What (not) to wear

March 27,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've been invited, for the first time ever, to a trustees dinner at the college where I work, and I don't have a thing to wear. I raided my closet yesterday afternoon in the hopes of discovering some long-forgotten chic pantsuit I never in fact ever owned, but all I came up with was one pair of black slacks and a stretchy top I think I bought 6 years ago for a wedding rehearsal dinner. Later that afternoon I went into work for a meeting and consulted my colleague/friend, who has been to such dinners before, about what I should wear.

"How about a nice pantsuit?" When I told her I didn't own any pantsuits, she looked alarmed.

"You could wear a cocktail dress," she said, after she had digested the news about the pantsuit. I told her I wasn't a cocktail dress person, either. I never went to any cocktail parties before having kids, and I certainly haven't been to any since. What IS a cocktail dress, anyway?

"How about a silk top and a colorful scarf?" She suggested, in a last-ditch effort to come up with something for me to wear.

But, alas, I think the last time I owned a colorful scarf I was in high school. I just don't accessorize well anymore, I really don't. I don't know what's happened to me. There was a time when I wore matching earrings and necklaces, and I shopped a lot. I still like to dress nicely, but I prefer to wear pants from The Gap or Old Navy to work, with a simple cotton top. I like to put my hands into my pockets when I teach, and I like comfortable shirts--untucked. I never feel myself in skirts, and I almost never wear dresses, unless we're deep into the summer months. For years after T. was born I drifted (and am still drifting, apparently) around in that nebulous post-pregnancy/post-childbirth weight zone where I held off buying any really nice new clothes because I was always trying to lose that pesky baby weight. Now though, four years after T.'s birth, I have lost all of the weight, and two more pounds to boot, but I still haven't reclaimed that part of myself I shelved away with my first pregnancy.

The August I turned 30, only a month and a half before I bought two pregnancy tests from our local Eckerd's and found out I was carrying L., Scott surprised me with a spiffy black shoulder bag filled with several equally spiffy and funky outfits from my favorite stores. It was one of the best presents I've ever gotten, I think--not so much for the clothes, but because Scott had gotten everything right: the sizes, the colors, the styles--I loved it all. We'd been trying to get pregnant and month after month nothing had happened, but still I'd held off buying clothes for myself because I was certain that the next month would be IT--that we were certain to find those double lines on that pregnancy test. When I opened up my gifts from Scott that day, I was thrilled, but a little piece of me was sad, too; I would have traded any of those outfits in a heartbeat for a pair of maternity pants--I really would have. As luck would have it, I wore those clothes for only a few months before I did end up pregnant, and way before my tummy even pooched out (isn't it funny how you long to wear maternity clothes when you're in the early stages of pregnancy, yet by the eighth month you're so ready to burn them all?), I stored away my "regular" new clothes and bought my first set of maternity pants.

Maybe I've spent too long in sensible clothes, all these years. I never was a flashy dresser--I think I'm too self-conscious for that, but I used to like color. As I surveyed my closet yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me that too many of my clothes look the same. I own, for instance, four pairs of pants in varying shades of khaki or brown, one pair of gray pants, and two pairs of black pants, and I have FIVE nice black shirts--three short-sleeved, and two long-sleeved. Here and there in my closet is a splash of color--an impulse purchase--that blue long-sleeved blouse, for instance, that I do love, but always, always pair with the same khaki pants. I wondered yesterday where along this seven-year journey through parenthood had I wandered off the road of style and color and onto the path of sensible, predictable, earth-toned clothes?

My colleague/friend could tell I was bothered by this wardrobe business. She's a mom, too, with two kids slightly older than mine. We share an office, and keep each other sane. She does, though, own several pantsuits, and even a black cocktail dress.

"You know," she told me yesterday. "You should really treat yourself to something new for this dinner--even if it's just a scarf."

And although I shrugged away her advice at first, I thought about it on the drive home from work yesterday. Maybe I do deserve something new! Maybe, with the warm weather upon us, I'll spring for something really colorful, take it home, and see if my kids will still recognize me--the me who at long last climbed out from under those sensible earth tones--if only for one night.

Wish me luck.