Friday, January 11, 2013

Why is Betty White Wearing My Clothes?

by Sheila Connolly

Earlier this week I was sitting in a doctor's office waiting for my appointment.  The ubiquitous large-screen television was on, tuned to a morning talk show.  Normally I don't watch these, because my brain works best in the morning so that's when I write.  But in this case I was a captive audience. 

Betty White was one of the guests.  I admire Betty White:  she's smart, she's funny, and she just keeps on going at 90 (her 91st birthday is next week).  But what I realized was that she was wearing my clothes. My public uniform, my go-to outfit for conferences, dinners, public appearances, etc.  Black pants, black top, colorful tailored jacket, low-heeled black shoes.  Did I mention that she was 90?  I'm not.

So how did I get it stuck in my head that this was how to dress "nicely"?  I grew up in an era where there were clothing rules for everything.  Things had to match (shoes and purse, for instance).  Underwear was never supposed to show ("ahem, it's snowing down south"), except in some rather bizarre Maidenform ads.   
In my childhood, going to visit my grandmother in New York meant a frilly dress with petticoat, black patent leather shoes (always too small) and socks with lace trim, and white gloves (don't ask me why).  Ladies who lunched wore hats at the table, and applying lipstick in public was considered crude.

I also lived through the seventies when all those rules blew up, but we got past that. And then I lived through the professional "power suit" for women era—you remember, the ones with shoulder pads?  And the blouse with the bow at the neck?

I never saw my grandmother wearing a pair of pants.  She wore a girdle and stockings to take out her trash (down the hall within her residence hotel).  My mother wore pants:  double knit polyester with elastic waistbands.  I still have flashbacks when I walk into the Women's department at a big department store, because my mother is everywhere there. I wear blue jeans, often. It is beyond my imagination to picture either my grandmother or my mother in blue jeans.

What does this have to do with writing?  Well, for one thing, we're supposed to describe our characters, so we as writers have to make decisions:  would our protagonist wear blue jeans to this event?  If she's going out to a nice dinner, what does she wear?  How does she judge someone she sees, based on their clothing? And what do those choices tell us about the character?

Industry studies show that most genre readers are women forty or older.  I'm making a wild guess that most cozy protagonists are slightly younger, in their thirties.  My operating theory is that that age is ideal: old enough to have some life experience, young enough to have options for the future. And while the clothing rules may be more relaxed these days, I think I can still describe how a thirty-something woman would dress.

I'm going out on a limb with my new series, where my protagonist is in her mid-twenties.  And she's blue-collar.  She's been raised by an immigrant grandmother, and she's had to work most of her life, after school and now that she's graduated from high school.  She has no life plan beyond getting by.  When her grandmother dies, she's completely unmoored—no family, no home, no clue.  (Don't worry—her life improves quickly, I promise.) And so far, she wears mainly blue jeans, with one slightly better pair of pants for funerals and such.

Lena Dunham of Girls
But I'll admit it's a stretch for me to write about someone the age of my daughter (who has opted for a kind of classic retro style—button down shirts, cashmere cardigans, pencil skirts and the like).  But I look at something like the popular HBO series Girls and what the protagonist there is wearing, and I go, huh?  Is this fashionable, or is the young woman supposed to appear clueless?  I have no idea.

Are there consistent basic standards for appearance?  Is there some timeless dress code that transcends generations? 

And why are Betty White and I wearing the same clothes??


Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, I've got many of the same questions! I've been collecting catalogs so I can describe clothing other than the pieces in my own closet, and when I was in a college town over Christmas, browsed extensively in a shop for 20 somethings, notebook in hand. I recommend the exercise, along with coffee shop excursions. Many of the “rules" you and I internalized no longer apply, esp about mixing colors and patterns, and about showing skin. And, happily, about matching your bag to your belt and shoes. :)

lil Gluckstern said...

These are classic looks. Today's clothes are fun, and I'm so glad there are no rules about what to wear. Just suit the stuff to the occasion. I'm seventy but I still play a little.

Julia Buckley said...

It seems appropriate to me that you and Betty are wearing the same clothes, since you are both professionals and both have a good sense of professional wardrobe. And the way I see it is, if I'm as lucky as Betty White and am still happily working when I'm 90, I hope I'll still dress elegantly and professionally.