Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Lost in Mitford Land... Again

Is it a bad thing, do you think, that I can name all the members of the Mitford family, from left to right, without checking to see who is who? Does that mean that I'm "obsessed"... to use an on-line cliché which I abhor? 

Unity, Tom, Debo, Diana, Decca, Nancy, and Pamela Mitford. 
Is it weird that when I visited historic Chatsworth House in Derbyshire last fall, despite the beauty and grandeur of the house and gardens, I was most excited by the memorabilia connected to the late Dowager Duchess, Deborah Mitford as was?   

Okay, maybe. 

But then again I've been fascinated with the Mitford family for years. I adore the fiction of Nancy Mitford. I've spent many days happily lost in the memoirs written by several of the sisters, the slew of biographies about them, and even a couple of the many compilations of letters written by them to each other or to their friends. 

So, I was tickled to death when a couple of new books that deal with the Mitford clan, if only peripherally, came across my radar. "Wonderful," I thought gleefully, "Here was a way to while away many happy hours while still house bound with the evil shingles virus." 

Ha. Well, at least I was fifty percent right. I loved one. Hated the other. Let me explain. 

First, the bad news. I absolutely hated The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellowes. I wanted to love this book. I felt I was duty bound to love it. It's a mystery with a Mitford connection. And it's written by Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian Fellowes, author of the screenplay for Gosford Park, and the novels Snobs and Past Imperfect, which I enjoyed. His latest novel Belgravia was a bit of a disappointment, but I forgave him because he did give us all those wonderful seasons of Downton Abbey

Sigh. I should have known better. I did know better, in fact. I resisted reading this book when it first came out. But after having read one book loosely connected to the Mitfords this month, my guard was down. What can I say? I should have continued to resist. 

I hate to totally pan a book, but this one deserves it. Amateurishly written, I should say over-written, it had too much unnecessary telling, redundant description, and stilted dialogue. If Jessica Fellowes had been a student in my high school creative writing course, I'd have gone at it with a red pen. Pronto. I'm not sure why someone didn't do that, actually. 

The plot is clumsy at best. There's too much melodrama. I don't feel any sympathy for the main character Louisa because I don't believe her plight is convincing. Impoverished daughter of a London washerwoman who must earn her living, okay. But layered on top of that situation, she's manipulated into pick pocketing and possibly even worse by an evil uncle whom she must escape. I wasn't buying it. I kept thinking of Dickens' Oliver Twist. I mean, the evil uncle even has a faithful dog who responds to a snap of his fingers and lays at his feet in backstreet pubs while the uncle gets blotto. Is it just me, or does that remind anyone else of Bill Sikes? 

Historical fiction is a difficult genre to do really well, so I give Fellowes kudos for trying. She clearly did research, just not enough to enable her to recreate the time period of the early 1920s convincingly. Nor has she brought to life the Mitford family.

Mitford family at Swinbrook, 1929.    source
Desperate Louisa has escaped her life in London by becoming a nursery maid to the Mitford family. Sixteen year old Nancy Mitford becomes her ally and together they become girl sleuths, trying to fictionally solve the real life murder of Florence Nightingale Shore. The rest of the Mitford family is scenery, or "paper dolls" as one reviewer puts it. And even Nancy doesn't ring true. As another reviewer on Good Reads says: "Anyone who can make the famously eccentric Mitford family appear so dull and boring deserves some sort of reverse commendation." Ha. I agree. Still, there are quite a few readers on the same site who disagree. You can read all their comments here

I had a difficult time finding any published reviews of this book. One short review in the Globe and Mail seems to think the biggest draw would be for Downton Abbey fans, although aside from the setting being an English country house, the link is tenuous. Another mentions the "ready-made markets" for the novel among fans of Golden Age mysteries, Downton Abbey, and the Mitford sisters. And marketing is just what the title, in fact the whole premise, of this book seems to be. To me, anyway. Just part of what Decca Mitford decried as "the Mitford industry," cashing in on the Mitford name. For someone who loves the fiction of that period, as well as many of the wonderful books that the "Mitford industry" has spawned, Fellowes has committed a heinous crime against historical fiction... and against Mitford-mania. 

So back to the library this book will go. Unfinished. But all has not been lost. I had one more book to go.

Luckily for me, I devoured Cressida Connolly's After the Party.

