What Shall I Wear by George Merrill

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From the moment of our birth, we are swaddled, capped and wrapped to greet our world. Fish, animals and birds meet their world au natural. From the start we are embarrassed to reveal our natural endowments, except once, and then only briefly in the Garden of Eden. We keep our privates, private. Critters don’t care a fig.

For us “What shall I wear?” is the first questions of our day.

At the dining room table recently, two of our granddaughters engaged in a heated discussion. It concerned clothes. One was sixteen and the other was eighteen. For many years, as they were both about the same size, they wore one another’s clothes the way the Native Americans once shared the same land with each other; they took turns inhabiting it. For years the arrangement worked amicably and exponentially increased wardrobe choices for both.

The problem: the older girl was soon going away to college. What clothes would stay, which would remain? There was another concern here, although it didn’t surface directly. The sisters have been very close and the older leaving home set into motion the younger’s anxiety about her sister’s leaving. Wearing one another’s cloths indicates the depth of intimacy and ease with each other that both have enjoyed. Clothes constitute more than meet the eye.

Clothes may be utilitarian, but we make individual statements by what we choose to wear. Statements include the sense of our sexuality, or our wealth. We show social status, as in the uniforms, which identify our professional and societal functions like the military, ecclesiastical garb and the doctors’ white coat. Clothes in that sense are like a language; visual symbols of who we think we are or where we belong. Clothes communicate our statement to others.

Recently I saw a young girl wearing jeans. They were deliberately stressed and shredded; fibers opened at the knees, patched here and there and unevenly bleached. They were fitted so tightly that if the girl were a western cowgirl, there would be no way she could get on a horse. What was remarkable was that I could tell that they were brand new. I have been told stressed jeans sell for extortionist prices. The statement the girl’s jeans make is more difficult to read. Why would girls wish to look like waifs in tattered rags? The symbolic significance is a confusing one; blue jeans would naturally come to such a worn condition only by backbreaking labor since for years blue jeans and Levi’s had been marketed specifically to the working man who wanted most their indestructability.

But perhaps there is a message here if we look more deeply. In this post modern era, many of our youth spend little if any time engaged in labor of any kind except perhaps taking the garbage out, cutting grass or washing a parent’s car. Enormous amount of their time is spent riding in automobiles. They’re constantly on cellphones, on computers and watching TV. Does wearing the embattled looking Levis express an unconscious yearning? Do they reveal a latent desire to have performed the physical labor that, at the end of the day, we can point to with pride and say ‘look at what I’ve accomplished?’ It seems to me that today, if Levis were left to wear out naturally, the seat would be the first to go.

Jeans, when I grew up in the late forties and fifties, were especially popular among boys. My first pair of Levis was a signature moment in my boyhood. I bought them in a dry goods store that had a distinctive smell, not unlike local hardware stores of yesteryear. My jeans indestructible character and association with cowboys carried the suggestion of masculine prowess. They were not associated with any elite, but rather the workingman. The coming-of-age uniform for my boyhood was decidedly Levis. It included wearing a white tee shirt with its short sleeves rolled up to secure a package of cigarettes. This is how we chose to dress among our peers, but we carefully lost the cigarette pack when we returned home.

Time is a big factor in how we react to clothes. James Laver, in his book, Taste and Fashion, constructs a timeline, known as Lavers’s Law, by which we can expect certain reactions to dress. Laver notes that wearing something ten years after its time is indecent. Five years old, shameless, but one year before it’s time, daring. One year after it’s time it’s dowdy, ten years, hideous, and fifty years, quaint. Worn seventy years after it’s time is charming and after one hundred and fifty years it’s beautiful. I note that socks and underwear are apparently exempt in the discussion in that Laver’s focus is primarily on what meets the eye.

This is interesting if we follow the fashion trajectory of blue jeans: they’ve traveled uphill all the way. They’ve gone from “work clothes,” to casual, to business and now even to formal wear and are still engaged in a gradual social ascent – even though the jeans remain only a shadow of their former selves. In 1886 when Levis first illustrated in advertising, a pair was tethered between two horses. Behind each horse stood a man with a whip ready to flog the horses: the message? Even wild horses couldn’t make these pants rip or tear. I do not believe that today, with outsourcing, our jeans are made of such stern stuff.

Any discussion of sartorial matters like this cannot but address our universal need to be sexually attractive. By just thumbing through any magazine that advertises clothing, the models – either male or female – look unlike the people we normally associate with, particularly here in Talbot County… except perhaps when our children or grandchildren come to visit. The beautiful young models are shown to encourage vain hopes in us, but I think most would agree, our preoccupations with sexual allure have a natural shelf life.

Until about twenty years ago I enjoyed shopping for nice clothes and believe I had good taste and dressed well. Since I became an octogenarian I no longer think of myself as a sex object and my dress habits have become less inspired and more perfunctory. Now, clothes primarily need to fit loosely, keep me warm in winter and cool in summer. They should not embarrass my spouse and friends and should ideally be made of fabrics able to minimize any food and coffee stains I may have spilled.

Worn a size or two larger, Levi’s might fit the bill nicely.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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