Making Someone Happy

I hadn’t planned to. I dressed in my usual “not mass day, not suit-coat day” style of skirt, blouse, and boots, or dress and boots. I’d taken off my hat, since I was indoors. As I came into the coffee shop, a younger gent held the door for me. I smiled, he smiled back.

An older man, probably in his 70s, sat at a table near the order counter. He wore a vest with the insignia of a heavy-equipment dealer on it, well-worn jeans, and a work shirt. As I studied the menu, he smiled. “It’s so good to see someone in western clothes again,” he said. We chatted a bit. He’d come to the area from Back East in the mid-1950s and had worked for the same earth-moving and heavy equipment company ever since. Still worked there today. He mused a little about things back then, and the changes he’d seen in town. I ordered, and he left. He called the folks behind the counter by name, and said “See you tomorrow.” Apparently he was a regular.

I hadn’t planned to dress to make anyone happy, but I did. It made me feel good that the gentleman’s morning improved a little. It was a bit of a mitzvah, a little blessing of service that I did not intend but that delighted another person.

Back when I was in grad school, I descended to the near-Stygian depths of the history-n-stuff building to get something from the University’s Slowest Vending Machine. As I debated my choices, a lady came up beside me. I made some dumb jokes about “Do I get the fat group, the fried group, or the chocolate group?” She chuckled. I made another off-hand comment along those lines, then got a candy bar. “After all, if you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap, and easy.” She almost fell over laughing. I hurried off to class.

She tracked me down later. Things had been very stressful, and it was the first time that she’d laughed in several days.

Sometimes, by accident, I get it right.


Sumptuary Laws, Clothing, and Signals

Over at AccordingToHoyt, someone mentioned sumptuary laws and how some people still consider those to be a good thing. The goal was to tell at a glance what someone’s social and economic status was, and where they were supposed to fit into society. What you could wear depended on your income and your job. Servants were not allowed to look like their masters, journeymen had to wear something different from their employers, and if you had less than a certain income, you could not wear certain fabrics or furs. Officially, this was to prevent people from “wasting their substance” on luxury clothing. In reality? It was usually about enforcing status. The world was visual, and what you saw was very important. Sort of like the later plaint of a man writing to the Times of London. It seemed that with the rise of the steel-boned corset, the price for the garments dropped a great deal. Now this man could no longer tell at a glance who was a lower- or middle-class woman and who was a woman of “quality!” Something Must Be Done!

Too, clothing cost a lot of money in terms of percentage of income. A woman’s dress might be intended to last her lifetime and beyond. Even into the early 1800s, in Brandenburg, one of the most important items in a woman’s will would be her “dress of honor,” which was passed from mother to daughter and taken in or let out as needed. She wore it first after her wedding, and then at festivals and important occasions. One dress, meant to last multiple lifetimes. Ordinary clothes often began as someone else’s and were handed down to servants or “the poor.” Shirts, chemises, shifts, and other things worn next to the skin got washed on occasion, but not the outer dress, coat, robe and so on. Keep in mind that fabrics were heavier than they are today, so they were more durable and really would last a lifetime. Even so, new clothing cost more than most people could easily afford. You saved up for a new (or new-to-you) garment.

The other reason this bubbled to mind was a controversy at a local college over something related to clothing and lack-there-of. Clothing was, and is, also a sign or rebellion, especially dressing as someone you are not. Men wearing women’s clothes could be very threatening. “The War of the Women” in France was waged by vigilantes and shepherds, men who wore dresses and kerchiefs and attacked government attempts to limit traditional uses of forest and mountain land in the Pyrenees and surrounding areas in the early 1800s. Men dressed as women would also be part of the raucous charivari or “shivaree” that showed social disapproval of marriages and certain other behaviors. Men in women’s clothes were a threat, when they were not an object of derision (more often symbolic than actual). Modern drag follows this pattern, with men imitating and now grotesquely exaggerating certain aspects of what was traditionally considered female – clothing, cosmetics, behaviors.

Today we can afford to own clothing that suits our personality as well as our status. Very wealthy people “dress down” to show that they have so much they can afford to look like slobs, or as if they don’t care about clothing. Sub-cultures have their own styles, such as punk, goth, western, urban or hip-hop (there can be a difference between the two), biker/MC, hippie-style counter-culture, and so on. There are certain expectations that remain, and within those groups, pushing the limits can lead to harsh reactions. Employers still require employees to maintain a certain standard for safety (no loose, floppy clothes or hair around moving machinery) or cleanliness (overalls, protective jackets). Other places want to project a sense of professionalism – would you want to be represented in court by a lawyer who shows up in a sundress or a Hawiian shirt? The judge wouldn’t allow that individual into the courtroom. Oops.

