There I was, stepping into the gala for the graduating seminarians. The seminarians wore black shirts with white clerical collars. I wore a minidress from Billy Bob’s Chinese Laundry in New Orleans. It was leopard-printed. And flocked.
I can’t help it.
I have an Inappropriate Dress Gene.
My mistakes are not fashion faux pas. I know exactly how one ought to dress. I was raised by a grandmother who traced her lineage to the banks of Deer Creek in the town of Leland in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. My Bigmama taught me the black dress you wore to a cocktail party Friday night is not the same black dress you don for the funeral Saturday morning. I fully understand the seriousness of dressing appropriately. I just tend to miscalculate.
My years practicing law in Jackson, Mississippi were, for the most part, benign—the social pressure squeezing a female lawyer into dressing compliance in the 1980s was fierce. So when I married and moved to Memphis, my dressing kind of spurted free like a spasming tube of toothpaste. At the same time, the sartorial stakes skyrocketed. My then-new husband owns a shopping center wherein is located the swankiest women’s clothing store east of the Mississippi River. One evening we attended a dinner party hosted by the store owners. Determined to put my best fashion foot forward, I arrived at her dinner party wearing a black lace see-through shirt and black bra with a fringed scarf strategically draped across the front. I thought I was so sophisticated. The woman cocked her head at me. “Look at you,” she said, smiling. “Memphis doesn’t dress like that.”
I took it as a compliment.
Not so the Cotton Carnival partygoers. When I attended their Mardi Gras party wearing a tiger-printed catsuit, no one would make eye contact. Or maybe it was the wig with its multi-colored, clacking beads. I was Cleopatra—Memphis, capitol of ancient Egypt, get it? No one else got it, either, not one of those sedately-dressed women in long black dresses who considered a feathered mask on a slender stick a costume. Only Preston Shannon, the famous Beale Street singer, appreciated the look.
I am perfectly familiar with the Backwards Compliment (“Only you could get away with those Python pants”). The Veiled Suggestion (“Now, I would’ve worn that red dress to a Christmas party.”) Not to mention my favorite: the Exaggeration. A friend once reported I’d been seen wearing black leather hot pants to a party. Sure, I had on black leather skirt with a fringed vest. But black leather hot pants? Who even knows what hot pants are these days?
Southerners as a group are not tolerant of those who dress inappropriately. If you think they are, you’ve never worn a floor-length silky beige dress to the Orpheum Theatre only to have a woman standing outside ask, “Is that your nightgown?” In fact, Southerners go to extraordinary lengths to ensure every person at a party is wearing the exact same thing. If you go off-script, women will glance at their pink-flowered Lilly Pulitzer dresses then deliberately rake their gaze across your silky pink halter top and thread-bare jeans. “Rock-star chic” is not a Southern term.
Of course, I could forestall such comments by aiming for the median. Instead, I stand in my closet, hands lifted, and feel the call. If it’s the orange curve-enhancing dress that makes me look like a shrunken version of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, so be it. Only when I find myself in a roomful of knee-brushing Sunday school dresses, do I think, hmmmm.
And don’t get me started on parties with a theme. The invitation arrives in the mail. I rip it open. “La Moulin Rouge,” it proclaims, a gay Paris scene splashed across the front. Excitement wells, common sense jumps out the window. Surely I should foresee the slim cocktail dresses with pink boas draped around the neck as garnishment. Instead, I deck myself out as a Toulaouse Lautrec painting—chunky boots, ripped petticoat, peek-a-boo bra. The women at the party flip their boas at me. At home, I kneel in my flouncy skirt and pray: “Lead us not into costumed temptation, deliver us from social evils.”
I don’t want to leave the impression everyone judges my dressing a sin. I have those who encourage me in my choices…. you could call them accessories after the dressing fact. From them I get free clothes. I’ve been given a pair of black and white snakeskin boots, a 1920s antique silk blouse, a great-aunt’s mink-collared sweater, and a $25 mermaid-tailed chartreuse gown. Of course, these treasures came to me because the owners won’t wear them.
Now that I’ve worn out my sartorial welcome in Memphis, I’ve taken on New Orleans. For the most part, New Orleans is extremely tolerant of odd dress. But we’ve rented an apartment in the Bywater. It’s a chic apartment. Everyone going to and from wears black. The apartment’s tag line is: ”You Are Beautiful.” I fear the lease has a clause (written in invisible ink) allowing the management to kick you out of your loft if you don’t comply. When management signs off emails with, “Stay Beautiful,” I read it as a threat.
Oh, and the seminarian’s fundraiser with me in the leopard dress? I listened when I asked my husband what type of party it was, and he said, “I don’t know. Just some type of fundraiser.” I now request copies of every invitation we receive. If I’m going to misstep, it’s gonna be all on my own.
