Clothes fascinate me. They’re a powerful sign of our own personal individuality and a statement about how we view ourselves, our place in whatever tribe we call our own, and what aspirations and opinions we hold. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated with the subject. Weirdly, until recently I wasn’t much for modern fashion itself, but the everyday clothes that people choose and wear is something I could talk about all day long.
In my case, the sartorial apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Today I’ll show you how.
PEER PRESSURE! You’ll Be Cool! You’ll Be Cool!
The 1980s were good to me, at least until I went fundamentalist and began dressing like a downscale Kim Davis.
I really loved 1980s fashions. I’m thankful that my mom put up with my new interest and did her best to keep me up with the trends. I’d never owned an official Gunne Sax dress while they were actually in style, and though I never complained, I think my mom felt bad about it (I knew she sometimes cried in private when she couldn’t afford something my sister and I wanted). Those popular styles of my early teens had faded out of fashion by the time we had the money to really outfit me and my sister, but the neat thing about fashion is that there are always new trends coming–and thanks to us having to move a lot, I had a chance to reinvent myself every few years if I wanted.
Mom found a little shop in town that had the kind of stuff I liked for the kind of the money she had. Every few months we’d make the long drive out to it to get a few carefully-curated new pieces for my wardrobe. In this manner, I muddled through my mid-teens.
To a certain extent, the Southern Baptists I joined at 16 weren’t much different than I was, clothing-wise. We all tended to look like Casual Corner advertisements.
But everything changed when I got sucked into a Pentecostal church a short while later.
The Last Suit I Thought I’d Ever Wear.
I resisted my new tribe’s demands to dress according to their so-called “holiness standards” for as long as I could, but I was only a teenager and didn’t have a strong sense of boundaries at the time, so eventually I fell into line. I tried to convince myself that “God” had “convicted” me (that’s a Christianese term used to describe feeling guilty about something; it’s a hugely popular phrase, but you’ll sometimes find some outliers who don’t like it), which was way preferable to me than thinking that I’d simply been trampled by peer pressure into dressing (and behaving) in a way that I didn’t like, didn’t flatter me or feel right to me, and didn’t actually accomplish a single thing that my tribe said it would.
I’m sure my parents were shocked by the change. I don’t remember ever seeing an 1980s fad I didn’t like, from Candie’s glittery baby-girl-pink lipstick to Guess jeans to leg warmers to ballerina flats to bolo ties (I’ve still got one of my old ones). Now suddenly I just wanted long challis skirts and jumpers, long-sleeved shirts in very plain colors (prints were “worldly,” except florals and plaids), and chunky-knit sweaters and vests.
While I thought that a real live god wanted women to dress in this bizarrely uniform way, I put up with it because I was afraid of being set on fire forever after I died. But once I realized that the religion’s supernatural claims weren’t true and that no god was involved in its culture or ideology, I was able to evaluate its demands in a more objective way and to critically sift its various claims by evaluating them against reality.
It didn’t take me long to realize that its demands of women–both regarding their appearance and their behavior–simply didn’t add up to anything but subjugation, and didn’t do anything but produce in women a victim mentality that allowed the men in their lives to run roughshod over them.
Every moment of my day as a fundagelical, I was reminded that I was inferior to men and fully deserved every bit of control and repression that I faced. And on those occasions when my sense of justice overrode my sense of caution and I pushed back–ever so gently, ever so carefully–against the restrictions I faced, my tribe punished me brutally by threatening me extra-hard with Hell for daring to defy the men that “God” had put in control of me.
My clothes were one symbol of my submission to those threats, but they were a powerful sign that I was captured. I was held in that dress code by accusations of “selfishness” and “rebellion,” which are the two greatest sins a woman can possibly commit in fundagelical culture.
When you see a woman dressed like Kim Davis, you need to look at that garb as you might a prison jumpsuit. That standard outfit is a symbol of repression, of imposition of a lesser status, of the wearer’s low rank on the totem pole.
