Sunday, April 21, 2013

What the scary professor taught me

On my way home from Erin's on Thursday (photos to come--man, those twins are cute), I stopped at a consignment store to pick up a check they had waiting for me.  My goal was to return home with the money I had earned without spending it on something in the store.  Technically, I made my goal ... until I returned the following day to find a silk dress that I regretted not buying the day before.  Oh well.

I had to go back for it because: It was silk for the price of polyester---it's long enough to wear with bare legs---adjustable enough to be worn shorter with jeans (dark blue or white)---light weight enough for any month of the year (except July and August when sleeves cease to exist in my universe)---it's easily layered under a heavier cardigan---it's not quite grey, not quite blue, and not really purple.  Plus, my pathetic bunion afflicted feet can wear (flat) boots with it.  When I went to bed on Thursday night, I couldn't believe that I had left it in the store.

Somebody asked me recently when/how I learned how to pick out the things I wear on a regular basis.  Two words: graduate school.  I learned how to get dressed in graduate school.

I had one graduate professor who (unintentionally) taught me the basic sartorial principles I use everyday.  She wouldn't be pleased if she knew she had served as this inspiration--she would probably narrow her eyes at me and say something like, "You couldn't be this inspired about Kierkegaard? or Kant?"

umm. No.

I took classes with her every week for a year.  Then and now, she has a formidable presence in my mind.  I know in reality that she's super cool and nice; her students RAVE about her because she's so damn smart and accomplished and normal.  I never got to her know that well, so I only remember her as the intimidating presence at the front of the classroom.  Frankly, I thought she was scary even though she wasn't mean or anything. 

Most importantly, she had a uniform.  Every day during colder months, she wore some combination of: 
  • Black skinny (skinny skinny skinny) pants or leggings
  • A slender cut dress/tunic; borderline shapeless, but still somewhat fitted; always in a solid color (either some shade of grey, grey-purple, or dusty grey-rose; always very expensive looking fabric)
  • A baggy (and yet perfectly fitted!) knit cardigan (typically the same length as the dress; also expensive looking)
  • A solid color neutral pashmina
  • The most gorgeous black boots I had ever seen (which I found in Italy last month! Seven years after the fact!).  She didn't walk down the hall in those boots; she strode down the hall in those boots.

Sometimes she would forgo the black pants and do skinny (skinny skinny skinny) denim with all the other stuff instead.  And, she would repeat outfits all the time which I loved.  Jewelry was always minimal (which is completely at odds with my DNA but worked so well on her).

Erin asked to see the boots--here they are.
I'm so crazy about the detailing on these--I have a really great pleather version of these from Marshalls c. 2007, but they're so beat.  I need to get them resoled and cleaned up.  Hopefully, these will hold up better.

I am dying--D-Y-I-N-G--to hardwood these steps.

For warmer months, she just ditched the pants and boots and wore the same dresses and tunics with flat, practical sandals.  (I don't really know any academics who wear impractical shoes to work.  Maybe they exist?)

Writing all of this makes me wish that I knew how to sketch it.

Ugh, and she was one of those women who you love to hate because you can tell she never styled her hair, and yet her hair had so much texture and body that it could just SIT there on top of her head and it always looked styled.  Hate that (because I'm so jealous).  Sometimes, she would just go on autopilot during her lectures and she would absent-mindedly twist her hair into a bun while walking us through some of the most complicated ideas that human beings have ever written down on paper.  And the bun just stayed there. And looked perfect.  As she explained Gadamer for the third time.  GOD, I hate that.  But, lucky her!

Key words from this lesson: grey, neutral, shapeless, fitted, slender, solids, practical, quality.

It's taken me years and years to translate her uniform into something that works for me.  The first half of my twenties were completely hit or miss.  I wasted my time (and money) in college wearing what everyone else was wearing (boot cut pants, fitted cable knit sweater, basic/understated silver jewelry).  Literally EVERY girl on campus dressed this way, and it flattered so many of them, but I thought it was SO BORING.  I didn't know I was bored with it until years after the fact.  I wore this stuff because it was safe, not weird, and I didn't have any better ideas.  Plus, so many of the classes that I was taking at the time had me hyper-sensitized to mindless consumerism and material accumulation.  That PLUS my after-school job at the mall made me too exhausted to think much about what I was buying and wearing. I felt confused about all of it. (I know: long story. Some other time.)

When I arrived at grad school (completely different campus with a totally different student body), I quickly sorted out that you could wear WHATEVER you wanted to school and nobody would look twice at you.  Boot cut pants and cable knit sweaters? Fine.  Black leather pants and ironic thirty year old T from your dad's closet? Fine.  Ratty pajama pants and Uggs? Fine.  Purple hair and piercings out the wazoo?  Great.  Whatever.

The whole thing was so liberating.  I needed some major liberation to get through the five year stretch I had yawning in front of me.  As I took more risks with my clothes, I took more risks with my work.  At the time, however, I didn't know that both were happening together.  Isn't that crazy?  I can pinpoint the EXACT moment all of this crystallized, but this is already way too long.  Some other time.

The bottom line is: If you think that very disparate areas of your life have nothing in common with each other ... then think again.

I don't mention fashion or clothing here very often because there's something about it that strikes me as inherently superficial, self-centered, vapid, or pointless.  (As if any of my posts are typically super intelligent or something.)  Plenty of my favorite blogs manage to avoid that problem--I get so many ideas about how to wear things from other bloggers, but I guess I don't trust myself enough to stay out of vapid territory so I typically just avoid it.  But, enough people ask me about the pieces I'm wearing that this would be an easy place to put it all out there.  Not sure how I feel about that though.

It's funny how some people just leave a mark on your mind.  This particular professor didn't study what I studied.  Our research interests have nothing in common.  I had no business taking any of her classes--I took them because the grad offerings were limited each semester, and I had to sign up for something (preferably something that filled some requirements that first year).  Her classes were so hard that I could weep right now thinking about them.  I know that B I earned in Spring 06 was a gift--that paper was a C ... C minus if I can bring myself to admit it.  That paper--what a frickin disaster.

There was that Italian woman in Florence in 2005 who walked her tiny dog down the street in a turquoise leather moto jacket, sumptuous big scarf, grey pencil skirt, black tights, and black stiletto boots.  She tapped along the Renaissance era sidewalk with her little dog trotting next to her, lit cigarette in her other hand. Her dog's leash matched her jacket.  I couldn't get my camera up to my face fast enough--the street was too dark anyway.  But, that image is completely indelible in my mind.  She was beyond tiny--maybe my height and half my width.  She was at least twice my age too.  I thought to myself, "Why can't I be her?"  She turned the corner and walked toward the Arno.

I have maybe one million moving images like that in my mind--maybe I'm trying to make them into something three dimensional when I part the hangers in my closet.

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