If you enjoyed this essay, take a look at MODEL FOR DECEPTION: A VANGIE STREET MYSTERY. This fun Southern mystery features a fashion model as an amateur sleuth. You’ll love the clothing talk!
A pink VW bug passed. Pink cars everywhere. In the harbor, in my nightmares. The image of Delia pedaling her pink Barbie car round and round our Longmont hedges popped up, and I shut my eyes, corralling my thoughts before they ran away from me. My mind—and eyes—not where they should have been, the toe of my shoe caught, and I tripped. Caught at a branch wrapped with vines. Thorny vines. I snatched my hand away, but a string of thorns the size of brad heads tattooed my skin. I yanked them out one by one, sucking droplets of blood. “Coot, you damn fool.” I gripped my palm as I waited for the throbbing hurt to lessen before I started again—damn Lithium made me clumsy as a drunk. It was a terrible drug. ‘Cept it kept me sane.
(an excerpt I wrote today in my ongoing revision of HARBORING EVIL, a Coot Long mystery)
When I was young, I was hoping for something, I don’t remember what. But it involved a letter arriving in the mail. I was slumping around, despondent, certain the news would be bad. My mother said, “Look at you, you haven’t even read the letter yet!” Then she added something that has stuck with me ever since: “You aren’t even leaving room for the news to be good.”
I thought of this today when I went down by the Mississippi River to gather driftwood for a workshop I’ll be doing in a couple of weeks. My church in Bay St. Louis is hosting a cross-making workshop based on my book Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God. Folks can bring their own cross-making material, but I said I’d bring stuff too. Driftwood is my FAVORITE cross-making material, and one thing I learned during the years I was making crosses: rivers have tons more driftwood than beaches.
When I arrived at the river, I realized it was high. I thought, oh, no! There won’t be any driftwood—the entire shoreline was gone.
As I neared, however, I saw how wrong I’d been. The river had actually been higher. It had crested and retreated. As the water ebbed, waves of driftwood had been left behind. And the city hadn’t arrived yet to scoop up the “debris” into piles. It was the perfect time to collect wood.
I made a real haul.
So that was the universe being forgiving. It had readied an awesome gift for me. I had assumed disappointment. Yet, the gift wasn’t withdrawn. I didn’t follow my mother’s advice and leave room for it to be good, but the universe slid in there anyway.
I have a history of unhealthy, deranged harassment of the dogs in my bed (we’re talking canine dogs, not human ones).
For little Providence—sweet, gentle, patient Yorkie Providence—it was the Middle of the Night Companion Call.
Everyone in the bed would be sleeping. Snore, snore, snore. Except me. My eyeballs shone in the dark. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Bored and alone, I watched Providence’s tummy rise and fall for a minute. Then, “Providence, Providence,” I whispered. “Are you asleep?” If she didn’t respond, I gently shook her. “Are you asleep?” She opened her lids and rolled one eye towards me, staring and asking, are you really waking me up to ask me if I’m asleep?
For Evangeline, it’s the Butt Push, the Bed Patting, and the Knee Curl.
I no longer lie awake at night trying to determine if the dark behind my eyelids is darker than the room dark when I open my eyelids (blink, open, blink). So my life has improved. But I still harass the dog.
Evangeline needs harassing. Evangeline is a very selfish bed sleeper. Sometimes she sleeps between us. As soon as you get used to that, she escapes and tunnels under the bed to sleep. If it’s thundering or the train’s passing or some microscopic noise even an ant can’t hear is infiltrating the universe, she sleeps on my head.
I don’t feel as badly about harassing Evangeline as I did Providence.
So if she isn’t sleeping exactly where I want, I scoot her around by a (gentle) shove to the butt. If she is at the foot of the bed, and I want her to come sleep by me, I pat the bed incessantly. “Evangeline.” Pat, pat, pat. “Evangeline.” Pat, pat, pat. “Evangeline.” If she is EXACTLY where I want her to be, I curl my knee around her so she can’t escape.
Don’t report me to the ASPCA.
Lenten beauty is like manna. It can’t be hoarded, or it will rot. The point is to take a moment each day, think of God, and add some beauty to the world. So, today, you get 4 lenten beauties, because they all came from one trip to the grocery store.
I did not create the tree, but I did create the moment of beauty sitting beneath it.
I have been a fashion maverick ever since my three-year-old self tugged on her ruffled panties, backwards.
“Your panties are on backwards,” my mother said, pointing at my britches as I examined the cascading layers of beautiful white ruffles. “The ruffles go in the back.”
“I can’t see them in the back,” I responded and marched confidently into the fashion world, ruffles forward.
Not everyone appreciates my unique sartorial presentation. Some do. Like the man who walked up after church to tell me that he’d noticed me earlier. “I don’t know what it is,” he mused, “but you stand out.”
It was the gloves. And the vintage clutch clasped demurely in my hand. And the fire-engine red, needle-toed, patent leather pumps.
