Fleda Brown herewith offers a wonderfully smart, touching essay about girlhood, clothes and, amazingly enough, poetry! How does she rope all this together? And touching? Yes! The sweet free tomboyish little girl (of a certain era), a professor’s daughter, running free the summer long half-naked and innocent, suddenly a young lady, going to school, in dresses and appliqued sweaters, proper girl’s clothes, an awkward and constricting mask that delivers her to the agony of fashion and fitting in and the awful kindness of friends who feel sorry for her. Fleda delivers the goods, the terrible moments of humiliation, guilt and misunderstanding we all go through as children, often centered around money, precious money and small dreams that go awry, often small events in retrospect yet still capable of making you wince and yet which do not defeat you — as evidenced by the delightful pun in the title.
This beautiful, human, raw essay is the last installment here at Numéro Cinq of a series of essays by Contributing Editor Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown, two old friends, also two poet laureates, who have been writing a book together, a call-and-response essay book as Syd likes to call it, one essay calling forth another on a similar topic. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”
In fact Autumn House Books is publishing the book next month, April, as an e-book called Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. Other essays from the book published here at NC include Fleda Brown’s “Books Made of Paper” and three essays by Sydney Lea “Pony and Graveyard: A Dream of the Flesh,” “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know.”
I should add a somber note here. As you read this, Fleda Brown is being treated for cancer. She has been writing about her treatment under the title “My Wobbly Bicycle” at her blog at fledabrown.com.
Well, you’d think this one would be MY subject. But I never had any clothes. That is how it felt. Oh, when I was a child, the first child, first grandchild, I was the darling of my grandparents’ and my aunts’ hearts. They crocheted, knitted, stitched, embroidered. There are boxes and boxes full of photos of me, wonder-child bedecked in sweaters, scarves, wool coats with fur trim, fur muff, delicate flowered sundresses and sunbonnets. Then I grew up.
My parents were getting along on my father’s assistant professor’s salary, with three, then four children, one of them seriously retarded and needing very expensive drugs. And neither of my parents thought of “managing” money. They talked and yelled and cried about “budgets,” but nothing ever changed. At least once a year, one of the grandparents would be applied to for assistance, which would arrive, accompanied by the fury of my father in having to accept it. Well, enough of that. The fact is, I had at least one requisite new dress in the fall when school started, usually two, plus new shoes, usually courtesy of a grandparent. Care packages of clothes would arrive now and then, things picked out by my grandmother, never clothes I wanted to wear. Many of them were a terrible embarrassment, all wrong for what I felt was stylish in my crowd, but I was made to wear them anyway. They were new and they were “nice.”
There was one sweater, white with appliqued flowers on it—a name brand and expensive. But the short sleeves had a tiny bit of a puff to them that felt dorky to me. And the flowers! Furthermore, my sister was given a matching one. A deadly move on my grandmother’s part. I was made to wear the sweater to school. I may not remember this right, but in my memory, as soon as I felt I could get away with it, I deliberately held the sweater under hot water until the bright flowers on the applique faded onto the white sweater. “How can I wear it, now?” I asked. Did I really do that or just dream of it? I can’t remember, but I am pretty sure that the fading happily happened. Of course my mother was somewhat careless about sorting clothes, so I may not have been the culprit.
Actually, after I got past the shorts-with-no-top age, I never had things I wanted to wear. I was furious when I was made to cover up with little halter tops, even before I had breasts. I was furious when I was made to wear dresses to school every day when I wanted to wear pants. Jeans were still in the future, but I would have invented them had I known how. I was most furious when I was made to wear a bra. I threw it across the room after one day in its miserable straitjacketing. I was furious when I had to wear stockings and garter belts and huge, full skirts with huge, full slips under them. I did not want to be a “lady,” although I didn’t particularly have an objection to being a girl.
Conversely, I longed to have ballet-slipper shoes, but I had flat feet and was forced to clump around in saddle oxfords or brown “Girl Scout” shoes.
Maybe I would have had fewer objections to girl clothes had I been able to buy the clothes many of my friends had—matching Bobbie Brooks sweater sets, straight and pleated wool skirts. The only days that I felt good about my clothes were the days the pep-club, called the “Peppers”—of which I was one—were required to wear their uniforms to school. We had white sweaters with a big purple B on the front, over a bulldog’s face, and purple pleated skirts. I fit in. I was just fine.
I was asked to join a high school girls’ sorority. Part of the initiation process was that two members had to come to your house and pick out an outfit from your closet that you were required to wear to school every day for a week. They usually picked outlandishly mismatched clothes, silly things. The two girls who came to my house looked through my closet while I stood aside, trembling with embarrassment. I had so few clothes and they were all so, well, not-quite-right. I could tell the girls were nonplussed. They did the worst thing possible: they felt sorry for me. They chose the nicest skirt and blouse they could find.
I always felt that part of the problem was me, that it was my fault I had no clothes. I was so headstrong: with my baby-sitting money, I bought some beautiful plaid wool fabric. I had this idea I’d make myself a skirt and vest. I cut it out. I cut it out wrong. I had no practice and no guidance. Did I slow down and ask a friend’s mother for help? No. The awkward puzzle pieces I had cut would not go together properly. I stuffed them in a drawer, feeling wretched and guilty, and tried to forget.
