Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Some things are classics, like Jane Austen, The Beatles, and…’80s Prom fashion

For Christmas a few years ago, my brother gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. I interpreted it as a loving gesture intended to help me hone my craft. He may have meant it as a way to get me to stop writing about my family, in which case he should’ve known that I’m not one to pick up on subtle hints. Besides, I’ll be happy to stop writing about them just as soon as they stop generating material.

But it was a fantastic gift –I’m gonna keep some of these questions in reserve for first dates — and today, Philippa and I are blog-dueling on one of my favorite of the 642 prompts:

What did you wear to Prom? How did you get your outfit, and what happened to it? 

In 1989, when I was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Prom was a rite of passage; nearly everyone wanted to go, including me. But wanting to go wasn’t enough: I needed a date. With no boyfriend and all of my guy friends spoken for, I started to stress. My good friend Kevin, aware of my situation, did some work behind the scenes and arranged for his pal “Bob” to ask me. Bob and I were acquaintances–  I’d always thought he was cute and nice –so I said “yes” and shifted the focus of my stress to getting a dress.

Fashion was not my forte, but it was one of the multitude of things my eldest sister, Suzi, did perfectly. She was always on point, even when the point seemed to have no point. (Popped collars, anyone?) Her sartorial skill even earned her the nickname “Fashion Plate” from my father. Though I didn’t exactly know what that kind of a plate was, I inferred that if Suzi was a plate, I was a bucket. A bucket with a massive hole at the bottom. The Plate, who was in her fourth year at UVA in Charlottesville, sensed my plight and offered to take me shopping without my even having to ask. I had only one criterion: I didn’t want my dress to look like everyone else’s.

“Then come down to C’ville and we’ll go shopping here,” she said. So I did.

Together, we went to Fashion Square Mall, affectionately referred to as “Fashion Scare,” and visited every store that carried dresses. Whatever allotment of patience was supposed to have been spread across me and my three siblings, Suzi got all of it, never seeming to tire of coming up with candidates for me to try on. To my untrained eye, though the dresses tried to combine different elements – sleeves poofed in direct proportion to the wearer’s bangs, bows capable of covering not just a butt but an entire zip code, ruffled bottoms – they all wound up looking the same. And they came in shiny, saccharine-sweet pinks, greens and blues that made my teeth hurt. I didn’t exactly know what my taste was, but I knew it wasn’t that. Suzi knew it too.

Eventually we wound up at an all-dress joint whose name escapes me, where my sister managed to pluck from the masses something my eyes would have skipped right over: a long, straight, black, strapless number with white piping along the top and a black and white skirt-like, slightly ruffled thing at the waist. Suzi informed me the functionally irrelevant skirty thing was a peplum (coincidence that it bears a close phonetic resemblance to “pablum”? I think not.). I guess the dress needed something to help it compete with my shelf of bangs. Regardless, Suzi nailed it. She’d found a dress that was not only different but made me feel grown-up and somewhat sophisticated.

Remember these?

On Prom night, Mom helped me get ready and then she, Dad, my brother and I went to the living room to take pictures while we waited for the limo bearing Bob and four of his friends to show up. Little did we know we would have had time not only to take photos, but to drive to the nearest Fotomat and have the film developed while we waited because, two hours after the appointed time, Bob still hadn’t arrived.

Am I being stood up?, I thought, just as my father said, “Do you think you’re being stood up?”

Mortification caused me to spontaneously combust, so now you know what happened to the dress.

I’m kidding, of course. Spontaneous combustion was a prayer that had gone cruelly unanswered.

I got the phone book and called one of the other girls, who said, “You mean Bob didn’t call to tell you they just left Scott’s house?” Uh, no, he didn’t.

When Bob finally arrived, I vaporized him on the spot. I’m kidding, of course. Vaporization was just another unanswered prayer. (For Bob too, if I had to guess.) Our group went to dinner and made it to Prom just before it ended. It still counted.

It took me a little while to thaw out, but after graduation, Bob and I stayed friends and went off to UVA. The dress did, too. I wore it to a formal in the Spring of 1990, with my then-best friend, Paul, as my date. Say what you will about the dress, but that particular friendship never went out of style.

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As my friend Michelle put it, “Your dress is the least offensive by far.”

 

The audit that didn’t make me feel like I’d been taken to the cleaners

Sometimes the best way to deal with a healthy fear is to confront it, which is why I decided to volunteer to be audited a few months ago. The agents who paid me a visit came not from the IRS but from DC Style Factory, and they didn’t care if I had my financial house in order: they’d come to examine the state of my closet.

I’d met Rosana Vollmerhausen, the company’s founder, and Jennifer Barger, one of the stylists and a fashion journalist, months earlier when the two were guests on Women of Uncertain Age. After watching them give gentle, constructive advice to a dude on how to dress for a date, Philippa and I invited them to critique two of my first-date outfits. I learned during those episodes that their approach is not to change your style, but rather to help you present the best version of your style, whatever it might be. During that episode, they dispensed so much great advice (no square-toed flats! Or shrugs that make you look like a matador!), and so gently, that I knew I would be in good hands. The website offers this description of the audit process:

We help weed out items that are outdated, worn out, don’t fit, or simply don’t work in your life anymore. We talk about body type, silhouette and lifestyle, to properly organize your closet so you can put together outfits with more ease. We also compile a list of missing wardrobe essentials, which can be purchased on your own, or with our guidance.

I knew I needed all of that, yet I still dreaded it. Letting someone see everything in your closet can reveal a lot, and in my case I worried it would hint strongly that I’m not actually a sighted person. I also feared having to admit something many have long suspected: my mother still dresses me. (It’s true. Unlike me, Mom enjoys shopping and stays reasonably current with fashion.) I’d have felt less exposed handing these women a decade worth of tax records.

I decided to do a pre-appointment purge. Like a patient trying to erase years of neglect by going on a flossing spree two days before seeing the dentist, I knew I had little chance of fooling a trained eye, but it seemed worth a shot.

When Rosana and Jen came to my home, they kicked things off with a brief interview.

Jen asked what I viewed as my biggest fashion challenge and I said, “Apathy.”

They laughed, but I wasn’t kidding. Though I care about my appearance, I can’t muster up much excitement about clothes. If someone forced me to subject my closet to the Marie Kondo theory of decluttering –get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy” — I just might wind up a streaker.

On asking where I shop, Jen and Rosana couldn’t have been surprised to learn that I tend to land at places like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. I realize those stores are often a year behind, trend-wise, but that’s never bothered me. We legal types are not exactly known for being fashion-forward. The most prominent members of our profession wear robes to work, for heaven’s sake. Black robes, yes, but robes nonetheless.

On wrapping up the interview, it was time to face the moment of truth and get into the closet. Unlike the hosts of What Not To Wear, DC Style Factory doesn’t wage a war on your wardrobe. They take more of a hearts-and-minds approach that involves pulling items from your closet, having you try them on, and asking, “What about this?”

Some of the things they saw in my closet probably made them want to ask, “What were you thinking?”, like the dress yoga pants I bought a few months ago, but they didn’t. (They probably know dress yoga pants are just the gateway garments to black robes.) They truly wanted to know what I liked about the things I wear.

If I said I’d kept an item for its sentimental value, they put it right back in the closet and never once did they seem to be fighting the impulse to say, “Wow! I haven’t seen anyone wear that since ‘Friends’ went into syndication!” They offered candid feedback but did so without snark and with such care that it didn’t feel personal.

I also learned “What about this?” wasn’t a rhetorical question whose only answer was, “It’ll look great at the bottom of a Hefty bag!” Sometimes they wanted me to keep something I was ready to toss, like a textured black suit Mom had bought me many years earlier.

“The skirt can go, but let’s take a look at that jacket,” Jen said. It never occurred to me to evaluate the two elements of a suit separately. Having grown up in the era of Garanimals, I viewed business suits as the fashion equivalent of Siamese twins, a package you can’t separate unless you really know what you’re doing. But sure enough, that jacket looked fantastic with some of the tops in my closet, and it definitely karen1 karen2classed up and modernized my skinny jeans. Never did I imagine my old clothes could somehow produce new outfits.

While Jen focused on the search-and-rescue mission, Rosana was busy re-folding clothes and otherwise organizing my closet, an invaluable service unto itself. Jen took the items I decided to discard and packaged them up for donation to Goodwill. A few days later, I received a memo summarizing my style and my challenges, as well as a shopping list recommending, among other things, that I consider owning more than three pair of non-athletic shoes.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I turned myself in to the fashion police. Instead of judging me for my misdemeanors, they showed me that a few small changes could add up to meaningful reform. Now let’s see if I can avoid being a repeat offender.