Connolly's novel is set, initially, in 1938, in the lead-up to World War II, during the rise of Oswald Mosley, second husband to the third Mitford sister Diana, and leader of Britian's fascist party. Connolly's main character Phyllis Forrester and her husband Hugh return to England after many years abroad, and try to settle back into life at home again. Hugh is at loose ends, not being suited to retirement, and Phyllis, who chaffs at staying with her sister Patricia while they wait for their house to be ready, casts about trying to entertain her two children in the weeks before they start school. 

Oswald Mosley head of the British Union of Fascists. 1936   source
Phyllis's sister Nina suggests that Phyllis might like to help out at a sort of summer camp run by Nina and her husband, and that both children might enjoy the fun to be had as "youth campers." After all, besides the lectures and classes, there's sea bathing, and campfires, and cool uniforms for the children. Ha. Turns out, Nina and her husband are very active in Oswald Mosley's growing fascist movement, and the camp is a "smokescreen for promoting fascist ideology." But Phyllis is drawn in, partly by talk of how Mosley, their esteemed leader is the only man to be able to broker peace with the Germans and bring England back to its former "greatness." And partly by her own ennui, her ignorance of events in her own country, and her utter willingness to be persuaded. But when a tragedy occurs, and shortly afterward Phyllis and her husband, who has begun to be very active in the movement himself, are arrested and detained at Holloway prison in London, without charges and for an indeterminate term of imprisonment, things get serious. 

The plot of the novel begins in 1979, many years after Phyllis has been released from prison, and consists of Phyllis's recollection of events as described to an unnamed interviewer, who, one supposes, is writing a book about Mosley and his movement. Connolly moves back and forth between Phyllis's musings, and flashbacks to the earlier events. It's a structure that works really well, and adds to the reader's continued interest. I won't say suspense because it's not that sort of book. We wonder what will transpire; we're drawn into Phyllis's life before her imprisonment, the lives of her upper class family and friends, as well as her life in prison, and the lives of her fellow detainees. But it's not so much plot as it is character development, and Connolly's impeccable recreation of this period in history, that make the book fascinating. I enjoyed Connolly's novel most for its wonderful depiction of a time and circumstance which I'd not fully explored, with the exception of reading Diana Mitford-Mosley's biography, as well as its depiction of the rank and file Mosley supporters, secretaries and factory workers, whose lives were devastated by their political beliefs. 

Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford are peripheral characters in the novel. Mosley appears at the camp, and is referenced as the "Great Leader." And Lady Mosley is mentioned as a fellow detainee at Holloway prison, since the Mosleys were themselves famously detained for two years during the war. 

Interestingly, while Diana Mosley's politics lead to rifts between her and her sisters Nancy and Decca, her mother and her other siblings continued to be a help to her throughout her imprisonment and after. Even though she became "the most hated woman in England for a time," she remained their beloved daughter and sister. The fictional Phyllis Forrester is not so lucky. 

In her review of Cressida Connolly's novel in The Spectator, Mika Ross-Southall cautions that despite the character Phyllis stumbling blindly into a world she does not comprehend, "carelessness is not too remote from complicity," as Phyllis learns to her detriment. I would add that Connolly's character shows us the dangers of NOT being well informed in a complex and troubled time. A lesson from which we can all benefit. 

Okay. Enough already. I've spent three days writing this post. Much of the time buried in my Mitford books, re-reading some of Debo's memoir Counting My Chickens about life at Chatsworth, then some of her autobiography Wait for Me, then getting lost in various on-line articles, old pictures, obituaries, you name it. Time to come out from my rabbit hole. Or rabbit warren, more like. 

I will say that, while I've been writing, I began to have second thoughts that my rant about the Fellowes' book might be over the top. In reading her bibliography at the back of her novel she lists many of the Mitford books which I read myself, "heartily" recommending Nancy's early fiction. And I thought, she can't be all bad if she's a fan of Love in a Cold Climate. Can she? Maybe she's a really nice person. Still. Art has to stand on its own, doesn't it? 

So, in the pursuit of truth, I went back and tried to read a bit more of the book. 

Oh my goodness. I'm rolling my eyes as I write this. I was right the first time. That book is painful.  

Me at Chatsworth, October 2017.

Now, time for you to weigh in, my bookish friends. 

Have you read either of these books? Any opinions you want to share? If you're a Mitford-maniac like me, any books you want to recommend? I'm always up for anything even tangentially related to the Mitford family?

Linking up this week with Thursday Favourite Things#fakeittillyoumakeitSaturday Share Link-up

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Outfit Dreams

I'm dreaming of outfits these days. When I'm lying in bed at night. Or drifting off to sleep for an afternoon nap. Or lazing in a deck chair. I'll put my book down, watch a boat go by on the river, and imagine what I'll wear when I can stand to wear normal clothes again

woman in white tee, white sneakers, and denim skirt leaning against a red car.
What I wore on my last day of freedom.
All these outfit reveries are by way of staving off cabin fever. I've hardly been out of the dooryard (as we say down east) for three weeks, ever since I developed shingles. Okay, there was that one evening when I ventured out for dinner with two friends at a bistro in our little village one evening. Hubby drove me, since driving and shifting (my car is a standard) are painful. But sitting on a patio and eating and chatting I can do. Or thought I could do. I felt good all evening. But I paid for it the next day. 

Then there was the morning last week when Hubby drove me to the doctor, and our bumpy road, which hasn't been paved since the millennium, almost did me in. I'm not joking; jostling is not a trifling thing for serious shingles sufferers. Still, I was able to acquire some serious pain meds that day, which is why I'm doing a lot of drifting and dreaming lately. I should say more drifting and dreaming than usual. As a child, I was frequently accused of walking around in a fog. 

But fogs can be good. Restful. Good for dreaming about clothes. I've always retreated to my closet when I've needed solace. Not literally retreated. I don't mean I've spent hours on the floor of my cupboard curled into a foetal position. Just in my mind. Mentally running my hand across the sleeves of jackets, feeling the textures of suede, and tweed, and stiff denim, ruffling through the shirts and blouses, conjuring up combinations. 

woman in black dress and sandals holding a jean jacket
If it's still hot when I get back on the road, I'll wear my linen dress.
I remember how helpful outfit dreaming was years ago when I ditched my job in pharmaceutical sales and retreated home to the farm for a while, to lick my wounds, and retool, so to speak. My sabbatical year, my friends used to call it. As I worked the final stressful weeks of my sales job, and packed up my apartment, I'd have moments when I feared I was making a huge mistake. So I'd conjure up a picture of myself on a sunny autumn day, in jeans, and a burgundy mohair sweater that I loved, and my step-father's rubber boots, striding across the pasture, weighed down on one side by a big pail of apples I'd just picked. I'd picture this and my shoulders would drop a little, and I'd smile. 

And in the first few months back home, in bed at night, I'd sometimes be overwhelmed with fear that I'd miscalculated, made a blundering U-turn, and was going totally the wrong way in life. And I'd lie there and focus on the marvelous suede skirt suit hanging in my closet. Bought with one of my first pay cheques when I worked in sales, it was a gorgeous toffee colour, and soft, like whipped butter, with a long full skirt and a short fitted jacket. It looked wonderful with boots and a cream sweater. I paid way more for it than I could afford. But those nights when I worried that I'd never find a teaching job, that I'd failed at adult life, thinking of it hanging in my closet was comforting. I knew I could put it on, do my hair and make-up, and feel like a million bucks. Even if I was back in my old room at home, at the advanced age of 27, having failed to get the hang of adult life. Ha. And funnily enough, when I finally moved back to Ottawa, that suit became a staple in my teaching wardrobe. I still have it tucked away; I can't bear to part with it. To me it's a symbol of that U-turn I took in life, and how well things worked out in the end. 

So this summer when I'm in need of a little cheering up, I've been dreaming of outfits. I've been imagining outings and what I'll wear, when I can get out of baggy tees and pyjama bottoms and back into my real clothes. 

I'm dying to wear my refurbished Max Mara suit, with my sleeveless linen tank from Vince, and sneakers, and maybe my red cross-body bag. I could wear this to lunch with a friend at one of my favourite restaurants. Or maybe for afternoon tea at the Château Laurier. If the suit looks a bit corporate, even with sneakers, I could try to blend in with all the working types, carry my red leather journal and pretend it's a day-timer, try to look as if I've somehow managed to carve out a couple of hours from my very busy day to have lunch with a friend. Maybe even order a pre-lunch martini to look more sophisticated. Ha. Maybe not. I hate martinis.

