Before A HISTORY OF MY CLOTHING was published, I read parts of it in museums, community centers, classrooms, and clothing stores. I noticed immediately how much my listeners (women and men) related to my own struggles with clothing. My recounting of getting together the clothes for a first date reminded people of their first dates. The stories I told about literally painful clothing experiences unleashed discussions of strapless dresses, corsets, and tight shoes. It’s not exactly why I wrote the book, of course; I wanted to think about my past and the world I had grown up in.
What Is Your Clothing History?
Writing this book has fascinated me because of all the stories people have shared with me. When I read about gym suits, I learned immediately that most people had worn them and hated them. But I became addicted to the stories readers and listeners told me in return. It’s a kick to realize that everybody has worn clothes they hated and outfits they knew didn’t look good on them, and everybody had favorite outfits that they felt happy in all day.
If you send me your story – whether it’s your experience with gym clothes, that new pair of shoes, your first prom dress – I’ll add it to the website blog section so that we can all share our histories and what they mean to us. When you send your story, send a photo too. Or, comment on these blog posts/stories by sharing your own clothing experiences and how they tied into your life at the time. It would be great to hear from you.
My friend Barbara Ensor came up with this little meditation on normal, ironic normal, and as if normal clothing…
On my annual trip to visit Georgia’s classroom I know the rules I must wear something normal, not ironic normal, not as if normal, …you get the idea. She teaches in a school in East New York Brooklyn in a neighborhood where the rate of incarceration (among men anyway) is higher than the rate of high school graduation. Every year it astounds me how crazy hard this is. I start out brave and enthusiastic. Often purchases are required. As I get ready, the very normality of the outfit begins to yell then, shout then scream for some addition. Only with supreme will power do I get out of the house without black ankle socks or yellow pointed shoes or necklace of plastic gumballs. (. Oddly each year when I succeed it gives me a rush of energy—this ability to present myself as normal. Briefly I feel sure this is the new me, but by 8 AM the next morning it has passed.) Now that the season has turned I am yet again forced against my will to wear an orange hat that places a square button in the middle of my forehead. It culminates in a point a couple of inches higher in a vertical direction than is reasonable. This despite the upsetting amount of attention it gets me from small children and dogs which I worry about as I leave the building. Jill Thankyou for capturing the insanity of being compelled to wear insanely seductive clothing in days gone by and then being upset, confused, ruffled at the extent of attention from the opposite sex. You really nailed it with the tray.
Because everybody has a clothing story to tell…
“I’ve been a sea cook and I’ve been a clipperman…”
–Old sea shanty
My life has taken a winding path to end up here. I started out after college as a social worker, interviewing mothers and inspecting children for signs of abuse. I found this depressing work, and as a cure I threw myself into being the assistant in a tiny wholesale garment factory that made some of the most unusual and inventive clothing of the 1960s. From there I became an editor in a publishing house. I’ve also worked in a print shop, where I made and developed plates, folded and packed leaflets, waited on customers—and at the same time I worked at Yale, first as a tutor and then a teacher of freshman composition, and later as a dean in charge of the undergraduate disciplinary process for Yale College. I’ve been writing and editing most of my adult life, and in love with books and words since I learned to read at three. Most of that time I have been wearing clothes.
The problem started when I was twelve and sitting in a rounded leatherette chair at the neighborhood beauty salon, waiting for Cele to emerge from under one of the beehiveshaped hair dryers. I liked to go to the beauty parlor with my mother. I went to breathe in the mysterious fumes of permanent wave solution, hair dye, and heat, and, more importantly, to read the fashion magazines. These never came to our house, but Cele and I both enjoyed our encounters with them—depended on them, even. In the pages of Vogue I got my first education not so much in what was fashionable, since female denizens of New York City absorbed that information by osmosis, as in the mores of fashion. I saw that it was not only the dress you wore that mattered, but the way you wore your hair, clasped your pearls, carried your gloves, and pointed your feet. I saw too that there was a body for fashion and that I didn’t possess it.
The curtains of department store dressing rooms were gray and sleazy, made of tacky material. As you pulled them along their tracks, they made a sound between clank and hiss. Once they were extended fully across the doorway, you turned to face the classic dressing room props: the mirrored triptych, the tiny stool in the corner, the wall hooks for the garments. If you were like me, nine times out of ten you would be accompanied by your mother, who would plump herself down on the stool, her arms crossed. The long, slightly purplish fluorescent lights, under which all skin turned green, glared down on you both as you prepared for the elemental struggle.
In the Fifties, the big thing was breasts. Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were out there as role models—we knew them and understood their moves. A well-endowed girl could expand her ribcage and throw back her shoulders, and voila! Hugeness. What men wanted.
This tactic wouldn’t have worked for me in my early teens. I was shy and intensely self-conscious. Boys never looked at me. I was so flatchested that my ribcage stuck out farther than my breasts. At the humiliatingly late age of fourteen I finally managed to convince my mother that I should wear a bra, but even then I really had nothing to put in it. It hung around me, a watery wrinkled thing. Wearing it was almost as embarrassing as not wearing it. For the most part I sat on the sidelines at the Dance of Love.
I had the luck to grow up around Russians, who taught me many of the things I know about having a really good or a really bad time, drinking, and singing Gypsy songs about love and death. I loved Tom and Shura, friends of my parents and UN interpreters, and Shura’s wife Billie. I was thrilled to meet the odd people who swirled around in their living room. It was there that a sitar player gave me an introduction to Indian music; mathematicians came by and talked about numbers theory; people fought about politics as if their lives depended on the outcome. I especially remember one imposing woman who had been a dancer in Russia. Her hair, dyed a special kind of dark purplish-red like my Aunt Paulie’s (my mother said they used Henna) stood on end around her face; from time to time she pushed it back with her knobby hands, laden down with large rings set with murky stones. She gave me two bits of very important advice. “Always hold your head up when you dance,” she instructed. And, “To be beautiful, you must suffer.”
Book Reading at The Wish House, West Cornwall, CT
Watch as Jill Cutler entertains and amuses her audience in this book reading at The Wish House in West Cornwall, CT. Jill begins by giving kudos to illustrator Valerie Fisher who was in attendance, then recounts the fashions of her high school days, from the gym suit to hovel skirts and penny loafers. She vividly recalls the outfit that “helped (her) get tapped by one of the sororities around which much high school social life was conducted, …’Sigma Sigma,’ or whatever its name was…”
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Every once in awhile I get inspired to write. It doesn’t always lead to an entire book. But I do want to write more musings in the form of “blog posts,” so if you’d like to read along and share your comments, leave your email below and I’ll let you know each time I publish a new blog post.