My family wasn’t rich, but it wasn’t dirt-poor either. We had enough money for all the important stuff, like food and books and tickets to the opera. We just didn’t happen to have much money for unimportant stuff, like clothes.
Clothes are, well, they’re tricky. You have to dress neatly and appropriately at all times; you can’t be a slob, because what will people think? But clothes are also a sign of vanity, which is a mortal sin. So it’s important to want to dress well, so people will think well of you, but not attractively, because you don’t want to burn in hell. I know this is fact because I was told it is.
And for the love of all that is holy, don’t even think about dressing to be sexy. There’s a special name for girls like that, and it’s not a word we use.
Anyway, none of this was really an issue throughout my childhood, because I mostly wore either hand-me-downs or whatever was in the sales. I’d have a couple of nice things bought for special occasions, but the bulk of what I wore consisted of whatever my mom’s friends’ kids had grown out of. As I was always the smallest of the bunch, I had plenty to pick from. Everything was new to me and in good conditions, so it didn’t really bother me. I might occasionally go to school wearing a golf shirt, tennis skirt, and deck shoes, but that was a look I could totally pull off. With the right shades, anyway.
Things kinda went south when I Became A Young Lady (euphemism). For reasons beyond my understanding, my mother decided that the occasion needed to be celebrated by providing me with a whole new wardrobe. Of course, we wouldn’t just do what other people seemed to do; go to a clothes shop, hand over some money, and return home with whatever clothes I picked. Oh, no. What we did was unearth the clothes my mother wore when she Became A Young Lady and take them to a seamstress to have them adapted for me.
There were two slight hitches in this plan. The first one was that my mom Became A Young Lady in the early 50s. I went through the same process in the mid-80s. Fashion had moved on a wee bit in the interim.
So while my classmates were looking like this
I was looking like this
And no, that wasn’t a look I could pull off.
The second hitch was that even after Becoming A Young Lady, my mom continued to look very much like a Young Boy. I didn’t. I really, really didn’t. So when we got to the seamstress’ and I put on the first of my mother’s cream-and-catshit-coloured flannelette dress, I got stuck. They pushed and shoved me into it, and then they couldn’t get me out again, because certain parts of my anatomy refused to co-operate. I had to be cut out of it – carefully, because one wouldn’t want to ruin the dress. Undeterred, my mother set the seamstress to altering the stuff so I could at least enter and exit it without needing assistance.
I don’t know what my mom was thinking. I know it wasn’t all about the money; a professional seamstress’ time is not cheap. If savings were the goal, sending me to the local flea market would have worked better. I don’t know what she was trying to achieve. However, I know what the actual results of her sartorial decisions were.
Back in the 80s, Italy was a country were fashion was of the utmost importance. Young teens tend to be particularly susceptible to trends. Hell, even unstilish people tend to look askance at you when you’re wearing clothes thirty years out of date. There’s also a general assumption that people over a certain age have a saying in what they wear. Therefore, my schoolmates assumed that I was a weirdo. To say that this put a crimp in my social life would be an understatement.
My wardrobe shielded me from the bulk of social interactions teens tend to waste their time on. If mother had intended this to protect me from certain temptations, however, then she hadn’t thought the issue through. Due to the differences between our physiques, crowbarring me into her clothes didn’t make me look drab and conservative. It made me look like a stripper going off to a third-rate 50s theme party. I was alienated from the bulk of my schoolmates yet still exposed to all the sexual harassment that tends to come with that time in life. It was great fun.
Of course, back then I had no idea of what was going on. I didn’t know how normal people behaved around clothes, because I wasn’t terribly familiar with normal people. So I assumed the problem was with me. I only worked out what the issue was years afterwards, when I bumped into an ex schoolmate who loudly exclaimed “Ohmygawd, you’re dressed like a normal person!”
Sometimes I wonder about what my mother was trying to do, and whether she was aware of what she was actually doing. There are a load of wonderfully specific terms in legalese detailing how guilty a person is depending on whether they actually meant their actions to have a given result, or whether they could even anticipate it. Did they do whatever it is purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, negligently, etc.? I could argue that, without knowing my mom’s mind, I cannot determine how responsible she is.
I could argue that, but I don’t. I wasn’t affected by my mother’s intentions; only by the results of her actions. If she genuinely couldn’t think her way through what she was doing, that doesn’t maker her a Better Person©, or a Better Parent©. It just makes her more likely to repeat the same kind of mistake. And given that my challenge is to decide how to deal with the woman, not to judge her, that’s all I care about.