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color tales

April 26, 2012

The first garment I remember being intrigued by is one I never owned. I was six years old, and I was staying with relatives for a few weeks. My aunt took me and my baby cousin out to run errands. I remember the store as being boutique-like, but I can’t imagine what we could have been doing there — maybe window-shopping. I don’t even remember if it was clothing for children or adults. All I remember is the one thing I was captivated by — a sweater covered in buttons.

As a kid, I hated functional buttons, but these buttons were clearly design elements, not meant to be used. I hadn’t known you could do that. I wanted to take the sweater home with us so I could study it further. My aunt said we would have to buy it first, which I hadn’t realized. I asked her if she would buy it for me; she said it was too expensive. She also mentioned that she had five children of her own to buy clothes for.

I didn’t actually want to wear it; I wanted to see it and think about it. But that would’ve been impossible to explain, so I didn’t try.

The next garment I fell in love with I also never owned. I was eight or nine, and staying with the same relatives again. One of my teenaged girl cousins had a dance to go to, and needed to buy a dress. She asked me to come along to help her choose. She tried on a whole lot of dresses, but finally narrowed it down to three, all of which looked good on her. (Although she was beautiful, so most everything flattered her.) I really loved one of them, which was bright red with white polka dots. My siblings and I wore a lot of hand-me-downs from our many older cousins, and I was already thinking ahead to inheriting this dress, so I persuaded her to buy it. I don’t know what ever happened to it after she outgrew it, but it wouldn’t have fit me anyway, as she was much shorter and much curvier than I ever was.

My mother made clothes for me when I was small. I remember a jumper that I want to say was red fabric with ladybugs on one side, and a golden yellow corduroy on the other side; it was reversible. For something else, I don’t even remember what kind of garment it was, but the fabric was white flannel printed with yellow giraffes. I still have a scrap of it, and it’s one of my treasures.

I remember a yellow and white plaid dress with a lace collar. The lace was crunchy, and the dress was uncomfortable to wear, but it looked pretty in my school photos.

My favorite dress when I was maybe five was made out of brown fabric printed with pink roses and green leaves. That is a particular combination that I have continued to find appealing, although I rarely find fabric as pretty as what I remember.


The first time I remember going to a store and picking out clothes that I liked was when my mother took me shopping before beginning 9th grade. For us, junior high (now, middle school) was grades six through eight, and while there, I’d had a growth spurt. I was then 5’ 10”, taller than all the boys my age. So I couldn’t wear my cousins’ hand-me-downs anymore, which was fine with me, as most of them were ugly, with muddy colors and dreary styles.

I remember getting a button-down shirt with a plaid design with rainbow stripes. Oh, it was so pretty, I could hardly wait to wear it. There was a knitted sweater vest we bought to go with it; all I remember is that the colors were muted. I think I had grown out of the shirt by the end of that year.

When I started working for my father, in high school, I made enough money to put on lay away a linen skirt, plaid in sunny colors. I felt warm and happy whenever I wore it. I took it with me on my family’s European vacation the summer after I graduated from high school. I had knee high fluffy socks in a beautiful thistle color that I wore with the skirt on a day in Italy when my younger sister was getting propositioned right and left, but apparently all the men thought I was still a schoolgirl, despite my height. I didn’t mind not getting pinched.

The only time I’ve been to Scotland, the summer I turned 14, one of the things I remember best is all the dark, muted (but intricate and beautiful) plaids and heathered fabrics I saw. I couldn’t afford to buy any of them. I’ve always wanted to go back, for lots of reasons, but including looking at their home-grown fabrics.


I spent years as an adult hating yellow, and all shades of pink. The only thing I can figure now is that there was no point in loving colors that didn’t seem to fit into my life. But if they did, all through high school, what changed? Well, 1985 happened. Then a year later, I was getting very dissatisfied with my job at the bookstore, so my parents helped me get a job as a bank teller in downtown Chicago. And suddenly, I was making a lot more money, which I’d wanted, but banking is a very conservative culture — I couldn’t wear creative clothes anymore. I had to learn a whole new kind of style (at least during working hours).

This is the moment where my mother began in earnest her quest to turn me into someone who dressed in a classic and elegant style. Slowly my colorful and vibrant (often trendy) garments were winnowed out, and replaced by well-made, sturdy garments in colors like navy and dark brown. (Not black or white, because I don’t have the right coloring for them — they make me look sallow and ill.) Maybe a “pop of color” in a shade of green or blue-green, as an accent. But anything more colorful, and certainly anything that “didn’t match”, was tacky, and low-class, and therefore to be avoided.

This began a pattern that persisted for the next at least 15 years. In 2000, when I got my first professional level job, my mother took me shopping to Marshall Field’s in Oak Brook, and we spent about $1200 on clothes she thought were suitable for my new standing. I spent the most on a designer suit with pants and a skirt — it was indeed elegant, but was also … beige. She tried to talk me into black garments as well; I think I did buy one black skirt because she insisted I would wear it all the time. (I almost never wore it; I don’t like black.) Everything I remember was 1 solid color — no patterns or designs. Apparently that makes it easier to “match” things, although by then she was savvy enough to not use the m-word with me; she probably said “coordinate”.

