ARE YOU EVER TOO OLD TO BE VAIN?

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Southampton, New York: August 2013

Illustrative photo: Southampton, New York, August 2013.

(Now that it’s time in the Northern Hemisphere to pack away the woolens that not only keep us warm in winter but also cover us up, those of us who gave away our bikinis many decades ago must once again confront the pesky question that keeps coming up every year like a perennial:  How much of ourselves should we show?

Since I considered this question last spring in this very blog and have nothing new to add, why try to re-invent the wheel? Those of you who were reading TGOB that long ago may find what follows familiar, although I’ve edited it a bit;  the original version appeared here on April 20, 2014 (minus illustrative photo) under the title “Vanity and the Older Woman.”  Anyone still young and firm of flesh can skip it without great loss.  Go out and frolic in your skimpy next-to-nothings while you can.)

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am. Which means she was about seventy-one when she called. It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed. But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked. However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind. Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery. Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.) “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed. “It’s, um, about your arms,” she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more. The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before. Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin. And the last time I had seen her softening upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world.

Wow! Didn’t think I could be so judgmental? You sure thought wrong. I make judgments all the time (including about myself). However, I mostly keep mum about them. As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill. Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh? Awnings of loose skin beginning to hang below when the arms are raised? A wrinkling surface? “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question. ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really? Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go. You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully. “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Or if it’s a sleeveless dress — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly. “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to. You can still look good. A different sort of good. And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.” But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could. I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie. Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly. My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up. Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby. But then I never did my post-partum exercises. Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes. You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out. I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness. Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young. Even Diane Keeton, who at 68 still looks great, came out with a new book last year that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.” Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments. If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen, go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons. It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.” It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much. All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his. But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead. If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

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WHY BLACK IS ALWAYS THE NEW BLACK: A FRIVOLOUS PIECE FOR LADIES

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[Note:  Male orchestra conductors and classical musicians also seem to be going down this road more and more frequently, although almost certainly for reasons to which I am not privy.  Could it be that black looks more artistic?  If so, consider that the twelfth reason to wear black, as set forth below.  I could only come up with eleven on my own.]

Is it true that you can never go wrong with black?  I have been reading this ever since I first opened a copy of my mother’s Vogue, some sixty-five or more years ago. That’s not to say you should believe even a very small part of what you see in Vogue. But about black — as I have come to realize after considerable trial and error over all the intervening decades between then and now — those crazy fashion editors have pretty much got it right. At least for all purposes where jeans won’t really do.  (And by the way, well-polished black leather boots and a good black turtleneck cashmere sweater really do dress up a pair of narrow jeans beyond belief.)

These are some of the reasons I have concluded that black is always “in”:

1.  Black is appropriate for all ages.  If you think you look too young (haha), it will make you look more sophisticated.  If you’re feeling dowdy, it will make you feel more urban.  If you’re feeling middle-aged, it will make you feel sexier.  If you feel you’re looking old, it will help you feel you’re still in the game.

2. Black is slenderizing. Yes, more so than navy, which tends to look prim, institutional, or nun-like.  If you’re already slim, it will make you look even more svelte and seductive than you already do.  If you’re the opposite of slim, and you don’t buy your black too tight, it will seem to smooth out the lumps and bumps and bulges.

3.  Most things that come in black, other than shrouds, are chic.  Yes, they are.  A black sweater is more chic than one in lime green or pale blue (no matter how green or blue your eyes).  A black dress looks a hundred times better than a print one. On everybody.  Including the model in Vogue.

4.  Men appreciate women wearing black.  They will be proud to be out with you, or — if they’re not yet in position to be able to do that — will certainly be more likely to be eyeing you than that other woman across the room wearing a yellowish tunic over brown pants.  Men also like black lingerie very much, but that was never the subject of a piece in Vogue when I was growing up and therefore not strictly speaking the subject of this piece, which is limited to why Vogue has been right about black all these years (despite being wrong, or eventually wrong, about so much else).

5.  You need fewer clothes if most of them are black.  You can only wear that dress in fuchsia, or the one with red roses or big polka dots all over it, once or twice; after that, you’ll be tired of it, and even if you’re not, other people will begin thinking “Hm. Hasn’t she got anything else in her closet?”  Whereas you can wear a well cut black dress over and over  — with a different scarf, or different jewelry, or different footwear — and no one will be counting.  They will be overcome with the overall glamour of You.

6.  Black tops and black bottoms go with each other even if not bought together. They also go with almost everything else you may own. This means you can travel light.  (One week’s worth of wardrobe changes in a carry-on bag if it’s not the dead of winter, and maybe even if it is!)  It also means you don’t have a lot of stuff cluttering up your closet that only goes with one other thing.

7.  Black goes out of style much more slowly than other “hot this year” looks and colors.  You can adjust hemlines if need be.  Put your money in a great new handbag.  Or a new laptop.  Or the bank!

