My nearly naked head has been ripe for conversation since the first time I put clippers to it, nearly seven years ago. On Friday, xoJane published the story of my decision to shear down. Read it here:
I am afraid of fabric stores.
I am aware that this is a somewhat unusual fear. Sharks. Spiders. Speaking in front of large groups. Of course. But fabric stores…
And yet, I love them. Floor to ceiling bolts of brightly colored cloth, every pattern imaginable. Zebra skin. Tiny elephants. Frida Kahlo faces.
Shiny scissors of every size and price range. Silky ribbon and trim. Envelopes stuffed with patterns – what I imagine to be the Holy Grail of well-fitting clothing.
Trouble is, I can’t sew. And I am terrified that I wear this deficiency like a scarlet letter. An indelible ink tattoo on my forehead which reads, “She doesn’t know what she is doing.”
I’ve tried. In high school, when I had designs on a career in fashion design. I knew this skill was non-negotiable. My mother’s friend offered to teach me. Together, we made a skirt out of a blue-green burlap-y material. I was pretty delighted, and I wore it a lot. But I still couldn’t sew a button-hole, make pleats or even thread a bobbin on my own.
About 20 years later I took a sewing class in Berkeley, at the shop next to the cleaner who washed and folded my massage sheets each week. Up the hidden staircase at the back of the store to the loft above it, I sat with six other women on Tuesday afternoons for four weeks. And when it was over, I walked out with a very expensive kimono – which I wore for years, until it became greasy from the oil I slathered on my body every morning and no amount of cleaning could take it out. And no closer to knowing how to sew.
I visited a fabric store on Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle a couple of years ago. I was embarking on The Artist’s Way for the first time and took myself there on one of my tentative, first Artist Dates. I felt intimidated and scared, hoping, praying no one would ask me if I needed any help. No one said a word to me.
When I returned to Chicago, I stated my intention to make curtains using ironing tape on Facebook. My friend James was horrified. He sent me a private message saying “Please,don’t,” and offered to sew for me. He did. Mustard-colored with sprigs of white blossom hang in my living and dining rooms, one set tied back with bow ties, the other with scarves. Cartoonish leaves in grey, orange and green cover my bedroom window.
All of this comes rushing back to me as I walk into The Needle Shop, Artist Date 54 – a crazy mingling of curiosity, desire and fear.
Hanging in the windows are bolts of the happiest, most whimsical fabrics I’ve ever seen. I promised myself I would go in “one day.” Ever since it opened up across from the Trader Joes where I shop no less than twice a week. Today is “one day.”
It is small inside. There is nowhere to hide. I take photographs of the bolts. If anyone asks, I will say I am thinking of making pillows and want to see the fabric in my living environment.
This is not untrue. My friend Julia said she will show me how. And that she can help me shop for a starter machine so I can really learn – through practice and repetition.
No one asks. Instead, a sales clerks encourages me to take swatches, pre-cut and pinned to the bolts, along with tags of price per yard.
Brown cotton with turquoise doves and cream-colored plants. White with graphic grey and yellow flowers. Green with turquoise ginkgo.
I wander over to the bin of patterns. They are “high end.” Nothing like the McCalls and Simplicity patterns strewn around my ex-mother-in-law’s sewing room. (Although they have these too.) Sassy 1950’s style tap pants and bras. Messenger bags. Wrap dresses.
The fantasy returns. I will learn to sew. I will make my own clothes. I will have trousers that fit like they were made for me. Because they were made for me. I will make couture. I will make curtains and pillows. I will surround myself with gorgeous, happy, sumptuous fabrics.
I sit down in a stadium folding chair with a sewing book written by a cool-looking, hipster chick. I am immediately overwhelmed and quickly put the book back on the shelf.
I pick up a card listing sewing classes. Easy alterations. Roman shade. Ragland sleeve top. Sewing 101. “We show you how your machine works.”
Yes. But first I need a machine.
Not today though.
