I meant behavior
is a pile of clothes
I might or might not wear.
—Rae Armantrout, from “Life’s Work”
THERE’S a neighbor girl down the street, not a girl I guess, maybe thirty, who talks to me at our neighborhood bar, about my clothes, my shoes, my perfume. She sees me walking to work in the morning and remembers until next we meet. It’s a tenuous basis for a friendship, but I do like the attention, and the way she seems to attribute to me a kind of person that I am not. I especially enjoy it from her because she’s lovely, plush and painted and glossy, but in a young way. It might be that she makes me feel old, because if I extended that kind of effort in my toilette, I would look hard. And yes, these are the things I think about, and was thinking about, even during the election season.
A woman was almost president, and she was decidedly unbeautiful, hideously not young, dressed in DC frumpery and groomed like a Kansas City Mother of the Bride. Behavior is a pile of clothes. Those clothes, and that they were not quite right, may have cost her the race to someone so repellent on every level that even she had a shot against a man in an expensive suit. The earnestness of her dress was no small matter. She could not look expensive without class critique. She could not look butch. She could not look as if she cared, but it was absolutely forbidden for her to look as if she didn’t. The higher the stakes, the more of a sartorial knife’s edge she had to walk, and this rule is iron clad for all of us gals.
I remember how I loved Martha Stewart for wearing a mink scarf to her insider trading trial. She went, I’d wager, to jail over that fur. But not all of us can afford to flout the rules. Some of us need to eat.
FOR Halloween this year, a friend sewed her own blow-up doll costume out of vinyl and a flesh colored body suit. She has a genius for fabrics, and creative expression of every variety. When I showed her a photograph of herself in this creepy, perfect, elaborate, remarkable ensemble, she said: “Oh, god, I look fat in that picture.” Behavior is a pile of clothes, and behavior becomes habit becomes character.
I never leave the house without thinking about it. I might or might not wear any number of numbers, carefully chosen with my own character in mind. I dress myself to play myself as an unselfconscious and artful type. Jersey for ease of movement, heels for poise, structure for discipline, and print for whimsy. Each of these choices influence my behavior in subtle and obvious ways, but more importantly, they influence others’ behavior toward me. Too much cleavage and I’ll be underestimated (though this can be useful). Too much black and I’ll intimidate (this too). Too lush a fabric says “I don’t need this job,” but too cheap says I don’t deserve it. I might be shallow, but I might not. I am one of those who has to eat, and if a larger portion of my budget goes to my wardrobe that you think is wise, think of Lily Bart, Meg March, Emma Bovary. “We are expected to be pretty and well dressed until we drop,” remarks Lily in House of Mirth. And Lily does drop, at her own hand, at least partially due to wardrobe mismanagement. Had she only been pretty and well dressed enough without accessorizing into too much, would there have been a happy ending? Would she have won the husband? The job? The election?
This is a sensitive subject for me, as I recently lost my job to a man with drastically less experience and skill than myself. This man also liked to talk about my clothes, and so did our boss. He liked to call me “the pretty lady” in front of clients. He also wore shorts to the office, I guess, to demonstrate how little these trappings of propriety affected him. It didn’t occur to me to mind about it too much. I never complained. I mean, in the hierarchy of inappropriate comments I’ve heard about my appearance, this seemed like small potatoes. I’m content to be thought pretty as long as I’m also thought capable.
I might or might not dress in a way as to incur that kind of attention, but I did. I do. And in retrospect it burns, because all of my behavior was reduced to a pile of clothes, despite whatever else I had to offer. I wonder if I had been slovenly, or plain, would I have been evaluated fairly? Or would that too have been worthy of remark—just not to my face.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the summer 2016 issue she wrote about Thomas Hardy, disposable income, and sexual novelty.