I was eleven years old the summer that Erica Gellerman, my classmate at the end of the block, presided over a series of beauty pageants featuring the girls in my neighborhood. There were never more than four of us participating in a single event; I came in dead last every time.
None of us questioned the legitimacy of her judgments. Erica was imbued with the supreme authority of a middle-school girl with a pool. Nor am I saying she was wrong. I certainly accept my share of blame, at least when it came to the talent segment. I could have memorized all the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs,” made popular the year before, instead of humming past the bits I couldn’t remember, hoping no one would notice. Had I more ambition, I could have hit the low bar of learning 75 percent of a different song which did not feature the voice stylings of a middle-aged man’s baritone at a time when I was saddled with the warbly soprano of a pre-teen girl.
I am sure my reluctance to commit resources to this effort sprung not entirely from laziness, but also an intuitive understanding that no amount of practice could rocket me to first place. By that summer of 1978, I knew perfectly well that Miss America wasn’t getting crowned on the basis of her public oratory or clog dancing skills. No, Miss America had to have naturally symmetrical features contoured by just the right amount of makeup, a curvy figure with no hint of extra padding, and a perfectly accessorized outfit. I knew what it meant to pose on the platform of Erica’s pool in a blue-and-white gingham bikini and be found wanting: I didn’t look good enough to win. Message received, society.
While it would be a few years before I realized I wasn’t as hideous as my peers suggested, their assessment of my non “it” girl status was fair. I had neither the skills, the resources, nor the personality to be a fashion icon. Even my Barbie reflected my stylistic limitations. While other girls’ dolls always looked ready for a glamorous date with Ken, mine possessed the distinct air of someone doing the next morning’s walk of shame.
I had all but resigned myself to a life bereft of glamour when, the next year, I happened upon a hack to natural beauty and a carefully-curated wardrobe. I did this through the unlikely medium of winter boots.
If you live in a cold place like Massachusetts, you understand the importance of winter boots. It’s not that parts of your body other than your feet don’t get cold. When it’s twenty degrees out, everything gets cold. Here’s the difference: chapped lips and a tingly butt are merely an annoyance. If a lump of snow wedges itself inside your boot, it’s an epic tragedy. The pain induced by frozen feet can take you to dark places, especially if you have neither a place to change and/or a replacement sock. Your mind will begin to wander to that plane crash in the Andes, the one with all the rugby players. How long, you will wonder, does it take for frostbite to turn into gangrene? You will curse yourself for never finishing Call of the Wild, which you were assigned in school but opted not to read, choosing instead to watch Love Boat reruns while skimming the book’s Cliff Notes. If you’re of a philosophical bent, perhaps you will accept this unpleasantness as part of the inevitable course of life. Either way, know this: winter boot issues must be addressed immediately. Otherwise, nature will reclaim you.
Because of their functional importance, no one thought of winter boots in terms of their attractiveness. That was like asking whether your heart medication made you look fat. In the late 1970s, winter boots were functional: a maximum of rubber on the outside, possibly some water-resistant padded fabric on the inside, and a top that never closed as tightly as you would hope.
Until the winter of 1979, at least. That’s when I got my new boots.
My next-door neighbor, Chrissy, spotted them the very first time I wore them. Standing by the school bus stop, Chrissy gazed at them transfixed as I strode toward her, still a little unsteady in the two-inch heels.
“Wow,” she said, “where’d you get those?”
The boots were tall, edging all the way up to my knee, not stopping mid-calf like hers. They were sleek and thin, not thick and unwieldy. While my contemporaries crammed their double-socked feet into rubbery cavities from above, I zipped my boots up elegantly, from the side. While they plodded along with all the sex appeal of Paddington Bear, I sashayed beside them with stacked wooden heels, as if I might have a social event or business appointment to attend, not simply a legal obligation to attend homeroom.
I was so used to being ignored that it was weird to have anyone stare at me, even if just from the knee down. Despite my deep love for my new footwear, it had not occurred to me that anyone else would admire them.
Whenever people asked, I was vague about their real origin, the Bargain Center in Braintree, the town next to ours. “Around,” I said.
“I really like them,” Chrissy said, glancing down at her own pedestrian, clunky boots, which, if they were sentient, would have felt the full force of her disappointment. She stared openly at my boots the way a dog stares at a sandwich. It was a revelation to know I could wield such power based on a single wardrobe item.
I wasn’t a hot girl, but I had hot girl boots.
In the modern age, especially if we were wealthier, Chrissy could have simply tracked down a pair of the same boots in her size and shown up with them at the bus stop a few days later, neutralizing my advantage. But in 1979, my good eye and random chance were enough to maintain my edge in a competition I didn’t know I’d entered. Chrissy may have handily beaten me in every neighborhood beauty pageant, but now the shoe, quite literally, was on the other foot. I might never be a stunner, but now, thanks to my new boots, I wasn’t condemned to a life of invisibility. I was a dark horse in the race for the most fashionable middle schooler, but I was coming around from the outside.
That infamous winter I also acquired a pair of wide wale corduroy Jordache jeans. Randolph, Massachusetts had recently been blessed with an ABC Retail store, a discount chain with racks of clothing for as little as a dollar apiece, inciting a shopping spree among the women and girls of my acquaintance of a sort I have never witnessed before or since. Even with our limited budget, at ABC I had carte blanche from my mom to buy almost anything. This heady freedom meant printed cotton blouses and V-neck velour sweaters in every color of the rainbow.
