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Fashion Statement

May 30, 2019

A work in progress based on my summer prompts list:

Fashion Statement

Of all the benefits of growing up in the sixties and seventies—music, for example, the successes of the space program, and neighbors who were their brothers’ keepers—fashion presented particular challenges. Coming of age during the time when bikinis, mini-skirts, and hot pants filled the stores and the pages of Seventeen magazine, girls like me faced a dilemma. We could please our parents and comply with the dress code or we could fit in.

Since my sisters and I attended a Christian school, one with a strict dress code, our options were limited. Girls were sometimes made to kneel to be sure our dress hems grazed the floor. More than one of the teachers carried a ruler for measuring dresses. For a while the teachers sat in lunch taking names of girls whose dress lengths didn’t meet the rigid standards. Some of the boys came up with a strategy. Girls would eat lunch and then wait to leave until the boys formed a line, creating a barrier in front of the list-making teachers so the high school girls could leave the cafeteria without judgment.

We weren’t even allowed to wear pants—certainly not jeans and not even pants suits.  I do remember a few exceptions. When we had snow, we could wear slacks—as long as we wore a dress over them. Somehow that fashion statement didn’t catch on. Even during my college years, girls couldn’t wear pants to class or even to the cafeteria except on Saturday. We could only wear shorts under a raincoat—while carrying a tennis racket (since tennis was, evidently, the only justification for wearing shorts).

In junior high, most of the girls my age wore clothes our mothers sewed. In fact, my friends and I spent more than one summer taking Singer sewing classes, making dresses of our own. Even the rich kids moms sewed. It’s probably worth noting that we didn’t even know which kids were rich and which were poor. Long after college I learned that a set of sisters were the children of a millionaire. We hadn’t a clue because they didn’t live or dress any different from us.

We spent hours poring over the Butterick, McCalls and Simplicity catalogs. Sometimes Mama bought fabric at the Sears and Roebuck downtown. Probably more frequently, we shopped at Mill Ends, a small fabric shop in North Florence run by J. T. and Sue Darby. I eventually learned to smock and to do French hand sewing there when my daughter was born. For years, though, we did our best to be rules compliant and somewhat fashionable.

At least at school our unfashionably long skirts were the norm. The bus stop was a different matter. When the city school buses passed us, doubtless transporting girls wearing mini-skirts, hot pants, even halter tops, there we stood feeling as anachronistic as the Amish. We might have though we were imagining the mockery if they hadn’t opened their windows and hollered at us.

It didn’t take us long to figure out that we could roll up the waistband of our skirts to expose a few inches above the knee and then roll them down as our bus came into sight. Since the bus drivers were usually teachers or parents, they would have been compelled to rat us out.

As the oldest child, I was a pleaser, a rule follower, and an occasional sneak. I maintained that tension without calling attention to myself at school. I was never called to the office or even to the teacher’s desk because of dress code violations. What a surprise, then, to return home from a beach vacation with my best friend’s family to find I had been sent a letter from the school board stating that I had been in violation of the dress code and would not be allowed to return to school for my sophomore year unless I wrote a letter of apology for my infractions. My parents had already read the letter and had enrolled me in the new city high school by the time I got home. The decision was made.

That first day at Bradshaw High School I sat in my homeroom staring at the chalkboard wondering if I had made a mistake. I did have friends there, since several members of my church youth group had always gone to public school. I also had the freedom to wear pants to class, avoiding the conflict between my still conservative parents and the fashions of the seventies. I was surprised to discover that even in public school, students didn’t live under an “anything goes” status. Hair lengths were regulated. Halter tops and obvious braless looks were against the rules. Wannabe hippie boys grew their hair long but tucked it up under short-haired wigs for classes. Finally, the city school board caved in and announced that the dress code was abolished. Boys flung their hairpieces into the air—or into the trash—and let their long locks loose. Surprisingly, when relieved of responsibilities of enforcing dress codes, teachers were free to teach. Extraneous conflicts went away.

My life eased a little but I still had a few challenges. First, I was a skinny girl, no where near one hundred pounds. Second, shopping options were limited in those days before the mall opened. Rogers Department store was the favorite shopping venue but in my size there were few choices, so we all faced the likelihood of showing up at school and running into several girls in the same ensemble. Sears and Roebuck downtown introduced the Lemon Frog Shoppe, clothes for girls our age. J. C. Penneys also had a few options too.

Late one summer, my parents decided to take us to Nashville on a back-to-school shopping trip. We stayed overnight in a hotel—quite a treat—and feasted on a sackful of Krystal burgers, still not available in Florence. We had lots of shopping choices—Harvey’s, with its trademark merry-go-round, Castner-Knott and Cain Sloan. We were thrilled to ride up and down the escalator. Finally, Mama and Daddy decided to divide and conquer. Mother took me shopping, while Daddy took Amy, my sister two years younger. At the end of the day, we met and went back to the hotel room to show off our purchases. Amy and I each pulled out our favorite new outfits. They were identical, and we were mortified. Mama and Daddy were not willing to let either of us return our purchase.

Eventually, skirt lengths dropped and my fashion sense became more practical. Through college, even with a strict dress code again, I managed to stay out of trouble. I still wore clothes my mother made for me—even to college formals. Nashville also offered more shopping options, though my dorm friends and I often preferred to dress out of one another’s closets, something my sister and I would not have considered.

Years after college, as a mother of three, I started teaching at the private school I had once been asked to leave. Curiosity prompted me to rifle through my student file where I found a copy of the infamous “farewell letter.” Maturity and perhaps even a little humility led me to avoid petty nitpicking over fashion, hair, and any of those superficialities when my high school students pushed the limits a little.


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