It may sound strange, but I just got a thrill from rearranging my closet. I felt a rush of excitement, of possibility, no matter that I have been self-employed and working mainly from home for the last 2 years so am no longer required to dress the part in any corporate sense.
I know how that sounds – delighted from rearranging a closet? It is admittedly a very privileged, first world kind of activity, especially given the state of much of the globe. But the part of it that speaks to me is not borne from a sense of plenty, of abundance, but of too little, a feeling that permeated my every move and sensation growing up.
I grew up what would now be considered poor. Definitely below the poverty line, such as it was in the 1970s. We went to head-start, had free lunches at school, never had a car that worked or even expected such a ludicrous dream to ever be true for us. Or at least that is how I felt.
I remember hunger being the norm but it was when I hit puberty and fell in love with horses – which happened the first moment I laid eyes on a picture of one – that my social standing, fashion included, became clear to me. Clothing in terms of fashion or style was never something I was aware of as a child – not that I think that little kids ought to be – but when I found myself surrounded by wealthy girls, the horsey set, I became acutely aware of both hierarchy and fashion, and the odd relationship between the two remains branded in my mind.
I am old enough now to call it like it was – at 11 or so, I was cute and soon to be beautiful (ah, the fleeting perfection of youth), though I had zero self-esteem or confidence. Our clothes were either handmade or came from Goodwill, neither of which is necessarily terrible but there simply wasn't enough of anything. Our store-bought items were rare - once a year, before school started, we would walk the few miles to our local Sears and buy new socks and underwear, and it was an exciting treat. I still remember the sensory high of standing by the candy counter – not that we could afford such an indulgence, but the warmed honey roasted cashews that spun slowly on a triple layered plate, or the pistachios and candied walnuts below them were as enticing to me as a bank vault full of cash to a robber. Even now, when I smell roasting nuts, the kind you find on every New York City street corner from fall to spring, it takes me back to those days with a kind of wistful nostalgia.
Once I was nearing my teens and turning attractive enough to have to watch my back – my being a fast runner literally saved me from many would-be assailants – I became increasingly aware of what I lacked in the fashion department. The nattily dressed rich kids around the stables would tsk-tsk in my direction and whisper about how they would all bring me their best used clothes or chip in to buy me a new garment for Christmas.
By the time I was twelve or thirteen years old I filled every weekend and the entire summer working 15 hour days as a stable hand, after which I would spend the night at the stables, or if lucky, at the house of the head trainer. Sometimes I would be there for an entire week and not have a single change of clothes. Not clean socks, not a fresh tee shirt, nada. Not only was it humiliating, but it sent a clear signal to any interested male – and they were all interested in pretty young girls who appeared to have no familial protection – that I was an open target.
Home was in a carefree, beachy world with little adult supervision so when I was offered a job as a groom at a horseshow for a week, I literally jumped into the car that would take me there with nothing but the clothes on my back. Thus did I often find myself at an ‘away’ horseshow in say, Bakersfield, with no clean clothes. Mind you, I was mucking out stalls, bathing horses, doing grimy and sweaty work for 16 hours a day (all of which I loved since it kept me near the horses I so adored), after which everyone – the rich customers, the horse trainers and me, the grunt labor - would get ready for dinner. Rarely did I have a room to share with other grooms, more often I slept on the floor of a strangers’ hotel room, and sometimes I slept on the floor of the horse trailer in a sleeping bag. On those occasions, I showered in the sink of the public bathroom along with the Mexican grooms and wayward stablehands. On the occasion that I did have access to a shower, I would afterwards change back into my one set of filthy clothes before meeting up with the gang for dinner out.
Even recalling those days – the smell of horse sweat, of leather, of straw, all smells I adore but not when they permeate your clothing - still brings the heat of shame to my face.
Suffice to say, I have lingering issues with clothes, although I have long since been able to buy and wear most of the fashion I choose. I agree with dame Helen Mirren that the outfits in which we drape ourselves are significant, and that how we look can greatly influence how other members of our species see us. It certainly affected how I see myself, or how I did back then. And my issues around clothing still linger - that childlike sense of panic, of insecurity, when I need to ‘present’ myself in a certain setting, during which I still tend to still look around and presume that I am not measuring up to what everyone else is doing – that shame is branded in my memory.
So yes, rearranging my closet, albeit with the same clothes that have hung in there for years, felt bigger than the mere task itself. To me, it was one more small way of reclaiming a piece of myself, of showing that dirty and ashamed young girl that she now lives a life of relative plenty, and not only in terms of clothing.