Even in the context of all this bounty, the Jordache jeans were special. I was largely unfamiliar with most labels at that time, but it was hard to miss the proliferation of designer jeans in the era of racy Brooke Shields Calvin Klein ads. My jeans were Wranglers at best, and more often house brands pitched to me as “just as good as Levi’s” in the same way my Mom maintained generic soda was equivalent to Coke. Not even close, Mom, on both counts.
As soon as I spotted the Jordaches, I recognized the jeans for the treasure they were. I could barely get them on in the dressing room, and subsequent wearings required me to take the much-mocked but quite effective laying-down-on my-bed-and-sucking-in-my-nonexistent-gut-while zipping approach. This inconvenience did not even register with me.
Wearing my cords to the bus stop, tucked under my stylish boots, I watched Chrissy’s eyes bug out. “Did you get those at ABC?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I saw them but I couldn’t get them on.”
Of course she couldn’t get them on. Nobody could but me. Their physical specificity confirmed what I’d already suspected. Those jeans were rightfully, mythically mine, the Cinderella slippers of suburban Boston.
“I’m so jealous,” she said. It was obvious, and it felt awesome.
There were, of course, physical sacrifices. Throughout the winter my toes went white with early stage frostbite many times, going from a healthy pinkish hue to a should-I-tell-my-Mom-about-this white. During the brief window that I managed to fit into Jordaches, I developed an unsightly boil from the constriction.
It was totally worth it.
* * *
In the early 1990s, when I was in my early twenties, I had a boyfriend who worked at Pier Platters, the now defunct but once legendary record store in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was the custom of my peer group to date or “date:”
(a) some guy in a band,
(b) some guy who worked at a record label, or,
(c) some guy who worked at a record store.
Given the economies of the indie music scene, there was considerable overlap among these categories. At that time, my boyfriend was both (a) and (c). On the downside, this meant attending performances of unnecessarily long covers of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” On the upside, it meant access to Kim Gordon’s castoffs.
At that time, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth were still a golden couple, residing in on-the-upswing-but-not-quite-upswung Hoboken. They were so embedded in the local scene that Kim often dropped off her excess vintage clothes and accessories at Pier Platters for any interested parties. I was fortunate to be about her size, so many of those items fell into my hands.
Though I’d reached adulthood, I still hadn’t mastered the ability to craft a cohesive look. During the day, I’d combine a pair of work pants with a sparkly top, sending the message that, yes, I was technically in the job market, but no, I couldn’t be trusted to competently handle the most mundane task. My continued lack of makeup and halfhearted attempts to maintain a hairstyle did not project corporate professionalism. Only a few years prior, interviewing for an office temp agency in San Francisco, the recruiter looked me up and down and sighed. “Your typing skills are great,” she said, “but you’re what we call ‘the Berkeley type.’”
My adoption of Kim’s wardrobe changed all that. By day I was still a highly competent office worker who was unfit for public viewing, but at night, I was crushing it. I supplemented her vintage castoffs with my own complementary items. I accessorized my short dresses (purchased in the lot beside the downtown Tower Records) with Kim’s fake leopard coat, or her green suede 1970s jacket with the jangly belt. A white sleeveless dress with a raised dot pattern was accompanied by Kim’s former brown leather jacket, her name written in masked tape over the label. The change in my look was so extreme that I was even asked to join a band entirely on the basis of my wardrobe. (“How do you know I can sing?” I asked. “All girls can sing,” was the answer.)
The centerpiece of my new wardrobe featured one crowning jewel: Kim’s white fake fur coat. In a collection noted for its flamboyance, it was my most over-the-top item. The coat doubled my width when I wore it; it looked as if I’d thrown on a bear rug rather than an item of clothing. It caused me to alter the way I moved through crowds, like when you’ve traded in your Ford Festiva for a Buick and have to rethink whether or not you fit in a parking space. My friend Ken felt sure he’d seen it in one of the videos from the Goo album.
I wore the coat so many times that I forgot how conspicuous it was. I wore it to see bands at Maxwell’s, The Knitting Factory, the Pyramid. One night I rolled into CBGB wearing it in combination with another favorite item, an aqua leather miniskirt I’d fished out of a bin at a vintage store in Soho. I was flanked by two friends, both named Marie, as was my custom at the time.
I don’t remember who performed that night. I only remember Kim Gordon in the audience, staring at me as we made our way through the crowd. There was no denying I was wearing her ex-coat; it wasn’t like I was wearing a sweater from the Gap.
As Kim looked at me from across the room, I felt instantly embarrassed. For one thing, I was still fundamentally a shy person, not comfortable with this kind of intense scrutiny. The confidence I typically garnered from her wardrobe quickly evaporated. Who did I think I was, I thought, traipsing around town in Kim Gordon’s second-hand, second-hand style? Not only was she a member of a universally respected band, but an “it girl” among it girls. A year or two later, she would launch her own clothing line, X-Girl, and remains a recognized style icon to this day.
The time for self-examination was over. There was nothing to do but drive into the skid. I screwed up my courage and crossed the room under the power of her piercing stare. “Thanks for the coat,” I said, yelling over the sound of the band when I reached her, “and the rest of the clothes. I really appreciate it!”
She was in her late thirties at the time, a woman used to the admiration of others, striking and confident in a way I’d never be.
“You’re welcome,” she said, putting her hand on my arm. “It looks great on you.”
A piece of clothing is like a talisman, bestowing powers on the wearer that exceed the value of the fabric and cost of labor. The right accessory can propel the most ordinary person into a compelling figure, at least for a moment.
If I could go back in time and pick out a better bathing suit, I swear to God, I know I could have at least gotten third.
by Nancy Matson