore insisted, claiming that women did not stay at home and vacuum in big-skirted dresses and heels. Moore won out, audiences became accustomed to it, women (I am certain) rejoiced, male viewers supposedly loved her, and other shows followed.

When I was a high school student in Brooklyn, New York in the sixties, girls were not allowed in the school building wearing slacks. Many of us had quite a long walk to school, and winters could be fierce. The choice consisted of tights, which had to be pulled up and adjusted just like pantyhose, or knee socks. My knees would often be red and frozen during those winter days.

At some point, the girls in the school began wearing slacks under their skirts for the walk to school. I do not remember how it began but once it caught on, all the girls were doing it. We ran to the girls' bathroom on the first floor upon entering the building, where we all huddled together and removed our slacks before heading to class. I recall a girl arriving on one midterm test day during a bitter cold January wearing slacks without a skirt, assuming that since it was not a regular school day, it would be all right. It was not. An angry proctor -- a woman -- sent her home.

As a high school English teacher in the early seventies, I remember when female teachers were suddenly permitted to work in slacks. We all appreciated being able to sit on the desk in front of the class during some literary discussion without worrying about pulling our skirt down so that nothing unseemly was revealed. I also remember the ease of getting dressed for work in the early mornings without fighting with pantyhose. And it always seemed to be a fight. Since rushing to get dressed usually resulted in a snag in the nylon, a never-ending supply of pantyhose had to be maintained.

In ESCAPING THE WHALE, Marcia has her own battle with pantyhose and a skirt on a day when she planned on meeting with the science chairman. Trying to appear more professional, she dons a skirt with pantyhose, and spends the day uncomfortably fidgeting with both items, feeling uncomfortable, and becoming aggravated and self-conscious. Having experienced days like that myself, I know what an annoyance it can be.

I think the way we feel about ourselves in the clothes we wear tells us a great deal more than what we actually choose to don. In the part of the book when Marcia is visiting her brother in his suburban home, she becomes aware of a label in her t-shirt bothering her, and of her jeans feeling a bit tight in the waist. This is a reaction to observing her young niece, who seems to be negotiating her budding femininity with grace, and with Marcia's growing irritation with her boyfriend's expectations. Marcia's discomfort with the clothes she is wearing reflects her discomfort with herself, with her sense of dislocation in the world. The feeling of annoyance with her clothing on her body is part of her general malaise and confusion. If she can't wear clothes that feel comfortable, her attitude toward everything in her life is affected. And if she is uncomfortable with her life, she will be uncomfortable in her clothes.

Another focus on clothing centers on footwear. Although Vice President Kamala Harris wears mid-size heels with her pants suits and with the dress she wore at the Inauguration, she does not hide the fact that she loves her sneakers. The fuss over the Vogue cover portraying Harris in her sneakers is actually funny. She looks happy and comfortable, and that makes her look beautiful and strong. Laura Bush, the only former First Lady at the Inauguration in a skirt, wore flats on her feet! Yay for her bravery and sense of self-esteem! She looked wonderful -- and comfortable. How refreshing! Wearing flats for this formal event seemed to be saying: The hell with all of you who expect me to be tottering about in high heels! I am well-dressed and elegant right now, flats and all! When a woman who is not used to walking in high heels puts them on for one special occasion, her discomfort is usually obvious in the tilt of her body as it attempts to adjust to the unfamiliar angle. Fashion "experts" often advise women to practice wearing heels at home before venturing out in them. Is this a valuable use of a woman's time?

Do colors convey anything? Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Dr. Jill Biden, for either all or part of the ceremonies, appeared in purple, the color of bipartisanship (it combines red and blue), and a color traditionally associated with royalty. The ties the men wore were blue, the Democratic color and a color associated with stability and decorum. White is another significant color choice. Harris and Clinton have both worn white pants suits for certain occasions, symbolizing and honoring the suffragette movement. Dr. Jill Biden's tasteful teal ensemble was a gentle nod to the blue of the Democratic party, and the white she wore in the evening, with the flowers from all 50 states decorating the matching coat, was an uplifting and inclusive choice.

What about jewelry? There has been some comment on the expensive watch President Biden wore. He was not hiding his enjoyment of fine watches or pretending to be a common person who would not own such a watch. I see it as the new President being himself and not trying to put on an act. For this special day, he was allowing himself to wear a good watch that he owned. Vice President Harris's jewelry has been noticed throughout her campaign. Her collection of various pearl necklaces and earrings has become her signature look, telegraphing her sense of style, beauty, and appropriateness. I can be smart, it says, but I know how to add some jazz to the smarts. And since she is consistent with her use of pearls, perhaps that is telegraphing consistency in her positions.

In ESCAPING THE WHALE, Marcia and Jason spend an evening with another couple discussing politics, and they recall the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, and the subject of clothing is raised. The wives of President Carter and Vice President Mondale, Rosalynn Carter and Joan Mondale, wore cloth coats that day even though it was a cold day. In contrast, the wives of the outgoing President and Vice President wore fur. The choice of cloth signified the new President's identification with the middle and lower classes rather than the upper, drawing a not-so-subtle distinction with his Republican predecessor. Whether or not it represented a reality, the clothing choice sent a symbolic message.

Now that most of us are spending the bulk of our time at home, comfort has taken a front seat to our clothing choices. Of course, if we have a business meeting on Zoom, we know to dress in business attire -- at least from the waist up. And I know that many of us are getting sick of staying in pajamas or sweats all day. But there is a middle road. Real clothes -- clothes that can be worn out in the world -- can be comfortable. We just have to care enough about our comfort to find and use them. Perhaps the clothing choices and expectations will be different when the world returns to "normal." We will just have to wait and see.


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