Eventually I realized the truth: any god who would actually be pleased by such an unjust state of affairs would be the enemy of humanity, not its friend.
My dad told me, well after I’d deconverted, that he and Mom were glad to get their daughter back.The changes in me had gone a lot deeper than what I’d worn. I agreed with them, too. At the time I convinced myself that I was happy, but my journal showed me the terrible truth years later. I tried my best to act like I was “joyous before the Lord,” as the saying goes, along with all my “sisters in Christ,” in the hopes that one day, sooner or later, I would become happy if I pretended well enough to impress “God” with my devotion and obedience (those being the two greatest virtues a woman can cultivate in fundagelical culture).
It didn’t work out like that, though.
An Endless Cycle, Breaking.
While Biff went to Basic Training with the military, I made a lot of personal changes, including the purchase of a new wardrobe. When Biff returned home, he was absolutely horrified by these changes and tried to stuff the genie back in the bottle. But he couldn’t, not even with threats of violence both divine and terrifyingly earthly in nature.
I was free, and I would never, ever be subjugated again.
Not long afterward, I got way into historical costuming. My sense of style might have grounded, for good or ill, in 1987 (right before my conversion to Pentecostalism)–but I could study and enjoy medieval and Renaissance-era costuming from a safe and distant remove, analyzing the trends and studying the minor details that were as important to folks then as they are to many of us today.
I began noticing that medieval women and girls appear to have bristled against the restrictions placed on them just like women in later centuries did. You could see evidence of their feelings in frescoes and more informal groupings: the little linen caps that were left untied, their cords twirled across the shoulders; the illicit furs, pearls, and dyes that most women absolutely weren’t allowed to wear at their social station but did anyway; and even the long necklaces of small beads wrapping around their necks, so like the modern trends, like boho fashion, we see even nowadays.
Even in societies that were rigidly misogynistic, women found little ways of trying to customize their clothes and express themselves as best they could. In Pentecostalism, I’d seen women doing the same thing, even going so far as to burn and scorch off their hair to get around the denomination’s rules forbidding women from getting haircuts.
The society my mother grew up in was no less rigid and no less filled with rules for women as the world women endured centuries ago and the one I inhabited as a fundagelical Christian. But she found her freedom–just as I would find mine some decades later.
It’s surely no coincidence that women have to keep finding that freedom over and over and over and over and over again.
My mom was a hell of a seamstress. If the craft involved fiber somehow, she could do it: knitting, embroidering, sewing, macramé, weaving, and anything else. (In her rather upscale Catholic high school, she was a leader in the sewing club.) In time, she taught me how to sew, which came in handy over the years.
That’s why I was really confused about finding this one dress in her fabric collection after she passed away.
It’s a very, very 60s/70s-style sleeveless shift maxi-dress in a bright purple and fuchsia Hawaiian-style print. It’s like the left-side version of the dress on this pattern envelope, but sleeveless.
I can tell it’s not a store-bought dress for two reasons: first, none of the seams are finished, the significance of which I’ll get to in a moment. The inner facings are all clearly done on a home machine and even the lower end of the dress isn’t hemmed. The darts in its bust are not industrially-made, either. All in all, the garment looks competently-made by a home seamstress who was in a bit of a hurry.
Second, there are no tags apparent anywhere inside it except for a cheery “Made in Hawaii!” label that reminds me of the sort of sew-in tag that home sewers can buy to give their clothes a cute finishing touch. Otherwise, there are none of the labels that one would expect to find in clothes even in the early 1970s when she must have sewn this dress.
The problem is, a load-bearing seam can split under too much pressure if it’s not finished. One of my best friends in the SCA found that out when she wore an Elizabethan dress she’d just finished making to an event; the side seams in the bodice split halfway through the day and we ended up duct-taping it, which was neither an ideal quick-fix nor a comfortable one (much less an effective one).
Yes, I mourned along with my friend; the fabric and amount of work that goes into these sorts of dresses is not inconsiderable. Worst of all, this particular fabric was the sort that’s used for drapes and upholstery (which isn’t meant for the stresses of being worn as clothing), and though it looked fantabulous as an Elizabethan gown, once the seams split the fabric fell to pieces for several inches on either side. My mother could probably have repaired it, but neither my friend nor I could. It was ruined.
