The Importance of Dressing Up
A niece's visit prompts a review of my wardrobe and our bonds.
My father’s voice fell heavy on each tread up to the second story, where my older sister, Laura, tugged at pink sponge curlers and penciled her round eyes in heavy liner. “We’re gonna be late for church,” or late for school. With Laura primping in the mirror, we were always late.
Now, as her 17-year-old daughter, Sophia, visits during Christmas week, Dad’s nagging voice bounces around and becomes mine, directed toward my niece. She’s a talker, loves to swath on lipstick and match her gloves to her hat, and I’m telling her constantly, “Let’s go.” But unlike her mother, she is never late. Except for a flight she missed which was not necessarily her fault.
Our first day is filled with catching up, raspberry white chocolate lattes in hand, and long hours spent wafting, like perfume scents, in and out of retail stores along Vine or Main Street in Over-the-Rhine (We saved one or two for the next day, and the next) that catered to young women or book lovers or candle lovers or foodies, in essence, every last one.
Sophia is a shopper. She comes by it honestly through her mother and both grandmothers. Not through me. The last time I visited her in Florida, and she was on the cusp of her upper teens, she convinced me to purchase a strapless blue jumpsuit. “Aunt Netti, you can pull that off.” As if I needed the words or affirmation of a then-15-year-old to tell me. I did.
I was never one for dressing up, which might be why I was picked to star in The Drummer Boy in third grade. In junior high, I joined the track team to wear sweats. To counterbalance my mother who dressed her four daughters in Easter attire every year with the same assignments in pink, green, blue, and yellow. No picture happened without a photo shoot. And we fought her on Sundays to wear pants to church like it was a civil right, and it was.
I didn’t and still don’t wear much makeup, but I was learning from Sophia the imperative for dressing up from someone who had spent her high school sophomore year in virtual school. Someone who lived in Florida and longed travel elsewhere to have a reason to wear more than just shorts. A young woman whose shoe collection was now the hallmark of her inheritance as a Januzzi’s Shoes girl, and who woke early to ensure she had plenty of time to brush on makeup.
I was learning to step outside of my screen self again. We’ve lost so much in the pandemic. With that comes the desire for more fashion to bring forth personalities flattened by laptops, for earrings that dangle below the mask and whose shake and shimmy give some semblance of whether we’re smiling or not, for shoes with outlandish heels to lead us on a path we might never have chosen.
In our twenties, Sophia’s mother, Laura, and I shopped and never dropped. We negotiated clothes swaps like diplomats at a U.N. peace conference. We camped out in each other’s closets with flashlights in hand to uncover some great find from the back of the racks, and usually convinced the other person to buy that suede green jacket because it would also look good on us. We were subversive. And it worked.
Sophia’s mother is now in nursing home. I miss her. There’s no one to tell me to take that leap and buy that article of clothing. Except.
The next day, Sophia and I are out again. It’s Tuesday. We’ve eaten arepas with stringy cheese and gulped down more coffee, and have one hour to go before an appointment for facials, my Christmas gift to her. I’m thankful we only have an hour. We’re loaded down with books. And socks. We’ve walked into another store she’s convinced me to patronize. I’m in and out of stores that I whisk past by every morning on my walks, but never stop in. What kind of wardrobe does a writer really need?
I reach for a fuzzy sweater, tiger striped in colors. It’s short. “It doesn’t drop down over my waist,” I complain.
“It’s the look Aunt Netti. You can do it.” She’s my fashion coach. I look over at her. On her head is her cream beanie, her hands gloved in cream as well. She dons sherbet green corduroy pants, a bustier over top of a ribbed mock turtleneck. She’s posing with all the poise of her mother.
When did her tiny little mousey voice turn confident? When did she turn into my confidante? Though the price is reasonable, I want to put the sweater back. I own plenty of that same black and buttercream and gold combinations. Saying “no” to her is saying “no” her mother. Something I could never do. The purchase is rung up, and the shop clerk adds a little Merry Christmas note to my receipt.
We dress up for a family dinner of pasta bolognese with her other aunt’s family, trips to Findlay Market for spices, and a night out to Mita’s, despite the frigid temperatures and the fact we walk “blocks and blocks” to eat. We become subservient to no weather, only to what our closets can contain.
The next day, we make our way to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Sophia wears one of her big finds purchased from a vintage store days earlier. A jacket with a mashup of colorful contemporary faces, resembling Picasso’s artwork. The perfect accompaniment. We’re there to visit the jewelry exhibit, enthralled by the drippings of gold, the play of watermelon tourmaline in rings. We imagine ourselves draped in these glorious pieces, the places we would go. The places she might go. Design school is on her radar for college. For a serious life. But also, to reach for something beyond what the eye can grasp.
Maybe fashion is just grownups looking to play dress up like children do. Like our family’s shoe fascination is a bond across generations and time. Her eyes are wide in fascination with the baubles before us. For a minute, Sophia is Laura. And we are two young women wanting to make art and be free.
After a week, Sophia makes plans for her departure. We’re packing (it takes two), and while I might have admonished Laura for her stuffed trunkload of goods, I don’t mind helping Sophia zip up her case. “I must plan what to wear to the airport. Cold here, warm there.” Soon, a pile erupts on the bed, topped by a pair of pants in a groovy white, brown and blacks stripe, and accompanying black shirt and corset. She’ll wear the heaviest pair of shoes, brown suede donkey paw-like shoes that are “vegan,” she reminds, and pack the lighter weight pairs. Long after her plane touches down near the beach, I dress for an unusually warm Christmas Eve in suburban Ohio. The sweater Sophia convinced me to buy is now on my body, and it sheds a few strands onto my black jeans. Just a little bit of her rubbing off on me.