Josna Rege

221. Dressing for Others

In 1970s, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on August 6, 2013 at 1:33 am
(from The Allen Ginsberg Project,

(from The Allen Ginsberg Project,

During my time at Brookline High in 1970-71, my last year and a half of high school, I learned an interesting lesson about dress. BHS, located in an affluent urban suburb of Boston, was the first and the only one of the many schools I had attended in my peripatetic career that had no school uniform. It had scarcely any dress code either,  and in the turbulent spring of 1970, most of the students I knew attended school in the altogether voluntary but near-obligatory uniform of denim jeans and a T-shirt. To be sure, there was a sprinkling of girls who sported hot pants and high heels, but not in my (admittedly limited) circle of friends.

home-faded jeans, 1970s (

home-faded jeans, 1970s (

Brookline High had a Russian language program, and students corresponded with their counterparts in the U.S.S.R. One student sent a class photo to her Soviet penpal and, several months later, was at a loss when a large care package arrived in the mail. Apparently, on seeing the worn, torn jeans and the generally touseled, rumpled look of the group, the Russians assumed that the Americans, suffering the ravages of capitalism, didn’t have enough money to buy clothes, and took up a collection for their downtrodden U.S. penpals. Of course, they were mistaken about the meaning of the tattered work-clothing, since, in a perverse way, dressing down had become a sign of affluence, not poverty. Later in the seventies, when clothing companies began noticing this phenomenon, they began mass-marketing pre-faded, machine-weathered, “stonewashed” jeans to young consumers at premium prices. In our day, we had to fade, weather, and tear our own jeans, an art form could which take years!

Although the story of the care package ought to have shamed and sobered us, we, in our youthful arrogance, continued to wear old clothes as a badge of pride, while people who had to work harder to make a living than we did were more likely to to take care of their clothes and take pride in dressing well. To be sure, there were some hazy principles behind our choices, such as those underlying Henry David Thoreau’s famous admonition to beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, but for most of us they were little more than a fashion statement or, at best, an anti-establishment stance.  As I recall, I even wore jeans to my college interview, telling myself that if they turned me down because of my dress, then I didn’t want to go there anyway.

While I was at university, I continued to dress as I had in high school, although I kept but rarely wore the few cool outfits I had bought in England in the late sixties and early seventies, when the U.K. was well ahead of the U.S. in fashion. When one of my college dorm-mates suggested that it was mere pride that made me refuse to wear the elegant clothes that I owned, I dismissed her insightful comment, putting it down to sour grapes. In truth, I didn’t want to examine my own motives too closely. Because I was young, I was quite capable of looking good when I dressed up, but chose not to bother, “on principle.” (Similarly, young women who choose not to wear make-up “on principle,” may sneer at older women who do; but in truth, in large part they don’t wear make-up because they don’t need to do so; the true test of their principles will be whether they will still eschew it thirty, forty years on. )

It was not until the late 1970’s during a year’s stay in Albuquerque, New Mexico that I began to be aware of some of the messages that dress conveys and to make more conscious choices about what I wore in different settings. As a member of an anti-nuclear group, Citizens Against Nuclear Threats, and very much aware that its membership was overwhelmingly white and middle class, I wanted to reach out to the large Chicano community. In preparing to do so, I tried to look at my scruffy self through their eyes, and what I saw inspired neither confidence nor respect. As I began to organize an educational program at a local Chicano community center, I also went clothes-shopping where, despite being apt to turn up my nose at anything that isn’t 100% cotton, I found myself picking out my first-ever pair of polyester dress pants and a tailored shirt to match, and wearing them to the event (which, incidentally, turned out to be both a success and a disaster, though I very much doubt that my choice of attire was a factor in either).

Thereafter, no matter how sloppily I might dress around the house and the farm, I began to take the trouble to change when I went out, adjusting what I chose to wear in accordance with the company and the setting. While I still care little about what I wear, and, left to please myself, will go on wearing the same old things until they fall to pieces, I am now much more aware of the meaning of my clothing choices. What I learned from my experiences in Brookline and Albuquerque, and perhaps from a certain degree of maturity as well, was that dress can be a mark not only of one’s own self–respect, but of one’s respect for others.

For other TMA stories on clothes and dress, see:

2. The Leather Welding Jacket

31. Gas-Station Shirts

154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing

For some other TMA stories related to Brookline High School, see: 

3. The Horn Player in the Cupboard

84. Feasting or Fasting?

95. Sail On, Silver Girl

139. Sealed With a Kiss

214. A Moment in Time

215. Remembering Mrs. Metzger


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Lovely post Josna. I remember spending many hours over a bath trying to fade my jeans. Even soccer boots. I would do everything I could to make them look well-worn and used before I ran out on to the field wearing them. There was something embarrassing about wearing new things. Then our school bags had to really look scruffy and worn. Quite crazy.

    • Oh, the things that young people feel they absolutely have to do to in order to be part of the tribe! In the U.S if you sported spotless new white sneakers someone would come and stamp on them for you. But in my schooldays and certainly in my mother’s, people would periodically whitewash their canvas gym shoes/plimsolls/keds with special shoe whitener. It was said that the best way to get your Levi’s to fit you like a glove was to take a bath in them and then dry them on. And yes, it took many, many washes before the stiff new denim was comfortably soft. In writing this story I found (and used the photo of) a Scottish blogger who talked about the complex jean-fading rituals in Dundee in the early 1970s (

  2. I just wore my jeans until they faded. I didn’t really think about it. I was in college when before we were allowed to wear jeans to class etc. I agree about dressing to show respect when attending events.

    My 12 year old granddaughter is visiting us this summer and she was wearing a pair of blue jeans with 5 assorted holes in them. My husband asked if she had bought them that way and she had. Craziness. That hadn’t even entered my mind, although, at her age, she wouldn’t be able to fit a pair of jeans long enough to wear them out like that.

    • That’s the way to wear them, Kristin–naturally, without thinking, as if they are a second skin. I think that was the idea behind wearing jeans in the first place–ease and comfort. I was just trying to be honest about my own motives, which were mostly, the above, but also included a certain rebellious stance. I hadn’t discovered thrift-store shopping yet in high school, and agonized as I searched and saved for jeans with the fit and look I wanted. Once I had them, I wore them almost nonstop until they wore out.
      I love the story about your granddaughter. I didn’t mention the later trend of acid-washed jeans, which were almost worn through when they were “new” and some of which were probably already torn and holey. Not a trend or a look I ever cared for, since it was clearly planned obsolescence. But as you note, with pre-teens wearing the fashions that were once the province of older kids, they would outgrow them before they reached that stylishly tattered state naturally! Lord oh lord!

      • I think I was before people started working to get that look – I started college in 1964. Or I may have just been oblivious. I’m pretty sure my granddaughter isn’t looking in resale shops, good will or asking for her older cousins old jeans. That would make a lot of sense, though.

  3. Hadn’t heard the care package story before, but oh, so believable! I like the two-way respect concept. Wish I’d had that to use earlier on…

    • I can’t remember now who told me that story, Jude, but clearly someone who took Russian! Wish I’d had more details. What did you mean in your cryptic last sentence? I’ll have to ask you next time we meet. Tea?

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