Like many girls her age, my 17-year-old daughter loves fashion. Her attention to all things wardrobe-related can be traced back to age 3, the year she wore dresses every day to nursery school and won a battle with her grandmother over a Christmas outfit (red vs. black velvet dress – red won).
Now she has an allowance and buys her own clothes, carefully shopping sales and putting together various ensembles. The mess in her room speaks to combinations tried and discarded each morning. Random items litter the floor and drawers overflow with T-shirts, jeans, sportswear and lingerie.
Her two academic parents look on, bewildered. Neither of us has much fashion sense. As a man, my husband has a relatively easy time dressing in blazers, shirts and trousers, though assembling the right colour combinations can prove challenging.
For me, there are more options, hence more headaches. Mostly I keep it simple: suits and blouses for teaching days, pants and sweaters for the rest. Academics aren’t paid well enough to hire personal shoppers, but in my dreams someone appears every year with a bag of suitable apparel, and I sign the bill. My mother-in-law, worried about frumpiness, sends me a new item of fashionable clothing every Christmas, for which I am exceedingly grateful.
I’ve been dressing simply since elementary school. I still hanker after the uniform I wore for two years at an all-girls’ school: kilt, blouse, sweater and blazer. In high school, a friend suggested I might want to branch out from my V-neck sweaters, but I’ve never managed to move far, even as a graduate student, when my uniform took the form of Levi’s, T-shirt and pullover. Navy, grey and black are my go-to colours. I buy two pairs of the same earrings every few years, and replace them only when I’ve lost the earrings or the silver plate has worn away. I wish the university still required its professors to wear academic robes. How much simpler life would be.
So my daughter doesn’t get her fashion savvy from her parents. I believe it has been passed down on my husband’s side from her great-grandmother, whose signature style included peacock-blue pant suits and hats with pheasant feathers.
I had the pleasure of knowing Ganny – and seeing her style in action – for a year before she died at 81. When we first met, she took one look at the pixie cut I was sporting to signal my radical, graduate-student politics and said, “I like your haircut. It’s so modern.” One afternoon, we attended a cocktail party. Ganny wore flamboyant, wide-leg pants in a multicoloured pattern paired with a flowing tunic blouse. She was a knockout.
Ganny was a generous soul, interested in the lives of the people she met. The texture of her fashion sense was connected, in my mind, to her engagement with the intricacies of others’ lives and with patterns of change. Being of the moment can, perhaps, be a way of being in the moment, of noticing the details. Looking through family photo albums, the years mark themselves as much in clothes as in changing faces. People grow into themselves and into their clothes, a sense of style that encompasses more than a wardrobe.
Watching Ganny, I learned that fashion at its best is a form of self-expression, a way of communicating our individuality to those we encounter in our everyday lives. Whether we intend to or not, we tell the world who we are in the way we present ourselves. Even within the narrow parameters of my uniform code, I’ve made small gestures with the cowboy boots that, until they wore out, channelled my love of horses and the plaid scarves that link me to my British roots.
So while I tell my children not to judge others by their appearance, I don’t pretend that appearances don’t count. I know my students, staring at me for an hour during lectures, take in the various details of my clothes, however conservative. When they like the pair of shoes I’m wearing, they say so.
The challenge, for me, comes in separating an interest in fashion from a world of consumerism and the stupefying trolling of websites and magazine pages. Academics live in the mind, and we are protective of its content: Tolstoy, not Anna Wintour. I don’t want my daughter to choose a career based on how many pairs of designer shoes it will allow her to buy. I overhear students in the library’s elevator discussing their recent shopping expeditions, and I wish they would talk about the books they are reading for their classes instead.
But my daughter is teaching me that it isn’t a question of either/or. Her love of fashion is not separate from her strengths: her love of literature and art, her creativity, the attention she gives to others, real and fictional. Indeed, it is woven into the tapestry of her wise mind. She loves Edith Wharton, a 20th-century arbiter of taste both fashionable and literary. When Lily, in The House of Mirth, refuses to sell herself on the marriage market and must take work as a milliner, we learn what it means to stitch a hat.
I see women knitting, and I envy them their talent. My daughter, who took sewing classes as a child, hopes to have a sewing machine of her own one day. Perhaps she will pass on her love of fashion to her children. Certainly she will be connected to the fabric of her own clothes as she makes alterations in ways that I could never imagine.
Whatever she does, she will do it in style.
Alison Conway lives in London, Ont.