Sunday, November 16, 2014

For and In Behalf Of: A New Skin (Part 1)

This is a continuation of the performance piece I have written. I invite you to read Scene 1: In the Beginning... and Scene 2: The Fall if you have not yet done so.

III. A New Skin

[With lights out, projection reads: “III. A New Skin”. Lights rise on female figure]

D: I don’t care what anyone says: Clothes make the man. Naked people often have little to no influence in society.

[Projection reads: “I don’t care what anyone says: Clothes make the man. Naked people often have little to no influence in society.”  – Mark Twain, 1905]

D: Mark Twain, 1905

[Light fades on D. D exits and Allan re-enters. Lights up on Allan]

Allan: Two years ago, my best friend invited me to participate in his wedding. Brett and I had lived together when I was at BYU. In the summer of 2012, I had just finished my first year of my PhD—a harrowing experience for anyone. I was looking forward to getting away to clear my head and think about where I would be headed the next few years.

Once, while Brett and I were jogging we talked about clothes. We needed to find suits for his wedding. I reflected on my own wardrobe and upon asking his opinion, Brett observed that I did not necessarily dress poorly—things … matched—but I didn’t exactly wear things that either flattered me or stood out. At that point, I realized I had not purchased any new clothes in four years. It had been a full presidential term.

Some people can hear that and think, “yeah, and?” Trust me, I know. I was that person. But for people from an upper middle class background that do something as bougsie as study theatre history, it is downright anathema. I had my reasons for not shopping. Thanks to my fiscally conservative Mormon upbringing, I know not to spend more money than I have. Frugality is next to godliness. Second, I knew nothing about fashion. This bred insecurity about making any wardrobe choices. And finally, I’m colorblind. I didn’t feel comfortable making any choices; and because I was frugal I was convinced any choice I did make was going to be a faux pas and a financial disaster. It was best just to leave it all alone and to go on wearing, what my former mentor at BYU referred to as the “same goddamn orange sweatshirt every day.”

However, wedding party responsibilities called. I needed to set aside my reticence and go shopping. A few days later, I went to a department store, Dillards, with my roommate and his fiancé, Chelsea. We were there to look for Brett’s new suit. I was along in a merely auxiliary capacity; but you know, why not peruse some options. So I looked at the suits. My selection was going to be limited to a grey palate since orange and grey were the wedding colors. But there were a surprising number of grey suits available. And while I was looking around I noticed they some had vests. You know, I had always kinda wanted a vest, but I was sure they were expensive. And we kept looking around and, well, there were just so many ties. And the fluorescent bulbs accented how each one seemed to pop in its own particular way. We were inside but there was just this intense brightness reflecting off the sea of neckwear. And then we got to the white button up shirts. And as I am looking at these shirts I am noticing that some have arms for cuff links, and some just have buttons on the sleeves. And then I can see that some of the shirts have lines that are part of the design; and some don’t have any lines. And when it comes to the necks of the shirts, some are normal, but then there are others with very narrow necks for skinny ties and some are very wide for larger ties—at least I think you wear a larger knot tie with a wide neck shirt. Maybe? Or do you do the opposite to accent each? Also I’m not sure how all of this works. I mean I’m standing in the department store, holding a suit, with a vest, and a tie and a few shirts in plastic bags and I don’t know if I’m allowed to take the shirts out of the bags. What if they have pins in them? Am I allowed to take the pins out to try on the shirt? I don’t know the rules of the department store. What are the rules? If I pull the goddamn fucking pins out of the shirt does that mean I have to buy it and spend money I don’t feel like I have? By the time I get to the dressing room, I realize that I have stopped breathing. For the first time in my life, I am having a panic attack.

And I know, even in that moment, how ridiculous this all is. I am freaking out and having trouble breathing because there are too many options. And as I sit in the dressing room, in my underwear, with my head between my knees, I fight the urge to cry. Unsuccessfully. I suppose we all have our first world crosses to bear. After a while Brett and Chelsea investigated why I had not emerged from the dressing room yet. Through tears, hyperventilated breaths, and snot I tried to explain to them where I’m at. Chelsea’s response: “Let’s start with something easier.” We left Dillards and found me my first pair of boat shoes and other casual apparel—Allan selected, Chelsea and Brett approved.

Over the rest of the summer, Brett introduced me to other stores: American Eagle, Eddy Baurer, Macy’s. But one store, above all others, stood out to me. The Banana Republic. I had heard of this store before. Jack from Will & Grace worked there and Brett had some sweaters. Though it seemed a bit pricy, still the siren began to sing. After returning to the DC area, I happened upon the local Banana Republic—13th and F NW—and spent the better part of two hours deciding whether or not to get a $75 sweater marked down to $20. When I came home, my roommate informed me that my cerulean purchase was indeed an excellent color and a good purchase. I did it. By myself. I was ok.