woman in navy pants suit, white sneakers, and white tee
I'll wear this to lunch or afternoon tea. 
Or maybe Hubby and I could head away from the city. And spend an afternoon browsing the antique shops in historic Merrickville. We haven't done that in ages. Maybe on a Friday afternoon, and then we could join a couple of friends for a casual dinner, in nearby Kemptville, at the South Branch Bistro where they have live music in the evenings. I'll wear my new Moncler baseball jacket and my red loafers. But not with my Zara message tee and white jeans. I'll swap out the crisp white tee for the Vince sleeveless one, and change the white jeans for my dark denim high-waisted Paige jeans. And do a half-tuck with the tee. All my purses look silly with this jacket, but a knapsack, hmmm, maybe a knapsack would be good. And since I don't own a knapsack, except for the huge packs we take canoeing, I'll have to dream up a lovely red or navy one. 

woman in white jeans and tee and a baseball jacket sitting in a red deck chair
I might find a suitable  knapsack on-line. Not like I don't have the time to on-line shop. 
And since I'm only dreaming, I'll try to magic up some weather more suitable for jeans and loafers and suits. It's still very hot and humid here. But I'm thinking sunny, and 22° C, with no humidity would be perfect weather for my escape from the dooryard. 

You know, I read a sweet post on Man Repeller a few weeks ago, on what writer Haley Nahman calls "therapy clothes." Clothes that she says make her feel happy and like her best self. 

Yep. I get that, Haley. I think I've felt that way about clothes my whole life. Certain outfits have the power to make me feel like me, but more so. I slip them on, and sigh, and think,"Yes, this is the real me. The best me." 

And all my life, when I've felt diminished by events, or afraid, or down in the dumps, just thinking about those outfits makes me smile, and feel a bit better. Clothes as therapy. Or in my case dreaming of clothes as therapy. 

That's kind of weird, isn't it? How we've imbued clothes with so much power. 

Okay...  maybe not we... maybe it's just me. And Haley. 

I won't be wearing any of my therapy clothes for a while. Not until this shingles thing dissipates, and I can stand to wear them. 

Until then, I'll settle for dreaming, and wearing soft, baggy tees and pyjama bottoms that, while they don't make me feel confident, sure do feel good. 

How about you, my friends. Do you imbue clothes with as much power as I do? Any outfit dreams you'd like to share? 

Linking up this week with: Visible MondayFake It Till You Make It#IwillwearwhatIlikeTurning Heads Link-upStyle Me WednesdayThursday Favourite ThingsFabulous FridayFancy FridaySaturday Share Link-UpContinental Drift.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Funny Women

I read an article in The Atlantic a day or so ago called: Plight of the Funny Female. It's all about why men don't like funny women. And, you know, something clicked. Really? Could this be the reason for all my dating disasters in my twenties? If I'd just stopped trying to be funny would I have been more desirable to men?

woman in black turtleneck and suit jacket wearing a hard hat and a Groucho Marx disguise.
Staff party 1985. That's not my real nose, by the way. ha. 
According to psychologists, the answer to that question is "yes." In study after study, all other things being equal, men find funny women less than attractive than women who are not funny. Wow. Who knew? I always thought that, other than being smart, and kind, and hard-working, being funny is the best thing you can be. 

I come from a family where humor is deeply ingrained, and considered a most desirable trait. We laugh at everything. Quick, witty comebacks are our stock in trade. I still laugh at how my grandfather used to say my uncle, who had super curly hair, looked like he combed his hair with the egg beater. I love that line. Or the night when I was ten or eleven and at the dinner table, referring to my supposed lack of knowledge, my Mum said, "I guess it's time we had that talk about sex." And my older brother, then nineteen, quipped, "Okay, Mum. What do you want to know?"  Ha. That line is legendary in my family. Actually, I've probably told you that story before. 

And, you see, the women in my family are equally as funny as the men. My grandmother was just as funny as my grandfather. Even if her wit mostly took the form of sarcasm. She had a sharp tongue, my grandmother, but if you could survive the barbs, she was very funny. 

My mum is funny. She doesn't always mean to be funny, it just comes out that way. We laughed on the phone today when I talked to her about this post. She says she can't understand why people think she's funny. But they do. 

vintage photo of woman leaning against a tree with her arm around he neck of a boy
Mum and my uncle Allie. 1945
My step-father loved Mum's dry sense of humour. Mum and I laughed today about the time I was enlisted to cut my step-father's hair. He sat calmly in a kitchen chair, swathed in an old towel, while I tried to figure out how to wield his home barber tools. The electric trimmer, in particular. It looked like a funny electric razor, with a flat, angled head and a little comb attachment on the end. I did okay snipping the top, and shaving his neck, but using the trimmer to kind of shingle the hair up the back was tricky. I was holding it slightly away from his head, trying to carefully catch the longer strands in the comb thingie when my mum, who was working at the cupboard, said something funny, and my step-father threw back his head and laughed. Uh oh. 

