Negotiating Fashion



Some time around the age of 3, my child announced that from that day forward, she would be dressing herself. Hooray! And, in the most basic sense of pants-on-the-bottom, shirt-on-the-top, this was accomplished without my help. Inside out, backwards—these initial oversights eventually became fashion statements, as did the competing stripes, the dizzying color combinations, the layers of accessories. 

Unsure if this were the normal course of events (First Kid I’d Parented Syndrome), I turned to the mother of my child's preschool friend, who looked smartly coordinated in a way many preschoolers had yet to master. 

"Does your child dress herself?" 

This was, unfortunately, taken to mean your child looks like she dresses herself, and was met with indignation. In fact, I was thinking just the opposite. How does her child manage to match, and mine does not? We play "Go Fish," too. Doesn’t that get generalized to clothing, a little?

At age 5, my self-assured child informed me that she had her own Fashion Look, which was all that she would wear, at all times. The Look included sparkly, preferably tie-dyed, rainbow colors. There were lots of tutus and wings, and quite a few necklaces involved. None of it impeded her vigorous playing style—that was another of her criteria. I thought back to my first year in elementary school when I tried sartorially wow-ing my friends by showing them how far I could stretch the lettuce-edge trim of my kelly green polyester bell bottoms. Now I feel some guilt for passing along those genes.  

But—accentuate the positive—my child was dressing herself and refusing advice or assistance, which freed me up to look on in amazement, as defined by, I have literally never seen anyone wear that before. Which I kept to myself. Then she began giving me advice. I freelanced at home; what could it hurt, empowering her, as it were by following her recommendations? I did draw the line at tiaras. 

When she turned 6, the First Great Sartorial Debate began. It started slightly before Halloween with the arrival in the mail of a costume catalog containing “Racy Referee” and various thinly veiled sex games outfits. Sizing started in a Child's Size 3. Size 3 microminis and thigh highs. And sequined bustiers. Are the hairs standing up on end yet?

"Those look fancy," came her awed voice, at my elbow. They look ...something. 

"Look, I know when we dress up for occasions, we often wear skirts. And more sparkly clothing. But just because it has a skirt or spangles doesn't automatically make it 'fancy.' Anyway, these skirts don't cover enough," I tried to explain, obliquely. 

"But there's only that little part of leg showing, at the top."

"Yes, but it's the wrong part of the leg."

"What’s wrong with that part of the leg?"

Curse you, Tacky Catalog People for starting this conversation at age 6! 
 
courtesy The British Library.

And so, standing in the costume aisle of the party store, we negotiated the Fancy Geisha kimono costume, piece by piece. I agreed it would be OK if transformed—with the addition of wings, sparkly glam fairy wig, and leggings—into “Madame Butterfly.” Because Madame Butterfly had a formal and imposing-sounding name, suggesting to her someone powerful and important. Because Madame Butterfly is an opera--that infused the costume with class, she reasoned, and fame (bonus!). How much I should have resisted this costume is certainly debatable. The complete outfit had the merits of covering enough skin to suit me, and being quirky (read: sparkly and colorful) enough to suit her. Some day she'll probably see its namesake opera. Some day she'll ask why I let her knock on strangers' doors and tell them she's Madame Butterfly.
I, too, have unanswered questions from my childhood. I call that "tradition."