I started to clean out my closet yesterday, a fun job that I like to do just to try on everything I have and separate things into various categories. It is therepeutic. I found some interesting things as I went through, things that reminded me of funny stuff from the past. I’m a clothes horse. I love clothes – there’s a whole essay on this that will, fingers crossed, by out in an anthology soon! But it took me a year or so after college to make the transition from American college student (dresses from home, Goodwill), to American working girl (slim skirts, cut).
The problem was that I had never intended to come to America, let alone continue to live and work here after I did manage to get here for college. America was a place I was forced to come to, I thought, because the universities were closed in Sri Lanka, because my boyfriend at the time had been bullied by my mother into telling me that he would not stay with me if I did not apply to colleges in the United States. So I wrote a second round of applications, this time determined to get in, not be sent the “thin letters” indicating a preference for someone else among the – always – enormously talented pool of applicants. But things changed when I came, and three years later – three years because I was trying to rush through college so I could go back home to the boyfriend – I found myself married and living in Philadelphia, looking for a job on a J-1 Visa.
I was looking for a job with no business wardrobe to speak of, nor any sense of what recent female graduates wore to interviews, let alone work, in America. My purchases had been – mostly – confined to Goodwill (except for a splurge at Victoria’s Secret when a future aunt-in-law thoughtfully sent me money to buy pretty things in preperation for the wedding). I had replaced the winter coat I wore – a hand-me-down navy blue men’s jacket with five hundred pockets – from Bates College’s lone Communist, a British guy named M who liked to get together with me to bemoan the priviledge we were enjoying! – at the Philadelphia Army Navy Store. Why the Army Navy Store? Well, because I had married a man who did not understand – nor set much store by – fashion, women’s fashion even less. A man who had no notion at all that he had married a woman who loved clothes more than she loved food – probably because this woman was still a smallish fiend, not the raging beast of fashion she would one day become.
Me: Where should I go to get a coat?
He: The Army Navy Store I think.
Me: What kind of coat should I get?
He: If you are buying a coat it should be as warm as possible.
Me: Holding up a gigantic down number with fur lined hood, that stuck out about half a foot in front of my face, in size ten (double zero did not exist back then as a viable size option but I was probably lurking between 00 and 2 at the time)
He: Yes, that would be good. Sturdy and utiliatarian.
Yep, that would be me. Right there. I still have that coat. I wore it through three advanced stages of pregnancy and life in Maine. I reserve it now for visiting Sri Lankans, specially my father, who likes to wear it when he goes out to smoke. I find him seated on the bench in the backyard, bundled up, sipping tea, reading Roth and still slightly cold on 50 degree Spring morning or 60 degree Fall afternoons.
Anyway, I knew I needed to find something else. Thus it was that, while walking to a part-time gig I’d secured at the American Friends Service Committee on 15th and Arch (the Quakers cared about my inner soul and mind, not my clothes), I came across a store beguilingly called, Ross Dress for Less. Dress for Less? Why, how had they known about me?! In I went. There I discovered rack upon circular rack with clothes tagged $10. A big tacky red $10 sign right in the center. None of the discreet price tags in teeny tiny writing folded and tucked out of sight under the sleeves of the clothes in the stores I sometimes step into now. Nope. Just a giant red $10.
This is the first item I ever purchased there.
The second was a short black skirt to go with it. Once again, I bought it in a size several sizes bigger for no good reason. True, I had been going through a hunter-green phase at the time, a color that I thought suited my skin, but the cut of the sleeves did not flatter my shoulders or arms, the nip at the waist was so subtle (given the bigger size), that it did nothing for mine, and the flared flaps? Yikes! It wasn’t bad, actually, that top. It got me my first full time job, one that I began as a lowly adminstrative assistant for six months, was promoted in as Program Assistant and then to Regional Director a year later. Not a poor showing for a gal who showed up for the interview in a mini skirt and a flapping green top.
Apparently, the group who interviewed me – the woman who was the Regional Director and the other two members of staff – scored me on qualifications, interview, and – ulp – appearance. I scored pretty low on that last one. That top, one wrote, big N.O. But later, after they’d all been fired and I was left in charge to hire a whole new staff, and I walked in there in my giant poofy coat, I guess I felt some sense of redemption. I hired a new staff. I did not care how they dressed – and I stood up and welcomed the first person I knew I wanted to hire, right after her interview, with a huge hug. I don’t remember what she was wearing. I remember that she was trying to get back to work after raising three kids, that she’d had a tough life, and that she had a wonderful smile. I don’t think she’ll remember my giant coat or my billowy blouse, but perhaps she remembers the hug.
Come to think of it, I think I might fix that blouse and put it on again. It was a big part of the person I eventually became.