The illustration that heads this chapter of Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep Book is one of my favorites. It captures so perfectly how so many women I know feel about their lives. They are one thing in their heads, they are another thing in terms of their activities, and their kids see some fraction of each of these things and are pretty much terrorized by the whole shebang. I am lucky in that my kid somehow grasps that I look like one or another thing, from day to day (or more than one thing, depending on what I’m wearing) and yet remain the same person, [Redacted], all the time.
I am pretty sure that part of why my daughter knows who I am so clearly is that I apparently look pretty much the same no matter what’s going on, or 99% of the time, anyhow. I have clothes — I have a lot of clothes, actually — and while some are more dressy-uppy than others, the fact is, I always look like myself, recognizably so, every day. I have relatively few modes of attire, perhaps because I do not ever go to a gym.
A friend of mine pointed out a couple years ago that I do a good job of maintaining the look that The Preppy Handbook described as “punk prep.” This is, sadly, more or less accurate. Sometimes the punk dominates slightly over the prep; sometimes the prep dominates ever so slightly. But overall, the effect is that I am recognizable as [Redacted] no matter what’s going on. The black wrap dress I wear to fancy dinners out is the same black wrap dress I wear on Mondays when the weather is nice: in each case, I accessorize it with a pair of cowboy boots. I tend to not wear the clunkier combat boots when attending a more formal event… but you never know, because with the right coat, it might look great. Details may change — earrings, lipstick. But it’s totally normal for me to take my daughter to school in the morning and have someone remark, “Don’t you look fancy! Do you have a meeting today?” and for my response to be, “No, I’ll just be going home and cleaning the bathrooms and doing laundry; it’s Monday.”
I have some rules about what I wear, and while they are flexible in some ways, they are highly inflexible in others. It comes down to this: everything I wear has to fit at least one, and preferably more than one, of my aesthetic standards. I am not interested in fashion, per se; I am interested in projecting a certain persona, and in being comfortable. If an article of clothing does not fit my sense of who I am, it doesn’t enter my closet; similarly, if it reflects the person I’d most want to be, but is hideously uncomfortable, it will not enter my closet. Furthermore, I seldom wear sneakers in public, but when I do, I will not wear sneakers that might be worn during actual athletic enterprise.
But the system I live by would not work for Peg Bracken, at least not in the time when she was writing this book. This chapter is filled with advice that strikes me as having been fundamentally sound but that was designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Or, at least, it doesn’t exist where I live. She worries for her readers about what to do with clothes that are out of fashion; she has advice about how to learn to set your own hair — this is from an era when it was normal for women to go get their hair done once a week. Maybe someone still does that, but no one I know personally. She recommends having wigs because they’re a practical solution to hair problems. Maybe they are; I don’t know. (Neither she or I are talking about wigs to be worn by people going through chemotherapy; that’s an entirely different matter. Bracken’s wig advice is for the average woman who just feels her hair doesn’t look perfect. As Johnny Slash would say: Totally different head.)
In today’s world, peoples’ (women’s) ideas about How They Must Look are so varied and faceted that Bracken’s advice tends to just confound rather than encourage. We live in a sloppy era, for one thing. For another, these days women can wear all kinds of things in public that Bracken, at the time she was writing, couldn’t have imagined would be worn by respectable people, in public, ever. I don’t just mean t-shirts that say crass things. I mean, these days, a woman can walk down the street wearing blue jeans and a pair of work boots and a leather motorcycle jacket, and be regarded as actually well-dressed. This couldn’t possibly have been the case for Peg Bracken. That woman would have been regarded as a whole lot of interesting things, but well-dressed would definitely not have been one of them. We have options that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago.
BUT: There are elements of this chapter that could definitely be reassuring to the sort of woman who doesn’t particularly like thinking about clothes, or makeup, or hair, but at the same time doesn’t want to embarrass herself horribly every time she leaves the house. The paragraphs that open this chapter — the first few pages, really — are very kind and gentle for that sort of person. It’s a better-humored version of one of those books or TV shows that advise you what you should or shouldn’t wear because you’ll look stupid or fat or old or some other bad thing. Bracken’s nicer about the whole enterprise, though, because she knows her audience is probably very easily cowed. She points out to her readers that if you’re someone who cares about clothes and how you look, you don’t need her advice: you already know what you’re about, what you want to wear, and how to do it effectively and economically. If you’re someone who doesn’t care at all, then you don’t care, and good on you. Bracken explains the truth: It’s the woman in the middle, who cares maybe a little most of the time, but who, when facing dire circumstances, will suddenly care a lot, and then be doomed to misery because she doesn’t know how to handle the situation. She’s very calm and reassuring to that in-the-middle woman. In fact, she has moments of being downright au courant, such as right here, when, having spent a few paragraphs advising her readers on how to select clothes that will make them appear slimmer, she then becomes a fat activist:
“You see, we continue to bump into a philosophic point: perhaps looking skinny isn’t the be-all and end-all. Which brings us right up to the matter of whom you’re dressing for — yourself or your audience.”
You might be dressing for both. But the odds are pretty good that if you are, you’re one of those people who cares about clothes in the first place, in which case, you’re fine, you didn’t have anything to worry about in the first place, and you can enjoy reading this chapter just for the fun of Bracken’s writing, which is as light and effective as ever.
Now I’m kind of wondering, If Peg Bracken saw me walking down the street, what would she make of my clothes? Today I’m wearing narrow jeans, a shetland wool sweater with a crew neck, and a pair of cowboy boots. Basically I look like Fran Lebowitz, ca. 1978. This is just fine with me, and if that’s not good enough, then tough.
(I bet Peg Bracken and Fran Lebowitz would have gotten a real hoot out of each other. I bet Fran Lebowitz knows the I Hate to Cook Book backwards and forwards.)