“Do what you want!” Within limits. And still, despite sumptuary laws, society still puts limits in place. Certain styles, certain rebellions, are often limited in place and time. Breaking those limits signals deliberate rebellion, and raises questions as to motives and goals.

I’m Not the Target Market

Every so often I glance through the glossy fashion magazines like Vogue or Elle. It gives me the same sense as when I read anthropology books: I’m looking into a very different culture and lifestyle. Recently, I read an article by a Korean-American woman grumbling about the twice-a-year beauty treatments she “has” to get, and about all the creams, lotions, cleansers, and other things that she “must” use.

My response was not sympathy, or agreeing that standards of beauty are terrible things and that the power of social norms must be broken. My response was “So stop doing that, stop using that stuff, and just go with the basics.” OK, she lives in NYC, so air quality and winter weather are more of a problem for her. On the other paw, she doesn’t have the “zero to natural mummy” dryness that everyone fights out here. And her job may require using all the cosmetics and having the beauty treatments, since she is a professional fashion and beauty writer. If that’s the case, then why fuss? It is part of her job. Like courtesans having to look beautiful and having to stay current on all sorts of political and economic matters, so they can entertain and discuss at the level that they are hired to do.

The clothing gives me the same reaction, although budget also comes into play. “Eight hundred dollars for a white cotton shirt?!? No lace, no beading, no fancy hand-worked trim? Ye doggies.” OK, paying a lot for a high quality leather skirt I can sort of see, because I know that high quality leather costs real money. But then I’m not the kind who can wear a leather skirt well. Form fitting and Alma do not play nicely together, and I don’t want to have to do all the upkeep required to keep a high-end leather skirt in good condition. Other women do, and good for them.

That’s a different world, where a person’s job depends on wearing the current styles, knowing the current trends, and conforming to certain standards of culture. I keep track of some of it, just to be up on culture. Sort of like I am aware of TV shows and what is popular in the gaming world, even though I don’t game and I avoid most TV. (I’m more cognisant of pop-culture than some teens and pre-teens I know. That’s . . . well, I don’t quite know what to make of it. They are in very snug niches, and seem to like it there. *shrugs tail*)

I’m not sure I’m in anyone’s market niche, unless “Victorian lady explorer academic” is a marketing category. And it doesn’t bother me. I can piece together what I like to wear, what I need to wear, the music I like (or need), and the books I want (or need). G-d bless the internet and technology for making it possible to find medieval and renaissance music, faux-Victorian clothing, good walking shoes, and more books than will fit in my house!

Polonaise: Dance, Jacket, or Sandwich Spread?

OK, probably not the third option, but one never knows. There’s also a French sauce polonaise, just to further muddy the waters.

All these things are derived from the French adjective form of Poland. The music, a form of the sauce, and the jacket all derive from Polish folk music, cuisine, or folk costume.

A polonaise gown from the 1700s. Fair Use from:
Eighty years later . . . Image source:

From the front:


The original form was a dress with a trim bodice that opened into an over-skirt. The back and sometimes sides were looped up into a bustle, revealing the color and details of the underskirt. I suspect the idea was to keep the outer skirt away from whatever you were working on, and you had an apron on over the dress. Or it was a way to show off embroidery and lace or ruffles on the under-skirt.

The polonaise musical form is a march in 3/4 time, or so it sound like. It is stately and does not have the intimate feel of a waltz. (Keep in mind, the waltz was scandalously intimate when it first debuted. His hand was where?!? They were how close?)

As you watch the video, note that under the faster beat is a slow 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It’s a very different feel from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 accented pattern of a waltz or minuet.

This is a concert polonaise rather than one intended for dancing, but you hear the same tension between the march feeling and the three beats to the bar. Chopin is famous for his polonaises, but other composers did and do write them.
In some ways, the polonaise reminds me a bit of a quadrille and other group dances (Irish, American) with the lines and movement. All hands are accounted for at all times. 😉

But They Matched at Home: Musician World Problems

Spotlights are wonderful things if you are an audience member. They are dreadful if you are a performer. They are hot. They blind you. And perhaps worse, they reveal that your black jacket and black slacks do not match. Or your black blouse and skirt. Awkward!