By contrast, because this maxi-dress was more of a cotton-ish sort of fabric, it was more fixable. That’s what baffled me at first. It only needed a little work to repair, yet Mom had never gotten around to doing it.
Once I tried it on, though, I understood why she hadn’t ever gotten around the repair work on what must have been one of her favorite dresses for a while (judging by how much fraying is visible on the lower hem).
I’m Melting! What a World…
My mom struggled her whole life with her weight. She started out as a properly sturdy-but-reasonably-slim German lass, but after she had kids she rapidly put on the pounds. It affected her health in a major way and made her physically not capable of doing some of the stuff she liked to do. Not everyone thinks they’re affected in the same way by obesity, but that’s how she felt she was affected. Plus, she acutely felt her culture’s disapproval of her increasing weight.
Her own parents had bestowed upon her that sturdy frame, but they’d never taught her to cope with unpleasant feelings in any other way besides overeating. She became what’s called a “comfort eater.” Like a lot of people do, she soothed herself in times of stress by eating foods that were both calorie-dense and reassuringly familiar. Thanks to that habit, for most of her adult life she yo-yo’d in weight from “just barely obese” to “morbidly obese.” She pursued one fad diet after another to no avail, but she never came to within spitting distance of the size she’d been before having kids.
By the time my family had moved from Hawaii, she was already too big for this dress, which I estimate is about a modern size 10.
So chances are she’d decided not to repair the dress until she could actually wear it again. It languished among her sewing projects for the rest of her life, and then found its way into my fabric hoard after she died.
Despite having once had my own issues around emotional eating, I’d lost a buttload of weight in the early 2000s and largely had kept it off in the 15 years since. Even so, I never got small enough to wear the dress. But the fabric was so incredible–both in appearance and feel–that I couldn’t discard it. I thought maybe I’d make it into a skirt or something one of these days. Over the years, I largely forgot I had it.
Then one day I was looking for fabric to use to stuff under a door (Bumble was pulling the door open to get behind it, and I have scarves and belts hanging back there that I really don’t want him getting into [again]). My hand brushed across the dress. I thought, “Wow, that’s incredibly soft!” and pulled it out. Of course I remembered it immediately–you try forgetting that loud of a print!
I wondered if maybe it’d fit me now.
You see, lately I’ve been losing weight again. I’d regained a few pounds over the years and didn’t like how I felt as a result, and I’d decided (with my doctor’s encouragement) to go a bit further than I previously had to see if my headaches and joint pain would improve (and they have, incidentally, to the point where I’m able to do a little sewing again!). With my weight loss in mind, I tried the dress on.
And it fit beautifully.
So I’ve got a new sewing project on my list.
The Circle of Life.
I miss my mother. When I see something she loved, or wear it, or pet it (in the case of her two cantankerous ex-feral rescue cats, who went home with me after the funeral), or read it, or play it, or pursue it, it feels like a reminder, like a gentle tendril of thread that joins me to her. It’s a visceral connection that makes itself known anew.
Those tendrils and reminders are becoming more important to me as I get older.
This might be the only life we ever get. Anybody who says they’re sure of there being an afterlife is trying to sell something (either to themselves or to others). This life, here, is what we have, and all that we know we have. If we can be remembered well by those who knew us and loved us in this life, then that may be the only real immortality there is.
I’m trying to finish the repairs on the dress by Mother’s Day, so I can wear it.
Oh yeah–and of course I’m finishing the seams.
It’s those who don’t know history who are doomed to repeat it.
Happy Mother’s Day, friends. We’ve got child proselytization on the agenda, as well as some of the more awful scandals erupting lately out of the religion, but bring your cat pictures next time, because we’ll be doing a FULL KITTEN UPDATE!
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— Roll to Disbelieve (@CasMadeHerRoll) May 2, 2016
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