The razor made contact with his scalp, and, almost with a life of its own, it zipped up the entire back of my step-dad's head, creating a two-inch wide, shaved furrow. Like a reverse mohawk. I was horrified. My step-father was sanguine. What's a little hair? He'd be wearing his cap most of the time anyway. "No problem. Just even 'er up, Snooze. That'll be fine." And when I'd evened it up, we couldn't stop laughing at his little shaved furrow. The dangers of having a funny wife, eh? 

Some of my closest girlfriends are funny, too 

That's my friend Debbie and me, below, getting our picture taken in the photo booth at Zeller's in grade eight. Deb and I have been friends since we started school. Back when we were in our twenties, and single, we shared an apartment, actually a few apartments. Debbie is hilarious. She always makes me laugh. She's way more funny than I am. When we're together I'm always the straight man. I remember back in the early eighties, when we'd hit the Ottawa bars in our high heels and best party wear, Debbie was the queen of the one-liners. The empress of the witty "piss off" comeback to an unwanted come-on from some hapless guy. Come to think of it, no wonder some men are intimidated by funny women. They're dangerous. Ha. 

two girls laughing in photo booth, seventies vintage photo
Debbie and me. Zeller's photo booth, March 1970. 
But, let's go back to Olga Khazan's article in The Atlantic. One of the studies she mentions says that, when quizzed on the qualities they would like in a long-term partner, men and women rate "having a sense of humour" equally high. But on closer investigation, "when asked to define "sense of humour" the sex difference became clear. Women want man who will tell jokes; men want women who will laugh at theirs." Why is that, do you think? 

Well, other studies have found that being funny is linked to having a higher intelligence. Statistically speaking, anyway. And according to this study, men are less attracted to women who are smarter then them, finding them "less alluring" than women who are not as smart as they are. So does that mean that men steer clear of funny women, romantically speaking, because they are afraid they are smarter than them? Or do they just fear the witty put down? 

And what about the man who actually marries a funny woman? 

I'm beginning to think Hubby, who confesses that asking women out used to scare the pants off him, must have been really brave to come and sit beside me in the staff room at Glebe Collegiate that fateful day back in 1984 when we first met. Or maybe I just looked not funny. Or maybe he had enough self-confidence, in areas other than asking women out, to appreciate a woman who tries to be funny. I don't know. 

I remember that after we'd chatted over lunch in the staff cafeteria, had coffee in the staff room a few times, I disappeared. Exams had started and there was no need for supply teachers. Hubby called me at home to say that the school clothing I'd ordered for  my nieces back home had arrived, so I went into the school to pick it up, and stayed for a coffee in the Phys. Ed office. We were chatting, and when I was telling him a funny story about something, I looked at him, sitting with his feet up on his desk, chair tilted back, laughing so hard his face was getting a bit red, and I thought it was the best sight ever. I love a man who laughs at my stories. 

We started dating a week or so later, well after Hubby knew that I thought I was funny, that I loved to tell funny stories, loved the witty comeback. Obviously he didn't think it made me "less alluring." Ha. 

I guess I get why men generally prefer unfunny women. But I'm glad I never knew that statistic back when I was single. So glad that I never tried to not be funny, never tried to mask my penchant for telling silly stories in order to appear more attractive. I can't imagine what it would have been like to be married to someone who doesn't laugh at my jokes. 

Well, I can imagine it, actually. And it makes me shudder and appreciate Hubby all the more. 

P.S. About that first photo. When I first started teaching, one man on our small staff used to organize all our get-togethers and this one took place in the big room in the basement where the furnace was. As I recall, the head custodian would not be able to attend because he was on duty, so the organizer brought the party to him. That's why we're all in hard hats... health and safety rules. Ha. As for the Groucho Marx get-up... your guess is as good as mine. I do remember the Alfred Sung suit I was wearing, though. I loved that suit.

Now... how about you folks? Any thoughts? On funny women... or men... or wearing hard hats to a party... or whatever, really.

