A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fashion Bugged

“Mommy?  How come there are so many people wearing fancy dress-up clothes here?”
I glanced around. The bustle of a major airport at five a.m. is at best incongruous, and at worst feels like a Technicolor hangover.  Dress-up clothes?  What was my kid talking about?  I was so bleary from three hours of neck-crick half-sleep that I almost expected to see revelers parading around in clown wigs or Superman suits. 
“I mean, people wearing high-heeled shoes and stuff,” my daughter elaborated.  Despite the fact that I’d had to pry her slumbering head off my numb thigh only a few minutes previously, she was obviously primed to bubble over with perky questions.  Even her twin, doped up on chewable ibuprofen to combat a fever of 102.6, was evidencing more interest in her surroundings than I was.
The very idea of high heels seemed ridiculous.  My own feet felt as doughy as Cinnabons in my half-laced sneakers. But yes, it was true.   A pair of thigh-high boots with four inch spikes strode by.  I spotted a teetering pair of pumps. And I wasn’t just the footwear.  I was surrounded by sleek jackets, designer labels, and glossy leather.  
I felt that resounding mental thud that seems heavier the longer I live above the 65th parallel. Toto, we’re not in Fairbanks any more.
Not long after I moved to the frigid land-locked center of Alaska – a staggering twelve and a half years ago – I first heard a local adage:  “Fairbanks isn’t the best place on Earth to live… it just ruins you for anywhere else.”  At first I thought it was funny.  Then I wasn’t sure.  I was already fashion-illiterate; living in a sub-arctic backwater was only going to make my condition worse.
It’s not that I have any desire to be stylish – or any hope of ever being so – but my complete inadequacy in a pursuit that most people seem to think is Very Important can trigger uneasy self-doubt and even creeping panic.  The whole idea of fashion has always seemed both ludicrous and intimidating to me.  Why spend heaps of money on peculiarly uncomfortable garments that are predestined to look laughably dated in photos?  I hate shopping, and on the rare occasions when I’ve tried to look “dressy” or even “professional”  I’ve felt fidgety, constricted, and about as attractive as a llama in a tutu.  All the same, “everybody else is doing it” can be a potent mantra.  My fashion-angst was more acute when I was younger, and hadn’t yet found safe haven in Fairbanks.  Still, with my mental energy at low ebb near Gate A7, it seemed a bit frightening to think that I’ve fallen so far off the map that I can’t ever step back on. 
As I staggered past the Sea-Tac Starbucks (motto: “We’ll charge what we want because you have been jet-lagged into desperation”)  I was reminded once again that not only do I not look and act like a normal American, but I wouldn’t be able to fake it if I wanted to.  The clothes I’d chosen to wear for my marathon of planes, trains, and automobiles were newish.  My luggage was clean.  Still, my choices were obviously not right.  My t-shirt said “Fairbanks Public Library” and sported a picture of sled dogs reading books.  The jeans were men’s Levis. 
Everyone else in the airport had matching wheeled luggage.  I had a backpack and a canvas tote.  I looked down at my kids.  “Um…”  I still hadn’t figured out how to answer the original question.  The girls had their own little backpacks.  They were wearing hand-me-down fleece pants and t-shirts.  If kindergarten chic exists – and I strongly suspect it does – they didn’t have it.  But in Fairbanks, the only way to tell the kindergarteners apart at pickup time is by the color of their snowsuits. “I guess some people just… like to dress up fancy, in big cities,” I mumbled.
This sounded unsatisfying, even to me, but the five-year-olds accepted this answer.  They had been distracted by a new mission: finding the tiny germ-infested playground that is the saving grace of Sea-Tac layovers.  As the kids clambered on a plastic airplane, I joined a slumped row of parents slurping lattes and typing on laptops.  Like everyone else, these grownups looked more put-together than I did.  Nevertheless, they seemed willing to chat with me.  The bonds of parenthood during pre-dawn layovers run strong.  Still, as I traded niceties and wandered around on-line, I let my thoughts fester.  I knew more than my kids they did.  I knew that Seattle doesn’t remotely qualify as an haute-couture metropolis.  Our next flight would not only render us even more travel-crumpled, it would also take us to New York.
New York may not be Milan, but it takes fashion seriously – at least from my vantage point. I was going back to the suburb I grew up in, so you’d think I’d know how to fit in.  The problem was, I never did.  The closest I ever came to style back in junior high -- when all the other girls were creating a fog of 80’s hair spray in the locker room -- was matching my t-shirt color with my sock color.  All through my teens, the whole question of fashion generated feelings of disdain, misery, and incredulity. When I was eighteen, one of my biggest concerns about heading off to an Ivy-League college was that all post-Ivy-League jobs (so I imagined) required dress clothes.  The idea of wearing hose and pumps every day made me wretched.  But in New York, that was simply what professional women did.
