Friday, September 25, 2009

Project Dress

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. ~ Leonardo Da Vinci

In the past twenty-four hours, I have learned a great deal. Having gone from being completely ignorant to slightly enlightened on a fascinating study in human behavior, I felt compelled to share the experience. My friend, Alexandra, is one of my idols regarding theology and 'living out her faith through her actions'. Unbeknowst to her, as she suggested a link for "The October Dress Project" on Facebook, a large number of her friends began chiming in on this subject. The premise behind this project is that one woman has chosen to highlight the vast amount of consumerism in our culture, particularly with women and their clothing. The blogger in question chose to shine a light on how much money, time, energy and worry we spend on clothing ourselves. "The October Dress Project" website linked me to another woman's story: the "Little Brown Dress" journey. In this case, the woman made her own simple brown dress and wore the same dress for one year, documenting her journey emotionally, spiritually, economically and practically. She answered the question of "Do you wash the dress?" and "What happens if you get a hole?" (The answers were "Yes!" and "I sew it back up."). The Little Brown Dress Project sparked a memory of a story I'd read about in a magazine: the Uniform Project. A woman designed her own simple black dress, but in this case, she did have 7 identical dresses made in order to ease with the laundry load. The Uniform Project went a step further in that she wore all accessories that were homemade, donated or bought second hand. As I looked through the photos of the latter two blogs, I was amazed and impressed by the ingenuity the women showed in how to create whole outfits around one particular dress...creating everything from weekend wear to work wear, from casual to fashionable.

The average in American women's fashions is to spend $3500/year on new clothes, shoes and accessories. Of course, there are women who spend far more than that on one purse or one ring. There are also women who are adept thrift store shoppers and can walk out of a consignment store in an outfit worthy of exiting Saks Fifth Avenue. I wish I had that ability, and I envy my friends who can spend less than $20 on an outfit that embodies style, sophistication and a personal touch. The amount of money that can be spent on women's clothes is staggering. Why is that? As a fashion junkie myself, it's a tough habit to break. Although I can't afford to put together looks from Haute Couture houses, I daydream about walking into Chanel or Dior and walking out with an entirely new look that just screams "elegance". I read "Vogue", "Lucky" and "In Style" with a voracious hunger to know what's 'new', what's 'hot' and what's 'next'. Just as I can admire great art without being able to paint or sculpt, I can appreciate great fashion, without the ability to carry it off, either stylistically or financially.

What is it about fashion that is utterly captivating to women? In my own case, it's a desire to want to be attractive, as well as to be perceived as 'current', 'literate' and 'forward thinking'. While my own wardrobe tends to run towards the classics, I love playing with trendier touches. I used to say that shopping was my hobby. There was little that I liked more than walking up Madison Avenue or down lower Broadway in Soho, in New York City, popping into all of the little boutiques before stopping at the Mother Ship: Bloomingdale's, on Upper Lexington. I have even indoctrinated my daughter into this annual pilgrimage. Despite being born and raised in Maine, my daughter knows her way around Manhattan as well as most natives. One comment that she shared with me, the last time we were in the City, was "Oh, I can breathe again!". Like the stations of the cross, we have a special walk we do whenever we arrive in town: we walk down 58th Street from Park Avenue, and turn left onto Fifth Avenue...and like true pilgrims we say "hello" to St. John, Balenciaga, Valentino, Gucci, Pucci, Prada, Dior, Chanel, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, Fendi, Cartier and all the glimmering stores. We turn left again at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and head back up to our hotel. Do we ever enter any of these bastions of elegance? No....they're out of our financial means. But, we do love to sigh at the beautiful windows and that night, we discuss which pieces we saw that would make up our dream outfits.

As I read about the three project sites above, I'm overwhelmed with guilt. I realize that I've been lusting after "things". Worse yet, I feel dreadful that I've taught my teenager the same bad habit. Do we really *need* these shopping extravaganzas to make us feel good about ourselves? I think of my husband and our teenage son, who look at shopping as a *mission* to be planned and executed: they decide what they need (whether it's car tires or a new pair of shoes), plan the location, and get in and out with the exact purchase in record time. They buy no more and no less than they decided to in advance. As a matter of fact, if they can't find it at the first store, they often will second guess the need. For myself, the act of shopping is both relaxing and invigorating. I don't see it as something to cross off my 'to do' list; I see it as a form of self-improvement recreation. Therein lies the difference between myself and the men in my life: we have different goals about purchasing what we need. They buy because they have to. I bought because I wanted to.

The current economic situation curtailed much of our shopping rituals this year. Instead of going to New York, my daughter and I went to the outlet malls and made a strict list of must haves for her prep school dress code. We not only stuck to the list, but we stuck to our budget too. She is well outfitted for her school year, in clothes she'll feel beautiful in. Yet, each piece was carefully selected to be multi-task items. Dresses can be worn to class with a cardigan or with heels to a formal dinner. Pants can be worn with sneakers for every day or with a silky blouse for a special assembly. Her dress code actually made the process simpler: no jeans, no collarless shirts (meaning no t-shirts), no sweatshirts and no distressed clothing. Because her storage space is minimal in her dorm room, we looked for items that could work triple duty: class, formal and weekend. We had more fun looking for bargains and honestly debating each purchase's usefulness. We began to use expressions like "cost per wear" and "durability". There were a few items we spent more on, that could serve a variety of purposes. There were others that, as much as Caroline liked them, she rejected saying "I just don't think that I like this $30 worth". In short, we created a workable, practical, yet lovely wardrobe for her in which every item can serve several purposes.