8. Black looks good on nearly everybody.  You just need the right neckline.  (Decolletage, anyone?)  Or the right accessory.  Pearls perhaps. (If real pearls are beyond you, as they are for me, get fake ones with knots between each fake pearl. That will make them look more real.) Or a good silk scarf in a color that’s “you.” (White or cream or ivory is always good.)  Interesting earrings.

9.  Black doesn’t show dirt.  You can’t see what accumulates at the neckline or at the edges of sleeves.  And most other spots, such as those acquired elsewhere on the garment from sloppy eating, can be made undetectable by sponging off, which cannot be said for spots on lighter-colored clothing.  It’s true that hairs from affectionate family pets, unless the pet is black, will be visible, but these can easily be removed by several swipes of a Scotch Pet Roller, the outer layer of which then gets discarded in the nearest wastebasket.  I keep one of these Rollers in my closet, another downstairs near the front door, and a third in the car.  Far cheaper than dry-cleaning, far less labor-intensive than laundering (or worse, hand-washing) and subsequent ironing of non-black garments.

10.  Clothing in an inexpensive or synthetic fabric looks less cheap in black than in color.  If it’s not cotton, silk or wool, it usually doesn’t take dye well; the colors will be too bright, or too dull, or slightly shiny.  Black  — or, in all candor, white — is the better choice. Unless you don’t care about whether your inexpensive purchases look it.  But that’s not you, of course.  If it were, you wouldn’t be reading this trifle of a piece, but looking for something more meaningful on WordPress — about the state of the economy, or what’s happening with campaign finance, or how to write a truly readable novel in just thirty days.

11.  Black tends not to show wrinkles, even when it’s cotton.   I have a black cotton shirtdress, straight up and down, with a black cotton string-tie belt, that I can wear throughout the summer (with a straw hat, straw bag and black ballet slippers) — and I don’t have to press it, even though I sit in it, and perspire gently in it, and don’t give it any special treatment until fall, when it gets washed and ironed and put away for another year.  I have another version of exactly the same dress in lavender cotton, which I don’t wear nearly as often (see point 5 above), yet its backside looks much more wrinkled after a wearing or so than the black one’s does.  Go figure.  I say black conceals more than any other color, including wrinkles made by sitting.  You can say whatever you want, including that I may be stretching the truth.

But I won’t be listening.  Now that I’ve provided some lightness and mirth to balance all that heavy stuff about proactive defense of the immune system, I’m out of here, to look for something on the economy, or campaign finance.  But not something about writing a truly readable novel in just thirty days.  That I do not believe!

TALES FROM THE CLOSET

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As far back as I can remember, I have loved clothes.  I speak of “clothes” inclusively.  Meaning also shoes, hats, bags, gloves, nightwear — anything you can put on that momentarily seems to change you into someone else.

As a child, I wanted black patent Mary Janes so much!  At birthday parties, every other little girl wore them, with short white socks that had lace around the edges of the cuffs.  But my mother said Mary Janes weren’t good for the feet.  I had brown laced shoes from the Indian Walk store instead — until we moved from cold, grey New York to sunny California, where brown laced shoes on little girls looked wrong.  A fashionista even before the term was coined, my mother at last permitted white-and-brown saddle shoes to enter my sartorial life. Although not made by the Indian Walk company in which she had placed such trust, saddle shoes were apparently minimally acceptable because they did have laces and an arch. Mothers seem to have been obsessed with arch support in the 1930’s.

Come college, came brown penny loafers.  No more laces, not much arch support, and a pronounced tendency to slip off the heel when on feet in motion.  But how could she say no, when they were on almost every page of the college issues of Seventeen and Mademoiselle?

I leave for another time the complex topic of pumps and trying not to fall when having to stand up and walk away from a chair on three-inch heels.  I hadn’t really meant to begin with shoes, anyway. It just sort of happened.

The first piece of clothing I bought all by myself with no thought of what my mother would say (although it was she who had given me the money) was acquired the year after World War II.  I was fifteen and a half and needed a new blouse. And so I went shopping at Macy’s one Saturday with Hellen Guggenheimer, who I thought the prettiest — and who was the prettiest — girl in my class.  [She was also one of the nicest, which is why I am using her real name — just in case she is still alive and might be reading this.]

Since Hellen was perfect, any blouse she chose would have to be perfect, too.  And it was!  A cream-colored “poet’s” blouse in some floppy synthetic fabric, with dropped shoulders, a large floppy rounded collar and a loose floppy white bow you could tie and untie.  Everything draped and flowed (including the long sleeves you could roll back) and seemed to me to be right out of the early part of the English nineteenth century.  (Why I thought this, I have no idea; there was nothing Regency about it, except perhaps the dropped shoulder seams.)  Fortunately, Macy’s still had two on the rack.  Even more fortunately, my mother made no objection.  I continue to remember that blouse with great affection.  I even wish I still had it, floppy synthetic fabric or no.