It’s a bit of a joke—OK more than a bit—among the goth and related communities that you need to make certain that your blacks all match. Anyone who has tried to pair up green and green, or green and a few other colors, know that not all shades play well together. Green seems to be infamous for that, although I have seen shades of red that clashed in unpleasant ways. But black should be black, and so what if one has a little more blue and the other is a tad bit greener? In a dark club, at night, no one will notice. Right? Glamor goths seem a bit more concerned about this than are others, but you can be unpleasantly surprised that some combinations collide.

For classical musicians, and others under spotlights or sunlight, clashing blacks become very evident. For several years, I noted that a certain gentleman in a local orchestra had a bluish-black tailcoat but greenish-black slacks. The stage lights made it obvious, and brought out the clashing secondary hues. Last year he got new slacks, and the problem went away. I suspect that the coat was made of wool, and the trousers of cotton or wool-blend, leading to the problem. Different materials plus different dyes causes different shades of the same dominant color.

When everyone else’s blacks match, you don’t want to stand out. For that reason, I am very careful to make certain that my black blouses and black skirts match before chorus concerts, or are close enough that no one notices any difference. All are cotton. The skirts are twill, the blouses are a plain weave, and both are slightly bluer than “pure black.” It works. For performances with the symphony, I have a dress. It is all cotton and all the same material, so I do not have to worry about the painfully bright stage lighting making me look odd.

Black and green seem the hardest to match, or to get to blend well. For years, my wardrobe was black, khaki, blue, and one pair of green-brown slacks. A friend teased me about being Mennonite, because my colors were so plain and my style so modest. But everything worked together, and as long as I didn’t wear a blue shirt with the green-brown pants. I had no problems. Other than matching my blacks. My plumage has grown a bit more colorful since then (white dresses for summer church, a few true purple or cool purple-rose turtlenecks), but 90% of it is interchangeable. Yes, I do get dressed in the dark, fairly often. I don’t like sartorial surprises.

However, last week, I got out my black “I’m faculty” long-sleeve, official issue tee shirt and tried matching it with black corduroy pants. Not happening. The shirt had too much green in it for the black pants. The combination was unattractive. However, very, very dark hunter green with a black undertone? Perfect!

Yep, goth/musician-world problems. The struggle is real! 😉

A Good Flannel Shirt

Last fall, I got my usual flannel shirts out from under the bed and sighed. They still had some wear in them, but the buttons were starting to crack, elbows wearing too thin to patch, and the collars don’t close. They are open-collar, so to speak, and get drafty without a scarf or something else to fill the gap. They were/are also at least eight years old, and the wear is showing all over. Since I wear them daily in winter, if I’m not in a turtleneck, the time had come to get some replacements as back-up.

The new flannel shirts are heavier. They have collars that can button. They are softer (no age pilling) inside. They are roomier in the shoulder. They remind me very much of some flannels and corduroys that I wore to death when I was much younger. I loved them, and a cream-colored, ribbed turtleneck, until they fell apart. Every day, if I could get away with it, I wore those corduroy pants and the little turtleneck or the flannel shirt. Eventually Mom made the shirts and pants disappear when the patched holes had holes.

Every so often I end up with a garment like that. There’s one German dirndel-dress that I’ve had for twenty years and still wear every winter. Some jeans that are getting close to “too worn and faded even for garden work.” Some dressy sweaters that I got when I was flying for a living and that are no longer made. Work gloves that I wore until they fell apart and couldn’t be mended. Murphy’s Law of Fashion says that when you find a material, cut, and style that works for you (or for what you are doing, or both), that item will promptly be discontinued or the fit “updated.” Or the place will “reinvent” itself and no longer make anything close to your preferred/needed items. This happens enough that I now tend to find something, then go back and when budget permits, get at least one more.

A good garment, or shoe, or glove, or hat, is one that fits, wears well, and doesn’t remind you that “oh, yeah, I’m wearing that pair of boots.” Unless you have a reason to want to be reminded, like one of my performance black dresses that requires me to stand up straight, something very important when you are singing. (And it fits and is comfortable, and has real pockets, inspiring envy among some fellow musicians.) The older I get, the less negotiable pockets are becoming. As the hymn puts it, “I need thee every hour,” or at least when I can’t/won’t carry a handbag.

A warm, well-made flannel shirt in winter is a thing of beauty and a joy for as long as it lasts. Ditto comfortable shoes that have a good, solid sole and stay tied (if they have laces). Thick socks that stay up and don’t bunch in snow boots. Work gloves that really do work, instead of just pretending to be work gloves. Note that these things don’t have to be expensive. I got three-pack of leather work gloves (gardening or general use) from Sam’s some years ago and the dang things are still going strong. Likewise a couple of one-off test shirts from Duluth Trading that are still my go-to for heavy “grab and run” in winter.

