Is it too soon to think and write about things that seem less important? Things like beautiful clothes, about fancy earrings, about how red lipstick doesn’t pair well with a mask? Finally getting my hair cut in September re-ignited the vanity that’s lain dormant within me for months! Meanwhile, I recently finished an essay called “A Girlhood in Color” about growing up, described in five fabrics. Here are two segments of that essay . . .
I grew up in a densely woven nest of families – with six sets of surrogate parents and more than twenty surrogate siblings.
Every weekend we kids would grab the TV Guide – back then the only way to watch an old movie was to wait for it to show up on television once a year. We pored over those listings carefully. Our favorite movie was The Great Race, Blake Edwards’ brilliant slapstick comedy set in 1908. We’d gather at someone’s house filled in joyous anticipation – the best food fight in movie history was about to happen again!
Natalie Wood’s Maggie DuBois seeped into my brain – here was an independent, opinionated, sexy successful woman. My child’s mind couldn’t see the caricature – all I saw was that she did everything she wanted while wearing miraculous outfits.
I watched in open-mouthed awe as she confidently strode through a huge barroom brawl in a black satin beaded evening gown – tulle and jet beads around her tiny, graceful shoulders. She lifted her head, set her jaw and floated through 200 men tearing a bar apart. As she moved through the chaos in perfect poise, each man she came near stopped fighting, bowed and doffed his hat. She was parting the Red Sea with nothing more than her beauty, her dress and the certainty that she could. She was remarkable. She was everything I wanted to become.
Everyone I knew growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s had a pair of Levi’s – 501’s with the button fly and copper rivets. ‘Jeans’ and ‘Levis’ were interchangeable synonyms. We bought them at The Surprise Store, on Washington Blvd in Culver City.
Levi’s were cheap – only about $12 – the investment was in breaking them in. You started by soaking the new jeans in a swimming pool or bathtub for a day. Then you wore them as much as you could until they started to mirror the shape of your body. When your jeans were shredded and only suitable for things like painting the house or being made into cut offs, you’d go back to The Surprise Store for another pair.
I was 15 in 1978, “the year of the status jean” according to the Washington Post. MacKeen, who had a fancy shop in Century City, said they invented designer jeans in 1970. Just putting MacKeens on was an ordeal – they were 100% cotton, stiff and cut insanely tight. In their dressing room, there was a photo of the staff helping a customer into her jeans – one person with the pliers at the zipper, one person on each side of her hips pushing the jeans closed, one at the customer’s head offering morale support (just like in labor).
To get mine on, I’d lie on my bedroom floor, scuttle my legs into them, tilt my pelvis up to pull the jeans over my behind, suck in my stomach and button the waistband. Then I took a deep breath before facing the hard work – zipping them. I’d grab the bottoms of the jeans between my heels to pull the legs down. Then, with the thumb of my left hand hooked around the buttoned waistband, I’d use the other hand to inch the sharp, jagged zipper’s teeth together, carefully avoiding my panties and delicate skin. I wished I had pliers – the zipper cut my fingers more than once!
Once I got my jeans zipped, I’d let go of the edges of the hems at my heels and, like a crab, try to stand. Walking downstairs in the mornings before the jeans loosened up was tricky. I’d pivot my hip to hurl one leg forward and then the other, clutching the wrought iron bannister for dear life because I couldn’t bend at the hip.
Every time I peeled off my MacKeens at the end of the day I’d find huge red welts on the belly. Just taking a deep breath was a luxury.
I wore those jeans with high-heeled sandals and a cropped sweater – black and purple horizontal stripes – to a school dance one Saturday night. All night I danced, one with the sweaty crowd of urban teenagers, buoyed by the chic power my jeans afforded me. The next Monday boys who’d never acknowledged me before sought me out. It was a beginning.