In fact, I remember clothes owned and loved in years gone by far better than I remember much of what happened in those gone-by years, or many of the people I once knew.  For starters, there were the four outfits purchased at Henri Bendel to see me off to a splendid start at the “fancy” girl’s college that had given me a nearly full scholarship — ensembles selected to offer no clue that my tuition and board were almost free.

First, a very scratchy tan-and-brown tweed suit with pencil skirt, to be worn with a short sleeved beige cashmere sweater at the many football weekends to which I would presumably be invited by as yet unknown young college men.  Next, a violet wool off-the-shoulder sheath dress (with thin cloth-covered belt) that came with its own violet cloth corsage and required a strapless bra.  My mother carefully removed the corsage after we had got the dress home so that there would be somewhere to pin real corsages, when the as yet unknown young men would give them to me at evening dances after the future football games were played.

My whole freshman year I got invited to one football weekend.  At Princeton, of all places.  [Where I live today, although not because of that weekend, I assure you.]  It was a blind date.  The game was a disaster for Princeton. (They lost to the University of Virginia.)  The date was a disaster for both the violet dress and me.  (The strapless bra required by the dress was lifted from my suitcase by Virginia pranksters while I was wearing the scratchy tweed suit to the game; the date was disappointingly short in height, soon very drunk, and wholly without thoughts of corsages, real or otherwise.)  Thereafter, the tweed suit and violet dress reposed undisturbed in my campus closet, never to be worn again.

Also purchased at Bendel’s in preparation for college life was a three-piece blackish-green pinwale corduroy ensemble, with a full skirt gathered on a narrow waistband and a fitted collarless jacket with slashed sides and wide slashed three-quarter sleeves that permitted the ruffle-edged long sleeves of its companion paisley cotton blouse to show through.  I liked the corduroy outfit best of all four because it seemed to me late Victorian in feeling, although it lacked hoops. (What was this desire to retreat by means of costume into the past?)   Another plus:  you didn’t absolutely need a girdle or panty-girdle to wear it, as you did with sheath-shaped dresses or skirts, except maybe to hold your stockings up.  [I never did like garter belts; they got pulled down by the stockings attached to them whenever you sat down, and dug into your stomach thereafter.  Pantyhose?  Not on the market yet.  They came along four or five years later.]  I kept the corduroy outfit for years — to flee into the nineteenth century whenever I felt like it.  My don liked it, too.  It must have looked modern to him; he taught Shakespeare.

The fourth Bendel purchase was a two-piece “cocktail” dress in  dark emerald green taffeta: it shimmered invitingly under the light.  It had a “New Look” flared skirt imitative of the post-war Dior silhouette and a fitted three-quarter sleeve jacket with lapels and taffeta buttons running down the front that invited unbuttoning by anyone daring enough to try.  What could we have been thinking, my mother and I?  To what cocktail parties would seventeen-year-old me be invited where this sophisticated item might come into its own?

I wore it for the first, and only, time to a New Year’s Eve party given by my first serious boyfriend’s uncle.  Everyone else at the party was in their forties or early fifties.  The living room was full of bridge chairs set up like seats in a little theater, all facing a very small television set placed on a table between the two windows of the room.  The set was such an expensive state-of-the-art new thing that it was deemed worthy of a whole New Year’s Eve party all to itself!  First serious boyfriend and I sat on our chairs in the back row and held hands shyly while the black and white “entertainment” flickered between the windows. Occasionally, he eyed my taffeta buttons. But even the subsequent under-the-mistletoe kissing, in full view of the collected guests, was chaste.  Poor first serious boyfriend had to wait till we reached the relative privacy of my mother’s living-room sofa.  (My parents were already in bed.)  Only then did toying with buttons begin, and treasures concealed by the shimmering green jacket were at last revealed.

Poorly sewn on, two of the buttons fell between the cushions of the sofa and were found next morning while I slept the sleep of the not-quite-just (but not-so-bad-really) in my maiden bedroom.  They never got sewn on again.  Perhaps because there wasn’t going to be another New Year’s Eve party until next New Year’s Eve, and by then both my mother and I had forgotten about the buttons.  Or perhaps for some other reason best known to my mother.

Uh-oh!  Look at the word count of this post!   And I haven’t even reached the beautiful black wool dress with white cotton pique collar and cuffs that the saleswoman at Saks assured us had also been bought by Mamie Eisenhower.  I wore it to my one sophomore-year football weekend.  This one was at Yale.  My host  was a graduate student — in the law school!  But I’ll save that story for another time.

Scratch that.  At this rate, it looks as if there are going to be a lot of other times. I’ve got sixty-three more years of clothes to tell you about.

Bet you can hardly wait!