Contrary to my teenage fears, I’ve managed to find a professional career – if professors are actually professional, and not simply in a little world all their own – in which I don’t have to look dressy.  In fact, when I was a PhD student working as a teaching assistant, I attended a brief training session in which a roomful of us were advised that when acting as instructors we should endeavor to a) wear clothes without large holes, and b) avoid smelling bad.  Now here was a bar I could reach!  These days, I occasionally have to look presentable at meetings, but the audience is usually other academics even older that I am and decidedly un-trendy, so I can pull it off with black slacks, sturdy black shoes, and a plain blouse.
In Fairbanks, most of my friends have hair the color that it actually is.  If they discuss shoes, it’s because they want to know which boots are warmest.  Some of them have a little panache and a sense of color and flair in their wardrobes, but others, if transplanted to the Lower 48, might be mistaken for panhandlers.  Sometimes it’s even an advantage to be a slob: I’ve found that in Alaska Industrial Hardware, I’m only taken to be a serious and knowledgeable customer if my work pants are liberally streaked with paint, grease, varnish, and mudding compound.
One day I was laughing with my neighbors about how hard it is to keep our small cabins tidy.  “I never know what to do with the clothes I’m going to wear again,” one of my friends sighed.  It transpired that some of us pile these not-quite-dirty garments on chairs, some scatter them here and there, and one more organized soul dedicates one end of his closet rack to them.  None of us looked appalled at the discussion, or protested that we actually wash every item of apparel every time it’s worn.  I had a college roommate who did that – jeans, sweaters, everything.  I’m pretty sure she considered me feral. 
Even if most of my habits are the antithesis of the Big Apple, The New York Times is one of my favorite news sources.  When I was a kid there was always at least one copy scattered around the living room.  I’ve never had the fortitude to read it exhaustively.  Generally, I cringe my way through the online world news (depressing) and politics (alternately laughable and depressing), then scroll down to Science, Health, Education, and Opinion.  On my way, I pass by Fashion and Style – but I can’t recall ever clicking there.  In fact, I’ve always been perplexed by the idea that there is actually something to write on that subject on a weekly basis for a literary audience. 
In the interests of research, I went and clicked.  I learned about Vensette.com, a service that will send a roving beautician to your home or office to provide a “90-minute session of daytime hair and makeup” for $250 or “nighttime looks” for $325. 
If I added up all the money I’ve spent on hair and makeup in my lifetime, I’m not sure it would reach $325.  The total would include a couple of dozen bottles of Suave or White Rain shampoo and conditioner, exactly two haircuts, lots of rubber bands, maybe three or four plastic brushes, a bottle of Sun-In that was very clearly a mistake, and a little container of blush that I picked up on a whim when I was about sixteen.  Oh, and thanks to the generous children at my kids’ preschool, there was also last year’s lice shampoo.  I’m pretty sure such a product would not be offered by Vensette. 
I could only hope that the padded room that is the Sea-Tac playground was relatively vermin-free.  The other kids, at least, were dressed wholly for comfort. As a little girl rocketed down the slide, someone eyed her pink flannel outfit and grinned, “Nice pajamas!” 
The dad to whom she belonged looked a trace chagrinned, as if it were in some way inappropriate for a child to be wearing nightwear during what was (as my body was vehemently protesting) the middle of the night.  But the rest of the group instantly rallied in defense of flannel.  “I wish I had my pajamas on,” sighed a woman who looked as though she belonged in a boardroom.  Another mom -- in those jeans that look like they’ve been spray-painted on -- concurred.
I contemplated the joy of the kid traveling in her pajamas. With one flight behind us, the twins and I still had this layover, a flight to Newark, and three train rides ahead of us.  Still, I was optimistic.  The sick kid would get better, and the question-asking kid would find other people to interrogate.  I knew that, as on previous trips, I would mostly forgot about the specter of fashion once the initial other-worldly feeling of New York had worn off.  After all, I was hanging out with my family and friends, not with the clients of Vensette.
If eighties high school hairdos and Ivy-League eyebrow-raising didn’t make a dent, I realized, then I’m probably somewhat impervious.  In Fairbanks – at least in my corner of Fairbanks -- I’m among my brethren.  But I can leave, and I can come back.  Fairbanks hasn’t ruined me, or even really altered me. I am free to be the overall-wearing, cheap-shampoo-owning person I always was. Meanwhile, the world of “fancy dress-up clothes” can carry on very well without my guidance. 
I stood up and stretched.  My jeans hung slightly loosely from my hips, causing neither plumber-problems nor muffinishness -- just the way I like them. 
We had a flight to catch.


  1. I can totally relate. I had a college roommate who had a pair of shoes to go with every outfit, while I couldn't even match my socks and teeshirt properly. (You're a step ahead of me!) I chose Fairbanks BECAUSE you don't have to know how to dress here, BECAUSE I like THIS style...And for those reasons, I could never live anywhere else, at least not successfully.

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