Here’s to solid, well-made things that last and do exactly what they are supposed to!

I Think It Needs a Transfusion . . .

because it’s bleeding all over the place!

How to stage a murder scene in your bathroom or laundry room. Take one red, floral print cotton blouse, acquired on clearance. Add warm water and anti-allergy soap. Stir vigorously in the bathroom sink, using hands to squeeze warm water and soap into blouse. Stare at water as Moses and Aaron stage a reenactment of messing with the Nile. Brilliant crimson soapy water now fills the sink. Surprise!

Interestingly enough the Red family has had a problem with crimson clothing going back several decades. Sib had a shirt that never, ever stopped shedding color in the wash, even after a score of washes on cold. It always went in with the blue jeans and other really dark colors, and woe betide any sock or pair of pale underwear that somehow slipped into the load. It emerged pink. I tend to assume that red colored garments will shed dye until proven otherwise. Although . . . the “winner” is still a green dress.

Back in the late 1990s-early 2000s, rayon skirts and dresses from Asia became trendy. The skirts replaced broomstick skirts (which I had loved) with a lighter version that didn’t need re-pleating after each wash. The skirts had a few flaws, flammability being one major flaw. The other was that the dyes used weren’t always colorfast. So, I bought a very dark green rayon dress at a local western store in Flat State. Since it was rayon and imported, and because I’ve had raw green fabric bleed a little dye in the past, I opted to wash it with cold water in the bathtub.

To make an interesting half hour short, when I finished, I had a white-grey rayon dress. Whoever had dyed the material had used no fixative at all. None. Nada. All the dye went down the drain. No, I couldn’t get my money back, either. And the “call with questions” line led to someone with a strong Hindi accent who was less than helpful. I’m not sure he understood the problem, or why it was a problem.

The pink and red blouse, after one wash and three rinses with warm, stopped bleeding. It looks quite nice. I’m just glad it didn’t go into the washing machine with MomRed’s pastel blouses and slacks, though!

Shopping in My Closet (and Under the Bed)

Yes, it is time to move the black-shoe dresses to the dark side of the closet and pull the white-shoe, won’t die-of-heat-stress dresses to the front. And the summer work shirts and slacks, and to put the sweaters away, and the turtlenecks. And to see what’s been attacked by the button moths, and what mysteriously shrank over winter.

One of my former colleagues (since retired) called it “shopping in your closet.” You know, when you really start digging waaaaaayyy in the back, sometimes with a flashlight, and discover things that you didn’t remember you had. Or thought had disappeared, or been given away by a family member (or hidden, then buried by a family member.) “Oh, yeah, that dress.” “These pants? No, they are comfortable, and the stains don’t matter when I’m doing yard work or make a quick run to the hardware store.”

I discovered a black mock-turtleneck that had gotten in with long-john bottoms, which explains why I never could find it this winter, a vest that took refuge under some skirts so that I never found it this winter, and a few other things. Why do I have three white Oxford* shirts? Because for a while you couldn’t find them. Now you can’t find cream-colored ones (at least not for ladies). I also have a light teal Oxford shirt, still folded with collar stays, for the same reason.

So now the white dresses are at the front of the closet and the black ones are in the back. The wools are packed away and will get mothballed, then tucked under the end of the bed until next fall. I’ve sorted out some things to give away, and two that will become cleaning rags.

I do wonder, however, what happens between November and May, or May and November, that causes seams to get taken in, especially around the waist. And how the button moths managed to get in and loosen about half a dozen buttons. I used mothballs, I sealed the boxes as best I could, and yet something worked on the button threads and made the waistbands smaller.

‘Tis a mystery.

*My term for button-down collar business shirts. These are made of the heavier Oxford-weave cloth, and were pretty much all I wore between grades 6-12, and into college. For a while that was all I could find in long-sleeve, high collar shirts that could be machine washed and were school acceptable.

Book Review: Dress Codes

Ford, Richard Thompson. Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021) E-book.

Fashion history has been a bit of an interest for me, mostly in the whys and wherefores. I mean, if I’m going to dress 150+ years out of date, I probably ought to know something about the clothes and the reasons (then) for them. Professor of Law Richard Thompson Ford takes a sideways look at fashion going back to the Renaissance, arguing that laws related to dress had serious effects on society, and can reveal a lot about power and culture. I don’t always agree with him, but he has some very interesting observations and ideas. Continue reading