Today, this “one day,” I leave with a fistful of fabric scraps and the notion that there may be something here for me – a reason I continue to find myself in fabric stores nearly 30 years after my first visit.
Perhaps I am bound for a fourth or fifth-act career, in fashion. Perhaps I will just learn to hem my own trousers. At not-quite 5’3”, petites are still too long.
Or maybe it is nothing more than my Libran birthright, which calls me to surround myself with beauty. The swatches in my bag, a talisman – guiding me.
Some Artist Dates are easy alone. Museums. Lectures. Dance performances. Opera. Theatre. Some, like movies, I even prefer that way.
Live music, however, is far more difficult. Even when the audience is children. Perhaps even more so.
And yet, this is the set up for Artist Date 46.
I am parked outside of Schubas. My friend Matt’s band – Future Hits, self-proclaimed Fun (Yet Secretly Educational) Music for Kids, Families and Teachers – is playing this afternoon. It is a Halloween performance and party for children, hosted in collaboration with Whole Foods, The Kite Collective and Adventure Sandwich.
I stand in awe of how Matt puts himself out there. Performing. Recording. Last year, Future Hits cut its first CD, Songs for Learning, funded by KickStarter. This past summer he spent a month in South America, improving his Spanish. An ESL teacher for Chicago Public Schools, he requested, and received, a grant that paid for everything.
But right now I am standing in fear. Rather sitting, in my 13-year-old Honda Civic. I feel anxious about going inside. I don’t have children.
I sometimes feel this way walking into synagogue by myself – which I began doing several years ago.
As fresh meat, I was quickly swarmed and warmly greeted. Peppered with questions. Top on the list: Do you have children?
Pause. Uncomfortable silence. I often feel I have to fill that space. Say something clever or pithy to put us both at ease. I am getting better at just letting that dead air “hang.” Like summer in Charleston. Heavy. Still.
I wonder what they are wondering. If I cannot have children. If I am childless by choice. If I am waiting for the perfect sperm to swim into my life. I am told that this is none of my business.
Mostly, I imagine they wonder what brought me there. It’s a reasonable enough question. And the assumption that I have children is equally reasonable.
Many, perhaps most, join a congregation when their children are of school age. They recognize it as time to do what their parents had done – provide their children with a Jewish education. Sometimes for no other reason than, “this is what we do.”
Perhaps the second most popular reason for joining is the gift of a complimentary one-year membership, given when the Rabbi or Cantor of that congregation marries a couple. (I will have to query my Rabbi to see if I am correct in my speculation.)
I walked into synagogue for my own reasons. Neither recently married nor considering a Jewish education, I am the Jew who converted to Judaism. It’s a long story. One that doesn’t fit neatly into conversation over coffee and pastry after services. But it is mine. And I am assured that I have a place in the congregation.
Nonetheless, it is often still daunting walking through those sacred doors alone.
It is too at Schubas. Even after seeing my friend Joe, smoking outside. He doesn’t have kids either.
I walk in, pay $10, get my hand stamped and say to the bouncer, “Am I the only one here without kids?” “Nah,” he replies. Looking in, I’m not so sure.
The lights are dim and a bunch of little people in costumes are making kites and eating granola. Matt and his band mates are dressed in caveman attire. Think Flintstones.
Our friend Lily is selling CDs. Gene is on the floor with his son, Oscar, making a kite. Jenny is helping her son Seth into his costume.
Matt’s mom, Rhonda, is here. His dad too. I love Rhonda. Our conversations meander from fashion to Transcendental Meditation (which we both practice) – seamlessly. I feel like the universe has conspired for us to meet. We pick up where we left off last time.
Matt is delighted to see me. Grateful for the support. He always is.
I remember the first time I heard him play, at the Beat Kitchen. I arrived early and was standing on the corner outside. When he saw me, he dropped to his knees – on the sidewalk – his hands in prayer. Total gratitude.
This is why I am here – to support my friend. But I forget, falling into a swirling pit of “me.” Self-conscious about my childless-ness. Even though I (mostly) chose not to have any.
