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Essay: The Fashionista

Sebastian Dooris/Flickr

Over a lifetime, Lake Effect essayist Cari Taylor-Carlson has weathered many changes. 

But she says one thing has remained a constant: her challenging relationship with fashion, as she explains in this essay, "The Fashionista."

When my good friend and clothing consultant moved to Seattle, things went downhill. Before Kate, my wardrobe choices ran to jeans and baggy tops. I never had the pizzazz that my friends fell into naturally, and no one ever described me as stylish or fashion-forward.

When I was a kid, I chose the cozy-sloppy look, faded jeans worn with my dad’s white shirts, artfully knotted to fall below my waist. With nothing to tuck in, I dashed off to school with impunity, a shirt tail covering my butt.

My wardrobe malfunctions may have started when I lived outside Detroit and my mom took me downtown on the bus to J.L.Hudson’s where we shopped for my annual “back-to-school” clothes. All I remember about those excursions was getting off the bus so I could puke.

In grade school in the 50s, I dressed up when the occasion called for something more, long poodle skirts, cinch belts, brown and white saddle oxford shoes, and thick white socks.  This year my ten-year-old granddaughter wore that identical outfit and called it her Halloween costume.

At my Junior Prom in High School, I wore a floor length gold-colored lacy dress with a billowing skirt puffed up with a crinoline soaked in sugar water to make it stiff. I looked like a pumpkin.

In college, one black velvet dress took me to every formal dance and as far as I was concerned, if I changed earrings, I had a new look. Why did anyone need two dance dresses when one would suffice?

After college I worked at a boutique department store in a management training program with a dress code. If we worked with customers, we wore grey, brown, navy blue, or black. I owned one skirt, appropriately grey, that I topped with a baggy sweater to camouflage my ample hips.

A dozen of us worked under the thumb of a supervisor who pulled me aside one day and said, “You need to pay more attention to the way you dress. You’re an executive trainee.” Ah yes, I was the merchandising major headed toward a job in the fashion industry; the person who hated to shop.

Despite my wardrobe malfunctions, I was the first trainee promoted to assistant buyer.

I didn’t last long.

For my wedding, I borrowed a dress from a friend. That way I saved hours of agony in fitting rooms and if it was too long, I didn’t care. It was a full-length white dress with a lace top and it fit.

There were times when I needed a dress. I wore the same one four times when my four children graduated from high school. It looked like a royal blue tent with pink and orange flowers. I loved that dress. My children shamed me into donating it to the Salvation Army after the last graduation.

Then I met Kate who dragged me to the mall and picked out a blue silk outfit that took me through three college graduations until I spilled wine on it.

We went back to the mall where I bought a matching skirt and top, this one purple with lace on the bodice.

Four weddings followed. Again Kate rescued me and together we chose the mother-of-the-bride/groom dress, navy blue with a fake diamond just above my breasts. It was low-cut, not my style, so I cut off the little fake and replaced it with a conservative blue and green scarf. It was a fine dress, but the woman at the resale shop didn’t think so when she refused to take it on consignment, said it was out of style. Like the others, it found a final resting place at the Salvation Army.

For years Kate dragged me to the mall, modeled outfits, suggested accessories, earrings, scarves, and cheered when I pulled out the credit card. For a few years, I tried to update my look.

She’s gone, and I’m back to where I was when I was ten, jeans and oversized shirts.  Now there are wrinkled body parts to hide, arms, legs, the neck and an expanded waist to camouflage.

But there’s hope. Her name is Caroline and at seven, she’s an accomplished fashionista. When I visit, she takes me to her room where we sit on the floor, and just like Kate and I used to do, we pick out her outfit. When I suggest something pink she says, “Grandma, I’m not a girlie-girl. I don’t wear pink.” That day she chose shades of grey and white, multiple layers with maroon striped tights to add a spark of color. Then she skipped outside to bounce on the trampoline.

I have a plan.  The next time I need an outfit, I’ll take Caroline to the mall.

Cari Carlson is a freelance writer, outdoor guide in the west and overseas, and a former environmental educator. She lives in Milwaukee.

Cari Taylor-Carlson travels the world with a backpack and a tent. She taught environmental education at Schlitz Audubon and the Boerner Botanical Gardens, founded the Milwaukee Walking and Eating Society and wrote Milwaukee Walks, The Food Lover's Guide To Milwaukee and Best Cheap Eats. She continues to write The Dish for M Magazine and guide hiking trips with her business Venture West.