Linking up this week with Thursday Favourite Things#fakeittillyoumakeit, Saturday Share Link-up, and Continental Drift.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

On Uniforms and the Evolution of Personal Style

I've been thinking lately of the idea of style uniforms, and how our adult style, our personal style, if you will, evolves. Of course this is because my uniform for the past week has been leggings or pyjama bottoms, and a loose, soft tee. So no style, and no brassiere. Because of a painful shingles rash, I haven't even been able to consider wearing a bra. And this reminded me of the early-seventies, when barely a year after I needed to wear a bra, I stopped wearing one. 

The irony is that I'd been so delighted when I actually needed a bra. In fact, I wore one needlessly for two years just because everyone else had one. I remember telling my mum tearfully that I simply couldn't attend my friend Mary's pyjama party in grade seven and be the only girl wearing an undershirt. Ha. 

teenage girls at a pyjama party in the sixties
Pyjama Party 1969
I remember junior high and high school as the time when I began to learn who I was becoming as a person. And I remember experimenting with clothes, using outfits as a means to demonstrate who I was, or who I wanted be be, at any rate. I remember a long, yellow, flowered peasant dress, or granny dress as we called them. A fabulous pair of faded, flared jeans that I inherited from my sister Connie. She had sewn beautiful flowered inserts into the hem. This was a clever way of fixing jeans that had become too short. And luckily for me, too small as well.  

By grade ten my girlfriends and I were pushing boundaries. We considered bras uncool. Old school. So we went braless under boys' tee shirts that we bought at K-Mart: tiny, striped polo shirts that we found in the boys department. They were perfectly "shrunken," tight, and just long enough to hit the tops of the suede belts we wore on our hipster jeans. We thought they were the end. Mine didn't last the summer, though. My mum gave it away to a young male cousin who was visiting, thinking it was one of my step-brother's shirts that had shrunk. I still remember wailing in frustration when she told me. And her incredulity: "Why on earth were you wearing a boy's tee shirt, Susie?" 

I think my clearest outfit memory is of a beloved, grey suede bomber jacket that I bought with my own money. My friend bought a brown one. We wore them with our jeans and turtlenecks, with polka dot cotton handkerchiefs, filched from my step-father's drawer, tied around our necks like scarves. My friend refused to wear her "scarf," though, after she saw an old man on the bus blowing his nose into an identical one. Ha. I think that outfit was the beginning of my lifelong love for jackets and jeans. In fact, when I won a khaki suede jacket a couple of years ago on Alyson Walsh's blog That's Not My Age, I was thrilled. Wearing it was kind of like stepping back in time. Minus the mop of hair. Ha. 

shot of teenage girl and older woman both in jeans and suede jackets
Jeans and suede jackets... 1972 and 2016
But, back to bras, or rather the absence of bras, and pushing boundaries. I can't remember if I refused to wear a bra to school that year, or not. In fact, I can't remember if there was a dress code by the time I was in high school. I certainly never heard of a student being sent home for being dressed inappropriately. But there was a strict dress code when I was in elementary school, and everyone my age in my hometown remembers its demise.

We all remember the girl whose mum sent her to school in slacks, or trousers, one frigid winter morning in 1970. This in an era, at least in New Brunswick, when girls had to wear skirts or dresses to school. The girl was sent home several times. But the mum persisted, and finally the school board relented, and we had a new policy: girls could wear pants. And a year or so later, we could even wear jeans. I still remember when I discovered that this trail-blazer was the older sister of a friend. "That was YOUR sister? I murmured, reverently. She was our hero. 

Most schools in Canada, which don't require uniforms, have dress codes of some type. A dress code being a policy which attempts to define what "cannot be worn to school" by students, as opposed to a uniform which clearly stipulates "what must be worn." Of course, dress codes are famously difficult to enforce, often engendering all kinds of protest from students and parents when a student is chastised for "dressing inappropriately." As teachers, we all groaned every spring when the issue of dress codes would rear its head with the arrival of the hot weather. Dress codes are such a dicey issue for teachers and school administrators.

As a high school teacher I remember dreading having to make the call whether a student's clothing was too revealing or not. That's a minefield, people. So many parts of dress codes are open to interpretation: too short, or too tight being relative terms. And I did NOT want to be the vice-principal who had to have "the talk" with a student about their "inappropriate" outfit.  

You see, here's what bothered me and many of my colleagues about dress codes. It's always the girls who get the talk. The contentious part of dress codes is the focus on "revealing clothing" which always targets girls. And often girls who are larger, who cannot find fashionable, well-fitting clothes as easily as smaller girls. Fast fashion stores, where most teenagers can afford to shop, do not cater to anyone who is larger than a size 10. So what is a teenager who is larger than a size 10, but who wants to look cool like her friends supposed to do? 