As far as the three dress projects, I have to say that my interest is piqued. I wear many hats in the course of a week: a yoga teacher, a theology student, a community volunteer, an altar guild member at Church, a hockey mom and a homemaker. Could one outfit serve all of these purposes? Probably not. But, could I simplify what I think I need for each of these areas of my life? Most certainly so. My daughter loves to tease me that I 'reinvent the wheel' every time I go shopping because I am attracted to the same things: namely gray sweaters or t-shirts. When I pick up yet another take on this, Caroline rolls her eyes and says, "Mom! Not another one! There are other colors in the rainbow besides gray!". And yet, I wonder if I have been, unwittingly, trying to create my own little black (or brown) dress, in theory. As I think about what I've worn the most in the past month, I've worn one of these gray tops nearly every day. Although I can't imagine that I would begin a new blog ("The Gray Cashmere Project"), it does stand to reason that I've been getting in my own way. My subconscious has been trying to simplify all along! Because I'm deeply attracted to the concept of simplifying, spending far less and being wiser about using all resources, I believe I'll try to explore this further. My first step, however, will be to learn to live with what I have already, rather than needing the next best thing. I do have a lot of uniform ideas already in my closet.

If you happen to see a woman in gray every day, you might want to say hello. It just might be me.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Birthday Homage

"Duty, Honor, Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be." ~ General Douglas MacArthur

Elton John wrote "Your Song" for his beloved....wanting to share the very essence of who he was through a gift for which he had the ability. The Taj Mahal was built by Mugal Emporer Shah Jahan in memory of his much treasured wife, Muhmaz Mahal. Painters use oils and watercolors to capture the essence of their muses. Chefs create spectacular menus to share.Unfortunately, I lack all of these gifts. I'm completely tone deaf, and listening to me sing has been known to send even the most patient of listeners running away in terror. I have only successful built a wheeling cart, by following the instructions from the kit, and even so, managed to put it together with the trays facing upside down. I'm afraid I can only draw stick figures that would embarrass a preschooler, and my cooking, shall we say, is experimental.

Yet, for my husband, Jeff's birthday, I want to do something for him that I can do without his assistance: a tribute to all he's meant to me, and all I've learned from him. I will never be William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, George Sand or Jane Austen. I do not possess the contemporary skills of Tom Clancy or Anita Shreve. I lack the brilliance of Earnest Hemingway, Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, the one gift that I have been blessed with is a bit of ability to write. I believe that I began writing books before I could actually even entrust the words to paper. I am not special in this respect, but it's the one thing I believe I can do with a bit of panache, and a lot of honesty. Therefore, I trust my keyboard to take down the thoughts of thankfulness I have for Jeff's being who he is in my life.

Jeff, grew up in a tiny New Hampshire hamlet on top of a large hill. His parents are hard working, capable and loving people. Jeff learned from them to co
ntinue to strive for improving himself, and for standing up for his own beliefs. His journey led him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where in his own words, he received an excellent college education, as well as other the ability to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. The New Hampshire state motto is "Live Free or Die", and I believe this essence of Yankee commitment to freedom has been at the forefront of the man Jeff would become. He is not a blind follower; far from it. Jeff learned to innovate, to create, to think laterally and to find exceptional ways to solve problems. This has made him an asset to any team, both during his military career, and since he has been a civilian. Jeff combines a MacGuyver-like
ingenuity, with the persistence of scientist and the affable social skills of a seasoned diplomat. There is very little he can't do...and if doesn't understand something, he teaches himself how to overcome his uncertainty. I admire these traits in him tremendously because I'm generally the first one to say "to heck with it"....and leave said project in a heap. I have learned, from Jeff, that sticking with any task, no matter how challenging, has it own reward. I have learned that quickest isn't always best....but that the most attention to detail can be the key.

Jeff and I are polar opposites in personality, background and interests. He has the strong skills of the three athletic sport captain he was, and I fall down stairs more easily than walk them. Jeff likes meat and potatoes. I constantly am craving curry and sushi. He's from the country and likes sports, and I'm a city girl and love Broadway. In short, if an online dating service had existed 24 years ago, we never would have met. Yet, it is these very differences that have enabled us to grow and learn together. Because we were married at 22 and 21 respectively, we went from our parents' homes to dorm rooms to our own first place. We didn't know that our mothers would no longer be providing the service of magic laundry. We had no idea that the "Pay By" date on bills was not merely a suggested time frame. We had one pot and one pan, and lived on Macaroni much of the time, since it was one of the few meals I could make without burning, scorching, undercooking or otherwise ruining. Jeff never once complained.

I realize that my very nature challenges the levels of Jeff's patience to its very core. My lack of methodical procedures drives him to the edge of insanity. And yet, he exhibits a good natured sense of humor about everything from my driving to my erratic filing method. Jeff has gone above and beyond in being a good husband and father to our two children. He has shown integrity, courage, resourcefulness and has never lost his sense of humor. Living with me is always an adventure. Jeff finds himself exploring those peaks and valleys of my dramatic personality, and just reels me back in when I'm getting too far off course. I am exceedingly thankful to have a husband with whom I've learned to be a grown up. We have made mistakes along the way (don't ask him about the Christmas tree sagas), but we have both discovered that it's better to be kind than always right. We have found that a smile and a hug can diffuse an argument after a rotten day. Most importantly, we have made the commitment that we are here, no matter what, for one another. We have been through hell and back together. We have lost family members. We have weathered illness, job uncertainties and parenting fears. We are almost empty nesters now, and while it's a little sad to think about every school day with no children in the house, we do look forward to getting to know each other all over again.

Jeff, I just want to thank you for believing in me. As you know, I'm my own worst enemy. Thank you for being my ally, my supporter, my best friend, my comic relief and my jack of all trades. You are a tremendous man, and I could not be prouder to have shared the last two decades with you. I wish you the happiest of birthdays, and hope the next 45 are just as eventful. I love you.