Then I went home for Christmas. And one fateful day, I traveled to the Banana outlet store in St. Augustine. I decided then and there to sign up for the Banana Republic credit card. And lo, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Sweaters, chinos, a plethora of gingham quickly followed. I believe it took me about four weeks before I spent enough for my member status to be upgraded. You know, retrospectively, I might have come out of the closet at that time because there just wasn’t any room in there for both me and my wardrobe. Because here’s the thing about being a person that doesn’t spend money on clothes for four years because they don’t want to risk wasting the money—they have a way of saving that money; at least, I did. So I had four years-worth of savings I could use to go on what I like to call my roaring rampage of sartorial self-discovery. By about March of 2013 I was not merely a citizen of the Banana Republic; I was the representative from its sixth congressional district. Quite a journey from the panic attack.

When I think about this new skin, sometimes I think about my maternal grandmother. Of any of my relatives she had the most elegant and cultivated sense of fashion. I like to think she would have enjoyed seeing my selections. She’s the one that taught me how to fold a suit so it doesn’t get wrinkles in a suitcase. If I had to pick one word to describe her, I feel I would be hard pressed to choose between “classy” and “resourceful.”

She was a beautiful woman. Not only did she go to modeling school, but she actually worked as a model. Recently, my mother told me that my grandmother organized fashion shows at church during the 1970s. Mother/Daughter affairs designed to instill modesty. But my grandmother did not just model or construct the clothes. No, my grandmother used her carpentry tools to build the elevated modeling platform that the mothers and daughters walked on. She went to modeling school after playing on her high school basketball team. As handy with a rifle as she was a needle and thread.

[Enter D]

Allan: The kind of person at the end of her life you are convinced can pretty much do anything. I imagine her resourcefulness and talents were born out of necessity. That letter I mentioned and quoted from earlier—in in it she talks about some of her early hardships.

D: I was born in Farmer, North Carolina to a successful farmer. My Mom and older sisters have told me about that life. The house had 13 rooms, with a huge walk-in fireplace in every room, even in the kitchen. Mom was most proud of the porch that circled the entire house. I was number 11 of 13 children and a couple months old when a fire stated during the night. The smoke woke Mom. Everyone got out safely, running out onto the ice-covered ground in their night clothes.

The house burned to the ground. It was 1936. There were no fire-stations out in the country, everything was lost. They turned the livestock loose and never got them back: horses, cattle, pigs, chicken, geese. A farmer heard of this tragedy and came about 30 miles and took the whole family to live in one of his tenant houses (three rooms). Later some cousins gave my Mom some pictures they had of our family. She treasured these.

Allan: My maternal grandmother was a woman that treasured life. Lived it fully. And gave so much. While always appreciating the scarcity of things. Perhaps she converted so readily to Mormonism because self-sufficiency came naturally to her. That was one of Brigham Young’s primary teachings as he led Mormonism into one of the most compelling social experiments in communitarian living. For a time in Utah, the Latter-day Saints lived under the United Order, a radically communitarian attempt to ensure that the saints had all things in common among them and that no one suffered the trials of poverty. Young felt capitalism fostered the type of individualism and selfish isolationism that I often hear my academic colleagues critique when they discuss the impact of neoliberalism and Reaganomics in the 20th and 21st century. Of particular disdain to Young were large Gentile department stores that moved into the Utah Territory at the end of the nineteenth century. He would have hated my conversion to the Banana Republic. Young argued that Mormons needed to be self-sufficient, construct their own clothes, and do all things that would serve the collective interests of the group. Selflessness. My grandmother excelled at that. She provided a lot of service to the Church throughout her life. She was often in leadership positions of the woman’s organization, the Relief Society, at local and regional levels, where her talents shined. Ever classy. Ever resourceful. It’s what makes the way my mother and her sisters decided to honor their mother’s memory incredible.

[B enters with the Grandmother Crews pillow. B hands pillow to Allan. B exits]

Allan: A few months after my grandmother died, I received this pillow in a package from my mother. She explained that it was made from the clothing that my grandmother wore. When I look at it, I can remember seeing her in some of these shirts in the pattern. The back is made from the soft velvet pajama pants she always wore. The stuffing inside includes some other scraps of clothes that my sister, my mom, and her sisters could not fit into the external patterns. I think my favorite touch, are these accented pieces. These are from a shirt that my grandfather wore. After he died, my grandmother started to wear it. I can remember her giving me haircuts in her kitchen while wearing this shirt. Sometimes she would wipe her scissors against it to get pieces of my wet hair off the blades.

This isn’t part of some traditional Mormon mourning process. There’s not a ton of Mormon pillows decorating beds or couches in Utah and Idaho. It’s just something my family did. That said, it is completely something Mormons would think of doing. Humans make clothes, but in more ways than we imagine they make us. They are a material thing that connect us. They are as mundane and as holy as anything else in life. 

Click here for Part 2 for Scene III.