And then the music starts and I forget all of that. I forget myself. I have seen Matt perform many times, but this my first time hearing Future Hits. Even though I was a KickStarter supporter, which earned me a button and a CD.
I’m surprised. The music doesn’t feel like kids music. It is pleasing to my ear. It’s not sing-song-y like Barney. Something to be endured. I am delighted watching Emma go from bass to flute to tambourine.
The kids are invited to dance. They do, with joyous abandon. Oblivious to the concept of rhythm. I would like to shake a tail feather myself…but I’m suddenly self-conscious again. So I watch instead. Although I do raise my hand when the band asks if anyone’s birthday is in October.
There is a kite parade for the kids to show off their creations. More music and a dance contest. The winner – dressed as a werewolf – leaves with a Halloween-decorated bag of schwag.
And soon after, I leave too. Holding tightly to the light I see in Oscar’s face. In Seth’s. And the lesson they teach me. Beaming over the simplest things. Costumes. Music. Paper kites. They do not concern themselves with why they are here. Just that they are.
I think I need a headdress.
Feathered, painted and beaded. Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42. According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.
I could use that – spiritual protection and potency. Especially in courtship. I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.
Perhaps a wig would suffice. Cover up my naked head. My naked heart.
My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them. Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”
I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob. I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland. I told him I wished my hair grew like that. How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.
We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.
I had forgotten about it until now.
And really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now. Or even be here at all. My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours. Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.
And yet, I am here. Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart. To leave here a little better than I arrived. To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.” It is a relief.
My plan was to visit the African Art. But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section. Thinking about wigs. About my cousin. About my other cousin – Diane.
I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17. The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.
I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip. They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord. Burnout style. And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.
Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.
It seems like forever ago. As does my trip to see Diane. Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.
So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings. I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past. Something entirely my own. Sort of.
Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance. Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.
And yet, Africa is mine. It always was. A dream since I was a child. He just helped get me there.
The collection is small.
A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet. A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.
I think of my own breasts. Small. No longer pendulous. Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery. A different beauty ideal.
I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.
“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”
I think about the Native American headdress. Of my own dress. My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce. Sexier. It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.
Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history. I snap photographs so I can remember them.
1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa. By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.
1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.
1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.
1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.
I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.
I think about my own map. My timeline. My dress. My independence. Messy. Uncertain. Liberating. But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.
I don’t recall ever having erotic musings at a museum. Until today.
But I also don’t recall seeing a posting at the entry of an exhibit, a warning that explicit content lay ahead, possibly unsuitable for children.
But there it was. And there I was in front of Felicien Rops’ “For You, General.” A mild flush on my face – Artist’s Date 29.
I returned to the Art Institute of Chicago for “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy,” an adjunct exhibit to the newly opened “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” which I saw last week – Artist Date 28.
I liked the name. It reminded me of my strong belief in really good underwear – or none at all, which my friend Clover reminded me of when she was visiting last week. She came out of the bathroom smiling.
“Right…really good underwear,” she said, referring to the lacy bits drying over the shower rod and towel bars. We giggled knowingly.
There is very little underwear in “Undressed” – but a lot of vulnerable nakedness.
Sketches and paintings in all array of medium. Women bathing. Dressing. Masturbating. Breast feeding.
Mothers. Prostitutes. Children. Defined spines. Soft lines and folds of skin.
They remind me of something Geneen Roth wrote in her book When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair or 50 Ways to Feel Gorgeous and Happy (When You Feel Anything But). Suggestion 25: Stare at Normal Women’s Bodies (Normal Does Not Include Models, Actresses, and Elite Athletes).
I’ve done this at women’s spas. Sitting in the dry sauna, noticing dimpled thighs and buttocks. Six-pack abs and round bellies – some large and pendulous, obscuring any hint of pubic hair. Breast implants perched nearly at shoulder height. Mastectomies. Single and double, with and without reconstruction.
Pierced nipples. Pierced navels. C-section scars. My own scars. Two faded purple lines running vertically from my areolas to the folds under my breasts.
