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.
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:
For some other TMA stories related to Brookline High School, see:
139. Sealed With a Kiss
214. A Moment in Time