The very first time I wore the suit, my third day at my new job, I fell in the street on the way to the train station that evening. My ankle turned under me as I ran to make the light. I fractured my left kneecap, and badly sprained my right ankle, broke one of my fingers and my glasses, scraped up my face. There was blood all over me, and my clothes. I couldn’t even bear to look at the suit for weeks, so there was no chance of getting the blood and stains out of it. I had to throw it out.

The thing is, the suit looked lovely on me, but it wasn’t me. I mean, it wasn’t my style at all. But it was the style my mother wanted me to have. Kind of like wallpaper, really: pretty but predictable; nothing clever or too interesting.

My wedding dress was the same way. That was the first garment that anyone ever encouraged me to think about designs I might like. I wasn’t a girl who had been planning my wedding since childhood; as a child, I did not expect to get married. As I got older, I thought I might marry late in life. I fully expected to have a dress made to order. My sister, although younger than I, had gotten married the year before, and she had a seamstress make her dress, although it was a copy of a design she’d seen in a wedding magazine.

I had all sorts of ideas for things that might flatter me. But the biggest issue was, of course, color. I wanted green, my favorite color for many years, for new beginnings. The design itself was rather less important to me, mostly because I was tall and skinny with a so-called boyish figure (i.e., not curvy), and I was used to most things looking subtly (or not so subtly) wrong on me. I didn’t really know how to dress the body that I had, and nobody I knew wanted to help me figure that out. Even my mother just wanted me to look “normal”, except that her idea of normal couldn’t really encompass a daughter that was a small-boned 6’1”, who weighed 135 lbs, and might be anything from a size 6 to a size 12, depending on the garment. And who kept wanting to wear something bold and dramatic, something witty or unexpected, often something playful.

I told my mother I wanted a green dress. She didn’t argue with me, or try very hard to persuade me of her more traditional preferences for off-white or ivory. But somehow we only went to stores that didn’t have any green dresses. No, wait, there was one – a green velvet 2-piece, with sort of an Edwardian look, but my mother insisted that it would be better as a “going away suit”. Except that we didn’t buy it! Somehow, yet again, what we bought was something that had elements that I liked, but it was off-white, and overall, it didn’t look anything like me. Except that my mother swore it did. Everyone else agreed it was perfect. My mother was paying, and I’ve never before or since spent $400 on a dress, so I gave in. But without telling her, I bought dyeable shoes, and I got them dyed to match a skein of spring green embroidery floss (that I still have). I changed the subject whenever she asked what I was doing about shoes. So on my wedding day, those shoes were a surprise, and she was not happy at all. Considering that she deliberately got my “wedding colors” wrong in all the decorations, and my wedding flowers (the only other detail I really cared about) were also the wrong colors, I was fiercely glad that just one color was exactly what I wanted.


In all of these situations where my mother appears, I end up with garments that do appeal to me in a limited way, but somehow the intricate relationships among complex designs and unexpected color choices are missing. So that overall, I feel minimized and misunderstood. But more, I feel like what I am is too threatening, maybe too alien?, to even be looked at. And certainly no one ever encouraged me to design my own garments.





[[Think of this image as me, in all my complexity. (Really, it’s a detail of my 2004 tapestry, Indigo.)]]




[[This shows most of the colors and textures seen in that detail photo of Indigo.]]




[[This is apparently how my mother sees me. All of these elements are indeed found in Indigo, but they fall far short of telling the whole story.]]


I’ve had design ideas for garments for many years, but it’s been extraordinarily difficult to follow the process through to completion. I would start, and then get stuck, and not be able to come back. I knew I had some kind of psychological block because whenever I tried to explore why I couldn’t finish something, I sensed a deep pit of black despair. Which seemed kind of strange. How could making a skirt cause the world to end? It made no sense. (I didn’t make any skirts though.)

But now I’m reworking garments, using my own designs. (I worked on garment #3 just yesterday.) And I have sketches and ideas for wholly original designs. Spouse and I will be collaborating on at least one photo shoot, where I will be the stylist, using my own creations.

Stumbling blindly along the path I’ve been on, I reached nihilism and existential despair before I got here. Several times in the last week, I found myself writing things that end up with me saying that I must be some kind of monster. I usually delete it and backtrack. But why does that particular word keep coming up?

So if following my own path of creating colorful and complex art makes me a monster, could it be that trying to avoid being forsworn and abandoned, as a monster deserves to be, somehow caused me to get enmeshed in other people? People who could tell me what I was allowed to be. Authority figures. People I admired, or people I was afraid of. But if they stick by me, then I’m clearly not a monster. So keeping them happy by hiding my true nature keeps me “safe”, but is also killing me, because I’m not really myself unless I’m creating. The stuff I want to create isn’t usually pretty, although it’s often attractive or appealing to some people. Just not my mother. And when your mother tells you that you are a monster, how can you not believe her?

I am not a monster. My mother was wrong about me. Making a skirt, or even a garment without a name, cannot cause the world to end. I have the right to be who I am. I have the right to paint with delicious oranges and pinks. I have the right to dye my hair green and purple (which I already did, and it was awesome). I can wear mismatched patterns every single day if I want.

My whole world has shifted. Anything is possible.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2012 22:00

    Your catalogue of past events is very observant and aware. And I applaud your journey to be happy in yourself… it is often hard, even without the opposition you have had. Keep going! You have nothing to loose, except limitations.

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