I had to turn the radio off in exasperation last spring when on a call-in show on the subject of dress codes, an irate parent said her daughter was being "victimized" for showing up to school in a tank top with spaghetti straps. Tops with spaghetti straps being one of the most recent articles of clothing deemed "inappropriate." She said her daughter should be able to wear the top because she "is tiny" and "looks adorable in it." But to me the subtext of her argument was that if her daughter were heavy, the criticism would be justified. I remember I shouted at the radio, "Lady, can you hear yourself?" And then I switched it off. Phew. Easy for me to remove myself from the argument now that I'm retired. 

Then there's the crop top controversy at a school in southern Ontario. One news photo had a shot of kids posing together when they showed up for school all wearing "crop tops" to protest their friend being sent home for wearing one. In response to that I will say there are crop tops and there are...well... sports bras. I remember my mum was not thrilled when I stopped wearing a bra under my tops, but I wonder what she might have said if I'd tried to leave the house in only my bra. Ha. 

One angry mum writing about the controversy wrote that if schools want to have a dress code, they should just go with school uniforms and be done with it. Well, now that's a whole other can of worms, my friends. 

And one which Todd DeMitchell, Professor of Education at the University of New Hampshire says is not as cut and dried as everyone seems to think. That despite claims that school uniforms promote inclusion, identity, and discipline, the data shows that they are not the panacea that they might appear to be. He says schools should be wary of "easy" solutions. You can read his well researched article on the subject here if you're interested.

Mark Oppenheimer, in his New Yorker article says that the longing to see happy kids clad in school uniforms is as much about nostalgia for a time that never really existed (at least in North America) as it is anything else. He admits that his daughter's wearing a uniform to school has simplified school mornings in his house, but he cautions that we need to be careful about what we're implicitly teaching kids when we require that they wear uniforms. And we should be mindful of, as he puts it, "the liberties we're surrendering." 

And here's my point. I think it's good for kids to have the freedom to push boundaries. Go braless. Or try to get away with wearing their bra to school. How do kids learn to navigate the complex adult world if they don't get a taste of that complexity in school? How do they learn to make their own decisions if adults make all the decisions for them, even down to their clothing choices? As much as I groaned as a teacher when the short shorts and tank tops appeared with the May sunshine, I also remember my own fifteen year old rebellion. 

I remember all my terrible outfit choices, the long, long flared jeans with the ripped up hems, the cropped sweaters my mum hated, the dreadful platform shoes. But I also remember navigating style choices and beginning to decide what worked for me and what didn't. I remember developing a personal style, some parts of which have evolved into my own style uniform, and which remain unchanged, even today. Even at age 62. 

And if I'd been fifteen during that crop top controversy at that school in southern Ontario, I'd have been right there with my friends proudly wearing my crop top, irate at the adults for daring to limit our freedom of expression. The drama of youth, eh? 

At least I'd have worn my crop top, or sports bra, until I had to catch my bus. Then I'd be pulling on something more suitable before I got home.  And if I were sent home for what I was wearing, I'm certain that my mum would NOT have been calling on-line radio shows to say I was being victimized for breaking the rules. 

I might have pushed some boundaries when I was fifteen, but I always toed the line at home. Okay... maybe not always... but I WAS always happier if my mum never found out. 

eight shots of woman in jeans and jackets
The evolution of personal style: variations on a theme. 

 P.S. I just wanted to add that it wasn't my intention to open up debate about whether school uniforms are a good idea or not. I'm not against them. I never attended a school myself, nor did I teach at a school, where the students wore uniforms. But according to everything I read in putting together this post, the data doesn't support what we think we all know about school uniforms. I thought that was interesting. 

Now, let's hear from you, my friends. Whether you wore a uniform to school, or didn't... how do you think your personal style evolved? 

Linking up this week with: Visible MondayFake It Till You Make It#IwillwearwhatIlikeTurning Heads Link-upStyle Me WednesdayThursday Favourite ThingsFabulous FridayFancy FridaySaturday Share Link-Up, Continental Drift.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

When Plans Get Derailed

Let's talk about derailments for a moment, shall we? I have a story to tell. There may be profanity. So be warned.

a lake in Algonquin Park at dusk
Achray Campground in Algonquin Park.     Photo courtesy of Turnipseed Travel