When I was in 9th Grade, my favorite store was TJ Maxx. I spent hours scouring the shelves for fashion bargains, which I had to run by my mother for approval. I'd hold up a pair of jeans, and her nose would wrinkle with distaste, but if I called out "they're on clearance! Only 12.99!" she might allow me to put them in her shopping cart.
On one of these expeditions, I encountered a singularly useless garment (for a high school kid). It was a black and white houndstooth jacket with stiff shoulder pads and a belt. Buttoned on to my teenage body, it looked like something out of His Girl Friday, a movie I had recently fallen in love with on Turner Classic Movies.
Mom's nose retained it's shape.
When I got it home and showed it to my Dad, he pronounced, "The 40s are back!"
I wore the jacket over a black knit tube dress - it was the 80s. I loved, in particular, the huge shoulder pads - they made me feel smart and powerful. They also made my waist look tiny.
In those days, when people asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I would reply "Actress," but when I pictured my grown up wardrobe, it was filled with wide leg pants, silk blouses and suits. My vision of adulthood was serious and independent - not sexy or bohemian.
Several years later, in my 20s and working as an actress, I had to force myself to wear "young" clothing. Mini-skirts didn't do much for my sturdy legs. Jeans didn't flatter me. I hated shorts. I loved long skirts, cashmere cardigans and plaid, but those clothes were a disaster in auditions. Independent film directors wanted babes. Every other breakdown in Backstage read "Cameron Diaz/Jennifer Lopez type".
When I snagged an audition for a modern day production of Pygmalion, I knew I needed an outfit that would transform me into a knock-out. At the Betsey Johnson store on the Upper East Side, a stretch velvet floral dress called out to me. Smocked in the front, with a deep square neckline, it looked like something Ophelia would wear to a rave. The $240 price tag was a terrible shock, but I bought it anyway, wore it to the audition and was cast as Eliza Doolittle. Finally, I had figured out a look that said "babe".
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I would try on clothes in stores and ask the question, "Do I look sexy in this?" If the answer was "no", back it went. When I defined sexy in my head, it was a mishmash of qualities: Did I look thin? Did I look flirtatious? Did I look young?"
I didn't know, because I knew very little then, that being sexy has nothing to do with being thin, flirtatious or young.
Actually, because this essay is not really about achieving "sexy", I'm going to give away the only secret to sex appeal that is universally true, and which I learned accidentally much later in the game: 90% of sex appeal is good posture. That's it. Stand up straight and hold your shoulders back. Works every time.
My friend Brian, an artist, claims that all people wear either uniforms or costumes. If that is the case, I definitely fall into the costume camp.
That jacket I bought at TJ Maxx was all costume. In it, I wasn't a miserable 9th grader stress-eating over the D minus I got in Earth Science - I was a wise-cracking dame trading witty repartee with Cary Grant - if only Cary Grant existed in Western Massachusetts (or anywhere? Cary Grant wore a costume his whole life).
But, unlike the Betsey Johnson dress, that jacket was a costume I wore for myself - for fun. It made my life more like a play, but a play I directed and produced myself. In all those "Sexy" outfits I work in my twenties, I was never really dressing for my own life. I was trying to get cast in someone else's drama.
A few years ago, I started buying jackets again. It started with a job interview. My acting career was over, and I needed a position that was more than a day job. Suddenly, I was free to pick out a wardrobe that would not be judged for its sex appeal. I went to the Brooks Brothers outlet in Riverhead and selected a navy pinstriped 3 piece suit and a matching pair of pumps. HEAVEN. I can't tell you how much fun it was to wear that suit. It re-connected me with that sassy 1940s career girl from His Girl Friday. I sailed through my job interview. After I won the job, I styled it in new and interesting ways. Inspired by Ellen Degeneres, I paired the pants and the jacket with navy sneakers. I wore the skirt with tights, a multi-colored sweater and ankle boots. However, I also loved wearing the suit straight - just the skirt, the jacket and the pumps with a silk shell and a nice bracelet. There's something clean, easy and low-key about a suit. A suit doesn't overshadow, for instance, your awesome... posture.
If you think about it, suits are a terrific innovation in fashion. Solidly predictable in cut and color, a suit directs the eye to whatever is exceptional - a beautiful scarf, a piece of jewelry or a human face.
Every decade of my life has been a struggle and a joy. If there is one gift that has come to me in my forties, it is self-knowledge. I'm not messing around trying to impress directors anymore. My job, in publishing, doesn't require me to dress up or look particularly corporate. Most of my coworkers are fairly casual. But I wear my suits anyway. I don't need them. I just like them.
The illustration above is of Rosalind Russell as HildyJohnson in the movie, His Girl Friday. The costume designer was Robert Kalloch.