It’s not the best kept secret that I love clothes. Seems I always have. When I was about to retire from my college teaching position, a colleague told me that I wouldn’t need to buy clothes anymore. “Once you retire,” she said, “you won’t need a new wardrobe every season. You can just wear the same old thing, year in year out.” I was dismayed, and she ended her prediction by warning, “You’ll see.” But, I never did see, and it hasn’t turned out that way at all.
If anything my love of clothes has increased. Not only do I have time to scour my favourite shopping sites on the Internet, but I can select more daring outfits now that I don’t have to stand in front of hundreds of young adults each week. Years ago, when there was a tear in one of my shirts, I couldn’t help but notice the students in the front row laughing and elbowing each other. One kind young woman mentioned that a seam on my blouse was unraveling to the amusement of my students.
Another time, a male student pointed out that there was a speck of dirt on the left breast pocket of my shirt. I looked down, and yes, there it was, a scrap of apple peel from lunch. The class went silent and if there was a hole in the ground where I could have disappeared, I would.
Now I can dress for special occasions and concerts, or lunches or dinners, or just going for a walk with my husband and our dog, the Great Pyrenees Rufus. As for shoes, I do wear runners to the dog park, but I haven’t given up heels or sharply pointed toes for certain outings. Not yet. Not ever, I hope. I will admit to buying two pairs of Cloud Steppers, with one-and-a-half inch wedge heels, constructed of comfortable suede. I will also admit to wearing them more than any other shoes in my closet, but I tell myself that “comfort shoes” are just for around the house.
This taste for clothes developed from the time I was a young girl. Every Saturday my mother and I would take the U.S.–Canada tunnel bus from Windsor to Detroit. First stop: Hudson’s Department Store, the grand palace of shopping on Detroit’s once busy main street, Woodward Avenue.
My mother liked to shop, but she was on a tight budget. With no money of her own, she was forced to confer with my father for everything moneywise. She managed; and as we headed toward Hudson’s I felt my heart racing with thoughts of the new blouse or skirt she might buy for me.
Before marrying, my mother was a “salesgirl” in a chic ladies dress shop across the road from Hudson’s so she knew about fashion and prices and how to dress. The Saturday afternoons with my mother shopping in Detroit were among the best times we had, stopping for lunch at one of the department store’s restaurants or crossing the street for Detroit’s famous Saunder’s dark chocolate hot fudge sundaes before returning to Windsor where the atmosphere was not nearly as charged.
After the Detroit riots in 1967, mother and I stopped crossing border to shop. It wasn’t only the riots that ended our outings, although downtown Detroit quickly began to deteriorate after them. I was also sixteen, longing for independence and Saturday afternoons spent with my girlfriends talking about boys.
My mother was also plagued with health problems and as she aged, fashion became a much less important part of her life. I recall a photo of her at a family gathering before she fell ill. She was smiling, perfectly turned out in a black satin dress with a silky wrap around her shoulders.
I picture my mother, exotic and lovely, with her dark curly hair and her olive complexion, looking like 1940s movie star Ida Lupino. There was something mysterious about my mother, about the secrets she never shared with me. Perhaps unconsciously, she became the prototype for the main character, Freda Linton, in my new novel Last Night of the World.
As I watched my mother decline, my attachment to stylish clothes intensified. I pledged to “never give up,” as one of my aunts proclaimed. My aunt, who passed away at 94, always looked chic and put together into her nineties, and now, each time I consider leaving the house without lipstick or proper shoes, I remind myself: never give up.
These days I’m even loosening up on my clothes budget, if there actually ever was a clothes budget. Not parsimonious by nature, clothes will be one of the last things to go, after good food, a subscription to the New York Times, and my penchant for collecting books.
These are the choices we make as we age. My mother might have been better off had she hung onto her love of fashion. It was one of the few things in life she really enjoyed.