“Costuming,” a friend once called it. “You come close to costuming.”
She’s right. I like a theme when I dress, even if others don’t immediately recognize the tune I’m playing. My dressing remains, as it was with the ruffles forward, purely for my own entertainment.
What I don’t do is dress according to someone else’s theory of correctness. I’m referring to the standards that leave you with all that stuff in your closet that you never wear but bought because someone said, “Well, with your shape, you should wear bright colors on top and dark colors on bottom, not the other way around.” As a result, unloved clothes hang dispirited in the closet, and every morning as you swipe dark skirts and billowy tunics down the rod you wonder why is it that you never seem to have anything to wear.
My dressing standards are simple: I buy what I love.
I admit that my way of shopping does not necessarily lead me to dress in what is currently accepted in my world as “good taste.”
“You’re not from Memphis, are you?” That’s what people ask when they’re trying to say basically, you wouldn’t dress like that if you knew better.
Some are more direct, like the waitress at a restaurant where I eat lunch. “You wear the oddest, most interesting clothes,” she said. Then added, “That skirt looks like something I’d wear.”
Of course it does. She always wears the cutest things.
I must admit: it makes me happy when someone likes what I have on. “I love the way you dress,” my conservative-dressing friend says, even though she’s quick to add that she’d never do it herself. I am her dressing alter ego—she looks, she enjoys, she moves on. I am inordinately pleased when someone much younger than I am compliments my dress.
So, as I roll through life, I will continue to wear my rings and bracelets with their emblems facing me. I will be the only one in church sporting a flowery hat. I will forever be the one who zips on a floor-length skirt, then tugs a short skinny dress over the skirt and voila! an outfit that people say, “That dress is beautiful,” never knowing it is something I cobbled together that very morning. As long as I am able, I will continue to wear clothes the way I want to wear them, which is not always the way they were intended to be worn.
Ruffles in the back?
Let’s wear them in the front, see how it goes.
If you enjoyed this essay, take a look at MODEL FOR DECEPTION. This Southern mystery features a fashion model as an amateur sleuth. It’s a fun, fashion-forward, rollicky good read. Hope you enjoy it!
This is what it looks like before it’s a book.
These are pages of the novel THE HART WOMEN being folded into signatures with a bone folder. If you squint, you can tell the pages aren’t consecutive. That’s because they will be sewn together. At that point, the pages will become consecutive.
Who’s doing this sewing? Marisa Whitsett Baker. She’s the amazing artist who is producing these one-of-a-kind special edition novels.
I wrote the story of an old house, a decision to be made, and the women in a wealthy but tangled family.
Together, Marisa and I are making a book. The book is presented as the journal an elderly woman wrote as she wandered from room to room in her former home trying to understand how the once-beautiful house came to ruin.
Here’s the summary:
The house at 1011 St. Lawrence Street once rang with joy. Now, the porch sags, the window panes run with cracks. In one generation, the home that nurtured the wealthy Mississippi Hart family sits abandoned. Did tragedy undo the family, or did the family create its own misfortune? The story begins in 1968 Fairview, Mississippi, when Poppa Sam Hart dies….
Told through the eyes of favorite grandchild Emily Hart Fielding, The Hart Women explores the corrupting influences that entangle the human heart. Emily’s discovery of the forgiveness she seeks will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.
Each novel will be different. Here’s a glimpse of my personal copy that Marisa made from old (typo-ridden) drafts of the story.
We will be offering the novels for sale, one by one. You may want one to hold the beautiful journal in your hand. You may want one to lovingly follow Emily Hart Fielding’s story. You may want a collector’s item. But you’re going to want one, I just know it.
You may have noticed that the recent Lenten Beauties are the continuation of one cross. I am at a location with few creative materials. I view it as a work in process, as so much beauty is.
A cross made from leftover candy wrappers #turnyourchocolatehabitintoart
I loved being at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library this morning for the library’s Books and Beyond Book Club. I was pleased they had me, and they were warm and gracious. I had a prepared a talk, but they had questions right out of the gate. We wound up talking for an hour and a half. It was wide-ranging. The ostensible topic was my debut novel,TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. But we talked about everything.
How the grief over the tragedy of 9/11 led me to making crosses and eventually to write Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God.
How a recommendation from a fellow student in a Memphis School of Servant Leadership class led me to start a writing group at the Door of Hope and edit the group’s memoir, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.
How Cain’t Do Nothing with Love has been downloaded over 55,000 times worldwide (are those folks in Iran and Poland going around saying ‘y’all’?).
How my fashion model experience led me to write and release my second novel, Model for Deception, a Vangie Street mystery featuring a Memphis fashion model as an amateur sleuth.
And, of course, TRACKING HAPPINESS, the reason I’d been invited.
They seemed to have a good time. I had a good time. We had a lot of back and forth. Talking writing is fun. 🙂