A. D. Metcalfe
I have no fashion sense.
I never have.
Basically, I’m one of those people who’ll wear what’s on the top of the pile. And the pile ain’t all that interesting!
Growing up, we didn’t have much money, so I never had a chance to develop a taste for nice things. But I suspect that even if we did, I’d still dress like a bag lady.
My parents were not big influencers either. As a piano player, my dad would wear a suit to work every night, and he totally rocked it. But the rest of the time, he mostly kicked around in old baggy jeans and tee shirts.
In the 60s and 70s, my mother gravitated toward the hippy-dippy bohemian look and tried to inflict it on me.
To make things worse, she went through a sewing phase. The patterns she chose were basic. No pleats, no tapering, and square necks. The material was cheap and stiff with busy colors. Sending your kid to public school in New York City wearing a boxy, handmade shirt with uneven sleeves is borderline child abuse.
Even when my mother took me shopping, it was pretty hands-off. She didn’t offer much fashion advice. Mostly she let me make my own choices—a colossal failure in judgement —because I would always prioritize comfort over appearance, then wear whatever, until I got teased by other kids, and the outfit would be relegated to the back of the drawer.
My older sister, however, had an amazing flair for style.
She could rummage around her wardrobe and piece together unique innovative ensembles. If things didn’t fit right, she’d make them, by cutting, tying, or layering. The punk scene was blooming when she hit her teens and twenties, giving her the perfect opportunity to flaunt her skills. Her body was her canvas, and her art was on full display.
Her looks varied from mood to mood, and each was extraordinary and complex. She was thrift-shop-fabulous, long before the likes of Madonna made it famous in Desperately Seeking Susan.
I inherited none of that. I recognized style and envied the fuck out of it.
I just lacked the skills to replicate it. In junior high, I coveted the clothes of the Black and Latina girls, who always came to school so nicely put together. Many wore slacks, with attractive tops, and patent leather shoes. Everything was flattering, hip, and color-coordinated. They looked more like little adults, heading off to the office instead of the cafeteria.
Their parents would never let them leave the house in frayed jeans, t-shirts, and filthy Keds, like the Village kids I hung out with. Or, in my case once, blue sweat pants and a button-down, floral-patterned shirt closed up to the neck. I still remember how a friend of my sister’s stopped me in the hall, grabbed my collar, and undid my top button. “For Christ’s sake, Alyssa, at least open the top one!” Hit-and-run fashion tips.
I was in sixth grade in the mid-70s.
During a shoe-shopping outing with my mom, a pair of Marshmallows caught my eye. They were black and shiny, with a thick bright white sole. They didn’t have the super high platforms like the dancers rocked on Soul Train, but they were still pimpin’! I thought these shoes might just be my ticket to Fashionville, because anyone who wore Marshmallows had to be cool!
I begged my mother to get them and, during one of her more egregious parenting errors, she agreed. The next day, I wore them to school, but I didn’t own any clothes to go with them. Just the usual crap that looked like it was randomly plucked from a charity bin at the Salvation Army.
Back then, my absence of style was only rivaled by my lack of confidence, so it wasn’t like I could strut around totally owning this fashion faux pas. It just looked absurd.
I managed to get through most of the day without ridicule, only because my feet were under a desk. But by afternoon, I had ceramics, where all the kids sat on stools around several industrial shop tables. In the class was a clique of cool tough Black girls who always sat together, and who nobody messed with.
As soon as I walked in, they pegged me.
“Oh snap! Check out this girl in the Marshmallows!”
“Did you buy those on purpose? Lemme look.”
I stood surrounded while they conducted a thorough investigation of my fancy shoes—the only thing fancy about me! Being shy and self-conscious, I was mortified at having become a spectacle for the whole class, who I fully expected to pile on and laugh me out of the room.
But to my surprise, the girls declared that my shoes were cool and told me to sit with them. Another went one better and had me sit on her lap!
Were those girls truly celebrating my style and hipness, disjointed though it was, or were they just fucking with me? I’ll never really know, but they did save me from the derision of other would-be hecklers. Nevertheless, I didn’t wear those shoes again. Not even for some Halloween costume.
By the 80s, I was desperate for style.
My teenage body had transitioned from dumpy to tall and buxom. Back then, designers seemed to believe that all women were either tall and thin or short and fat. So, even if I did have some fashion epiphany, it was impossible to find anything that fit.
Clothes that accommodated my breasts hung over my waist like a shower curtain, and whatever hugged my curves squeezed my chest into a uniboob. As my legs grew longer, finding pants was near impossible because everything I tried on looked like Capris.
As a result, I started dressing like a B-Boy, with the baggy MC Hammer pants, high-top sneakers, a cut-off tee, and a hoodie.
Sometimes there was an occasion for something fancier, so I’d throw together a combination of bits and pieces. Once I remember heading out to go bar-hopping in these rose-colored, skin-tight, velveteen pants, white go-go boots, and a short-cut, blue rabbit fur coat.
My sister was mortified. “You’re going out looking like that? For fuck’s sake, you look like a New Jersey Turnpike hooker!”
The specificity of the insult had to be appreciated.
That she didn’t think I looked like a run-of-the-mill Times Square hooker. No. I looked way tackier than that.
First off, for a native New Yorker to be associated with anything from New Jersey was big enough an insult, but the turnpike to boot? Classic. I still wore the outfit to the bars that night. In fact, I think I even got laid.
Even in the workforce, I tended to have jobs that provided a comfortable uniform.
I spent over ten years as a line cook, where I was assigned industrial-grade kitchen whites. Another decade as a veterinary assistant, where my biggest fashion decision was: doggie or kitty scrubs? Aside from that, I’ve spent half my life working with horses, as a barn manager, trainer, and instructor, so if I wasn’t sporting riding breeches, I was donned in filthy old clothes and shit-covered boots.
Fast forward to today, where I still keep a handful of horses at home and toil as a writer. If my fashion skills got little use THEN, they get even less NOW! I couldn’t possibly imagine how to set the bar any lower with regards to appearance. I roll out of bed, in my cat hair-covered, wine-stained pajamas, and plop down in front of the computer, where I write until noon.
Then, I change—why? I have no idea—into grubby sweats to go out and do barn chores. When that’s done, I will change yet again, into only slightly less grubbier sweats, to go to the gym. Then, it’s back into the PJs. Each outfit is a complete lateral move and indistinguishable to the general public.
If I have to go out out, like for some event, I have three possible choices, all of which involve yoga pants. It’s sad. And as I grow older, it’s only getting worse, because nobody’s looking at me anyway. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I would still get whistles and catcalls in frumpy clothes, but over 55? Fuggedaboutit!
The amount of work it would take at this stage to pull my shit together isn’t worth the energy. And besides, an old lady sporting a RUN DMC or Bad Bunny tee shirt might say more about style than one in a pants suit.
So, there it is. My evolution of fashion sense, or lack thereof.
On the bright side, whoever’s in charge of my funeral arrangements should have it pretty easy. They could just lay me out with a bunch of old laundry piled on top. Because I don’t want the best I’ve ever dressed to be when I’m dead!