Sometimes I forget what real bodies look like. How they move in the world. I am reminded.
Degas’ “The Tub.” A bronze sculpture of a woman submerged in water, her leg outstretched, washing her foot.
Klimt’s “Seated Woman from The Front with Hat, Face Hooded.” Wispy lines of pastel pencil. Her legs are spread and her hands are between them. A large hat lazily tilted over her face.
Lautrec’s ”Woman in Bed – Waking.” She is turned toward me, one sleepy eye just opening. Sexy. Soft. So different from his prostitute in “Debauchery” –a hazy, colored drawing of a woman being groped from behind. His hands over her breasts. Her arm extended, a martini-shaped glass dangling from her hand.
There are men too.
Delacroix’s “Standing Academic Male Nude.” Chiseled. Holding a stick, he appears to be rapping it onto his flat hand –a threatening gesture. As if preparing to punish some innocent, or not so innocent.
As if HE is the general Rops’ alludes to in “For You, General” – an old woman holding a younger one over her knee, her buttocks exposed, an offering. The girl’s bunched up skirt covers her face. The old woman is smiling.
Munch’s “Boys Bathing 1896.” Like tadpoles. “Boys Bathing 1899.” Like many letter X’s, like many little frogs. “Men Bathing.” Like figures from a Hatch Show Print poster –iconic wood-block images made in Nashville, announcing the Grand Ole Opry and Johnny Cash.
There are children. Rafaelli’s “Germaine At Her Toilette.” A young girl in a white dressing gown, her black tights wrinkled and baggy at the knees. Even religious icons. Munch’s “Madonna,” like an album cover or t-shirt from a 70’s rock band. Bands of colors tracing her image. And who is the small character in the bottom left corner, seemingly questioning all of this?
I peer deeply into black and white woodcuts. I love their simplicity, their precision. And yet, I am not quite sure what I see.
I come close and step away and come close again. It reminds me of the drawings on the back page of children’s magazines. The ones that ask “Do you see the old woman or the young woman?” Where once you see one, it is impossible to see the other.
It is the same with Vuillard’s “The Birth of Annette.” Finally, after many minutes, I see the baby’s head.
Perhaps that is the point. The experience of “Undressed,” of being undressed, is so intimate, so private. I am an invited voyeur. It is not mine to fully know.
I remember what I was wearing that day. A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck. Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight. A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.
I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that. Minus the shoes. The shoes would put me “over budget.”
The shoes always put me over budget.
“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”
The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress. I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.
Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s. I feel that it should not matter.
And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion. Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.
I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics. That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts. A reflection of time, mood, politics. Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.
Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”
The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches. Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories. Bustles, corsets, shoes. Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris. For going to the sea.
“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”
Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.” That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit. That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.
I am standing in front of a collection of hats. Fifty or more. jeweled. Feathered. Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling. I see myself admiring the millinery. Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding. I mention this to the woman standing next to me. She asks me about it.
It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit. I had to have it.
I do not mention I am divorced. It does not feel germane. We are talking about hats. This is progress.
My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.” She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera. If there were a camera. Her eyes are big, dark, open.
She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning. She is wearing jewelry. If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains. Groom adds that de Callais is divorced. That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”
The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.
A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.” I do not agree. “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.
“Perhaps. But she is ugly. At least she is painted that way.”
I say nothing. Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”
I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap. Maybe. Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious. I wasn’t conscious of it. But now I am.
There are corsets. Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.
“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction. But for us, fiction is better than reality.”
I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s. There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom. By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft. Their breasts, saggy. Their thighs, heavy.
Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook. She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.). She is reclining. Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.
I have folds across my belly.
I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop. Of airbrushing. That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface. But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”
It is a little after 4. I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit. It is not long enough. I have somewhere to be.
I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting. The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me. Her face is sweet. It is shaped like mine.
I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.
I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.
I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”
I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne. A different Joanne. She was at the lecture too. She saw me. I saw her. But we didn’t see each other seeing one another. She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”
I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says. Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act? Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?