Seething underneath the clothes issue for me was the tacit sense of the role women were supposed to play. The clothes were indicative. By the time I was seven, I had to put on that halter top. But the boys didn’t. I had to wear dresses with ruffles, which made me feel decorated, ornamental, and as powerless as my mother. I hated ruffles and still do. This is not, as I said, a matter of wanting to be a boy. It is a matter of wanting to move freely and feel essential, just myself, an L.L. Bean sort of person.
I look at the models in the ads in the New York Times. They seem to combine, these days, a look of both power and glamor. At least that’s what they apparently want to show: sleek tigresses, beautiful, furry, seething with power. But look into the eyes. It looks dead in there: the ads are pictures of women required to project tigresses. Women whose job is to sell clothes, who are desperate to hold their position in the world of high fashion, who will project anything you ask them to project.
Oh, really, I do like clothes. I always have loved the days when I’ve felt beautiful in my clothes. In the seventies, I had a pair of blue corduroy bell-bottoms and platform shoes that made me feel sharp and sexy. I bought one mini-skirt, which I thought was kind of cute, but I was teaching school and found that if I raised my arm to write on the blackboard, I exposed more of me than my students needed to see.
In those few years I taught high school, I made some of my own clothes (yes, I did!): pants and tops, as well as many curtains and pillow covers. I made a few cute outfits for my daughter, one little bell bottom jumper with big lady-bugs all over it, with a matching purse. She was five or six and looked very Mod. I liked sewing. I was not too bad at it. It was all-absorbing, meditative, and I could imagine I was saving money. Then when clothes got cheaper than fabric, I gave it up. Also, I had more and more things to do that seemed more important to me than sewing.
I attribute my ambivalent attitude toward clothes to two things: my early lack of money and my tomboyishness. The purchase of clothes was always accompanied by a great deal of angst when I was young. There was so little money that when I had any to spend, I was terrified I’d make a wrong choice. I often did. And had to live with it. If I’d used my own money, I knew that every dollar I spent equaled two hours’ baby-sitting time. I would buy something, my stomach knotted up both from fear of making a mistake and fear of my father’s yelling about the money spent. I grew cagey about the latter. I could fudge on how much something cost. I could say I had to have it for school for some obscure reason. I could say I’d used all or half my own money. Or something.
And then the tomboy-thing. I wanted to look beautiful, I wanted to look like the girls in my class I admired. But what made me happiest was climbing around creekbanks in pants (no jeans yet, remember) and an old flannel shirt, looking for crawdads. Those clothes were the ones I loved best.
I think about the sociology of clothes. In the fifties and on into the early sixties, the styles, the requirements in clothing for girls and boys were as separate as our psychology was thought to be. Girls had to wear dresses to school unless the temperature was below a certain degree, I can’t remember what. But those days felt free as holidays, although we generally felt we must wear a skirt on top of the pants. When I was an undergraduate, girls were not allowed to wear pants on the University of Arkansas campus, except under a raincoat. And furthermore, they were not to wear them downtown. After all, they were “representing the University.” All winter, all of my young life, my legs were freezing cold. Because I was a girl.
Boundaries were clear. Unlike now, when cast-off 50s dresses are worn with cowboy boots, tight torn jeans with diamonds and a sleek silk camisole, a tuxedo with tennis shoes. And too, when future anthologists—if there are any—look back on this era’s poems, they’ll see hybrid poems that pull in all manner of objects and thoughts and commercials and movies and music. Poems in received forms and free-verse poems, poems that announce that they’re poems but look and read like prose. And prose poems. Soft boundaries between genres.
And self-conscious display of the making, the mechanics of the poem. The poet stepping in to say how it’s going, this writing of a poem. Last weekend I attended a baby shower. The very-pregnant mother was wearing a long, form-fitting top and long skirt—very chic. It’s fashionable to let the belly show, the stark progression of belly-growth, to be proud of it. When I was pregnant, maternity clothes were shapeless bags we buttoned over our midsection to hide the protrusion. We were only a generation or so from the time when pregnant women were expected to stay inside as they started “showing,” as if any display of our sexual potency was shameful.
But even though now a woman can wear anything, really anything, she wishes and be acceptable on most occasions, somehow underneath, it feels to me as if that change hasn’t netted as much as we’d like to think. The truth is, I see in the faces of some of those women in pillbox hats and blue suits on reruns of ancient game shows more maturity and more command of themselves and their environment than I see in the faces of many young women today, who seem uncertain of who they are and what they want to be. Those women in pillbox hats were fitting themselves into a role, true, but they knew they had responsibility for that role, for enacting it well and truthfully—being a good wife, a good mother, a good housekeeper. These were not the women on Mad Men. The ones I’m thinking of were the real ones.
I don’t want to go back there, and couldn’t if I did. Same with poetry. This is an incredibly exciting time for clothes and poetry, it seems to me. Exciting and necessarily unnerving. What we wear, what and how we write, is either demonstrating who we think we are, how we think the world is organized and what it all means, or it’s demonstrating who we’re supposed to be according to our culture’s norms. Who can tell which is which? These days I wear jeans almost all the time. I’m an attractive woman for my age, but not a glamorous one, although I passionately admire my gorgeously dressed friends. The glamour-gene bypassed me. I have a friend, a writer, who said her goal in life is to make enough money with her writing to be able to get up every morning, her only decision being which pair of jeans to put on. Amen to that.
Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.
She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.