I’ve been thinking about clothes lately, and was prompted the other day to search for a particular photograph. I found it, eventually (more on that in another post), but in the course of that search stumbled on two of the photos below, which I thought had been lost forever.
In 1994 Kelley and I were living in Atlanta. We got invited (long story) to the kind of party where we would usually be shunned: a gathering of the moneyed Southern political élite, at what used to be the Governor’s Mansion, now belonging to a man who owned a bunch o’ TV and radio stations. Every year, apparently, he threw a party for sixty or seventy people to fulfill all his social obligations. Everyone who was anyone in Georgia politics and media would be there. I thought it sounded like a great and exciting game: a right old Yorkshire dyke mixing with Southern snobs and pretending to be a Real Writer.
So we accepted the invitation, and went into high gear, approaching it as theatre: costume, hair, jewellery, makeup. ( I’ve always liked playing dress-up. I’m just not that fond of taking it seriously.)
The clothes were easy; it was Atlanta, after all. I found a crepey-drapey swishy champagne-coloured suit, complete with fancy embroidery on the waistcoat. (When they’re made for girls are they still called ‘waistcoats’?) I dug out some antique jewellery–that’s 1930s jet around my neck. I don’t remember the shoes. Or (shudder) the makeup. Actually, judging by the photo, I think I chickened out on that at the last minute. It was the hair that stumped me. For this kind of game, only a big pouffy southern updo would do.
I’d started growing my hair the previous autumn, after K and I got married. (‘Why I Grew My Hair’ is a long story. Perhaps I’ll tell it one day.) Here’s what it looked like by late spring of ’94:
That’s our friend John Beeman to my left. (He lives just north of Seattle, now. We like to keep our friends close.)
Anyway, as you can see, there wasn’t a lot of hair. There was a bit more by autumn, but not nearly enough for someone inexperienced in the ways of girliness to find a way to make it go up and stay up. Way beyond my competence. So I went to a salon. They knew me there (“No. 2 cut? Yes, ma’am!”) and understood that this was make-believe, a giant game, and entered into it with gusto.
The final ‘do was used about 50 steel pins and so much hairspray that I think you could have swung me like a battering ram at the wall and not a hair would have fallen out of place.
So, the party was…southern. Every guest at the party was white. Every valet and server was black. Lots of political cronyism. (The Secretary of State was there, and a couple of other people you might recognise.) We ate goose (until it ran out) and drank wine (until I couldn’t stand it anymore–nasty stuff–and persuaded one of the servers to raid the Big Guy’s personal stash of beer) and and scandalised everyone present by waltzing together (“They weren’t even ashamed!”), and then left.
It took about an hour in the shower to dissolve the gunk in my hair and fish all the pins out. And to feel clean.
Here’s what Kelley looked like:
It was a velvet dress. An absolutely staggering beautiful colour on her. But we both felt so weirded out by the evening that neither of us could bear to wear the clothes again. We gave them to Goodwill. But if I ever find a dress that colour, I’m going to buy it for Kelley. Because: staggeringly beautiful. (And velvet feels delicious.)
What interests me about this whole affair is twofold. One, how costume can influence a person’s stance, presentation and behaviour. Look at me: my face looks Southern, even my teeth seem different. Strange. And even though the Big Hair photo was taken only a few months after the Little Hair photo, I think I look a decade older and heavier–physically and emotionally–than I do in the restaurant. Two, I’m struck by how emotionally off-balance I must have been at that stage in my life to think that it would be fun to spend an evening pretending to be someone I’m not in the company of people I don’t care for. It’s something an adolescent would do–something young adults do all the time, in fact, on the way to figuring out who they really are.
But that’s a whole other story. Let’s just say for now that that party taught me a real lesson, with no more damage than an hour in the shower. And, y’know, embarrassing photos…