Choosing your outfit for an airplane trip in the mid-1960s was a serious affair. Dresses for women, jackets and ties for men. Party clothes for girls and boys. So when I was in the seventh grade and my family was taking the relatively new Northeast Airlines shuttle between Boston’s Logan Airport and New York’s LaGuardia, I thought it would be fitting to wear my new go-go boots. What could be more fashionable? They weren’t authentic go-go boots. My mother would never have allowed anything that impractical. So instead of leather with a heel that made a crisp clip when I walked, mine were made of some rubbery material that made a thud upon contact with the ground, and trapped dirt in its grain.
My mother forbade me to wear the boots on the plane. I was to wear proper shoes. I was a good girl, and did what my mother said. I traded my faux go-go boots for equally faux penny loafers, having finally graduated from the more orthopedically sound saddle shoes I had been required to wear until the year before. I did rebel on paper, though, composing my first personal essay in which I said all the things I was too reticent to say out loud, like, What did the plane care which soles touched its floor? What was it going to do? Crash?
I wasn’t much of a rebel while my mother was alive. Sure, I rolled my skirt to make it shorter once I left the house to go to school (and rolled it back down whenever a teacher became suspicious that its length violated the dress code). I played hooky once, urged on by a friend. I moved on from go-go boots to a dungaree jacket with a pack of Kools in the pocket so I could look the part of someone with at least revolutionary potential.
But I was afraid to lash out at my mother. She had gone through a major depression several years earlier, and while she had crawled out of her abyss and was no longer fragile, I still believed my job was to make her happy. I kept the jacket and the cigarettes hidden.
In college, I adopted the costume of the ’70s. Worn jeans, Indian print shirts, anything with fringes, waist-length hair. I had also lost 20 pounds, the result of my own depression. I was the perfect candidate for a uniform that required little fuss and upkeep, since about all I accomplished some days was getting to one class. A shower, doing the laundry, and cleaning my room were optional.
After college, I worked for a not-for-profit. I didn’t have to wear the suits and stockings, heels and pearls of the corporate world. But my job brought me face-to-face with board members and donors, so I couldn’t just throw on yesterday’s T shirt and the least frayed pair of jeans. Upping my fashion sense had a surprising effect. It elevated my mood. It wasn’t a replacement for therapy, but helped convince me I was worth taking care of.
I was hardly a fashionista (although I did develop a weakness for shoes). I dressed mostly to impress myself. And there was no time when I needed to impress myself more than when my daughter — 8 years old at the time — entered cancer treatment.
“Dress comfortably for long days in the hospital,” the nurse practitioner advised. “Soon you’ll be like the other mothers wearing sweatpants or anything with an elastic waist.”
Seeing me in the types of clothes I reserved for sleeping or convalescing after a cold or migraine would hardly inspire Nadia’s confidence in me. If I were to be a warrior for her, I would have to dress like one. This mostly meant clean jeans or leggings with a freshly pressed blouse or sweater. I wore leather boots that clipped when I walked, or a pair of Converse sneakers from my collection, because they were colorful and made me feel cool. My hair was washed and blown dry. I was never without earrings. What I wore was always a carefully crafted talisman against whatever evil might threaten Nadia.
I apply the same strategy when I go for a mammogram or other doctor’s appointment. Also when I fly. In the midst of depression and anxiety, I didn’t get on an airplane for five years. On my graduation flight from a “Freedom From Fear of Flying” course, dressing well boosted my confidence, differentiated me from who I was when home alone. I continued to take extra care with my clothes when traveling. It enabled me to play the part of a self-assured woman well enough that flying became possible again. I probably don’t need that strategy anymore, but I’m not about to tamper with what works.
I have no office to go to now. My children and friends don’t need me to impress them with the clothes I wear. We recently moved, and the one item none of my kids wanted me to throw out was a torn 101 Dalmatians sweatshirt bought at Disney World over 20 years ago. I dress just well enough not to be embarrassed should someone see me walking the dogs in the morning.
I don’t care what other people wear, although sweatpants and cargo shorts don’t make for the best people watching when waiting for a plane. It might be argued that dressing as if you are doing nothing more special than taking the local bus makes people less polite, less inclined to appreciate the magic of flying, and the people and technology that make it possible. But I’ve seen enough well-dressed people behaving rudely to know clothes don’t make the person. Nor do they make a rebel. For that, I have my writing.