I'm old enough to remember trudging through the snow to get to school with my ski pants bunched uncomfortably under my dress. Once there, off came the boots and the pants; before going home again, they were yanked back on. My daughters are incredulous that the New York City public schools permitted girls to wear only dresses or skirts in those days.
In high school, all of that changed. The end of the 1960s saw a widespread revolution in the dress code; now, we came to class in jeans and work shirts. People stopped dressing up so much for the theater or to travel. Except during working hours, a whole generation began to trade in their skirts and dress slacks for comfortable pants and non-button-down shirts.
In the Yiddish class I teach, we just finished a unit on clothing. I taught them that a dress is a klaydl, a blouse is a bluzke, and a scarf a shalikl. If you're out shopping, getting a bargain translates as khopn a metsieh.
My favorite line in the dialogue for this unit is when Aydele has tried on all her new purchases and Aharon comments: "Dos hayst oysgeputst!" I cannot think of a better word for "all dressed up" or "well-put-together" than oysgeputst.
The question of image, of how we want to be perceived in the world, looms large for me at midlife. It's much simpler when you're young. You tend to automatically follow the latest trends in fashion, and you can get away with a lot more. By middle age, our body types are more set, and we know which styles work for us and which don't.
Casual or Well-Heeled?
Yet the question remains: What is our look supposed to be?
The parameters are open. Almost anything goes. One could — and some do — live in running clothes. Others wear jeans well into their 70s, or beyond.
You can be as casual and comfortable as workers on dress-down Fridays. Yet, oddly, as much as I crave comfort, I find myself moving in the other direction. I dress more often in skirts than slacks. And skirts with a nice bluzke, rather than just a plain long-sleeved shirt.
It's not that I'm trying to look more religious. But I am trying to exhibit some kind of dignified presence that matches what I feel — and what I want to convey — at this stage of life. Young people can and get away with all manner of erratic dressing. That's what youth is for.
As a Mid/Yid, I feel some obligation not only to look my best, but to wear my well-put-togetherness as a symbol of having arrived on stable ground. I'm not figuring out how to dress for my first job. I know what my seasonal colors are. I want to wear nice earrings and well-made boots so that at least on the outside, I appear to be a savvy, stylish grown-up.
I feel I owe this to the next generation. Maybe it's because I have daughters who are coming into their own as women. It's a challenging time as you declare your independence and start putting together the pieces of an adult lifestyle. I remember how long it took me to find my style, and how I always looked up to my mother's friends who seemed to carry themselves with such panache. Some day, I hoped I could dress that confidently. I hoped that I might eventually have that kind of presence.
In an era when youth is so venerated, I feel strongly about being seen as a proud, mature woman of some standing. We don't need to go back to lace collars or starched petticoats. Still, I like being able to drape my years in handsome clothes that give homage to all that my body has been through.
I certainly pass no judgment on jeans or sweatpants. One great thing about our culture is that we have so many choices.
As for my part, I'm aiming for a glimmer of admiration to trail behind my well-attired self. And, in that glimmer, verbalized or not, is the assessment, "Dos hayst oysgeputst!"
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected]