When it comes to being “cool,” the deck has always been stacked against me. As a kid I was short, round, nervous, anxious and humiliatingly un-athletic. I also cried at the drop of a hat, got glasses in the fourth grade and braces in the fifth. There’s more. My mother, who equates the decline of Western Civilization with the abolishment of the dress code in schools, forbade my brother and me to wear jeans and t-shirts, except at camp. So throughout elementary school I was clothed in knit stretch pants and nylon tops--well-past the acceptable pre-school years. And sneakers were totally out, except for gym class. Because of our “flat” feet, my brother and I had to sport lace-up oxford shoes with orthotics. You may not be surprised to learn that I was picked on mercilessly.
I got my first pair of jeans in 1977 when I was 11. One day, J.K., the prettiest, most popular and precocious girl in the fifth grade handed me an outgrown pair of Wrangler straight legs in a brown paper bag when she thought no one was looking. “Here”, she whispered furtively. “If you wear these instead of those awful pants, maybe people won’t make fun of you so much.”
In sleep away camp later that year I met A.L, a fiery, funny and incredibly fun native New Yorker who seemed unbelievably sophisticated to me even though she was a year my junior. (I was from Teaneck, N.J., after all.) At 10 she had already tried cigarettes, wore all the right clothes, was in constant trouble and never seemed to care what other people thought about her. Together, we balled up the pink and white gingham dress my mother had packed for the final social dance, ankle socks (girls our age only wore knee socks) and Danskin shorts (only the hand-me-down cut-offs from my cousins were acceptable) and gleefully threw them in the big round metal garbage can in front of our bunk. “Tell your mom the camp laundry lost all of your uncool clothes,” she advised. A.L. also counseled me to start wearing my older brother’s cast-off rock’n’roll tees (he had rebelled against my mother’s dress code years earlier). The Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Santana and Quicksilver were totally not my thing, but wearing those shirts seemed to give me that little bit of street cred that I desperately craved. It was the summer of my life! I lost my 10 lbs of “baby fat,” got the lead in the musical, started dressing the way I wanted to and made my very first best friend.
My triumphant return home as a completely different person was instantly overshadowed when I saw how my mother had redecorated my bedroom. The plain yellow walls were now obscenely covered with floral wall paper paired with matching ruffled curtains. How could I ever be perceived as cool with a room like that? To retaliate, I plastered every square inch of space with pictures of the bad boy rockers I was now obsessed with. Until my mother sold the house 10 years later, The Stones, Hendrix, Morrison, Aerosmith, Led Zep and Van Halen were my constant companions— smirking, brooding, glaring and glowering at me from every angle of my bedroom. Only Eddie Van Halen smiled. I loved him. Joe Perry may have been my crush because of his undeniably sultry good looks and did I ever love Keith Richards. But with his million-dollar smile, Eddie was my favorite.
Once in my teens, I asserted myself at home and had my fashion prohibition lifted. But now the big problem: most of the clothes that my tall and skinny friends wore looked awful on short, busty me. So I cobbled together a kind of hippie-cum-rocker look that I thought my rock star “boyfriends” would approve of, and it felt right to me. It was not fashionable, and it certainly didn’t make me any more popular, but it was mine. My outfits centered around my brother’s hand-me-down baggy Levis and concert tees. And as I started to go to concerts myself, I collected my own shirts. To round out my wardrobe, I picked up Indian print skirts, gauze blouses and batik sun dresses at the local flea markets. I donned Wallabee shoes, Frye boots (they could fit orthotics) and cork wedge sandals in the summer (they offered enough support that I could actually walk in them). At the same time I had a penchant for pastel angora cowlnecks and corduroys in fashion colors like raisin, olive (they called it loden, then) and silver. Secretly, I also still listened to James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and The Beatles--I was a good girl at heart.
One would think surviving my school years as a fashion outcast would have been enough. But no, nope, and no again. I decided to embark on a career in the fashion industry. And what hell that wrought. First off, no trends have ever been designed for my body type. Next up? I have curly dark hair, and when I first entered the industry, everyone was into stick-straight blonde strands. Meanwhile, my crappy feet make it virtually impossible to wear the stilettos that were requisite then and even most of the wedges that are “in” right now (although to my delight I discovered that orthotics actually fit into some low-heeled Jimmy Choo boots). So I spent years feeling “wrong” and definitely not cool. It was almost as fun as seventh-grade gym class.
But something wonderful happened when I turned 30 and I started to write about fitness in addition to beauty. I hit the gym hard and gained a fitness level and self-confidence that I had never known before. This freed me up to develop a fashion style I felt good in and surprise, surprise--I went back to my rock star “roots” with black boot-cut pants, flare low-rise jeans, camisoles, wrap tops, cropped cardigans, leather jackets, vintage tees, studded belts and ankle boots. Once again, I was not “a la mode,” but I was ok with that.
This look stood me in good stead for nearly 15 years. But then around two years ago, it all started to feel terribly wrong. Whereas in NYC my style was seen as youthful and hip, In the East Bay of California it felt “old”, though I can’t put my finger on why. Also, the trends have shifted.Tops are way longer than the cropped styles I favor and pants are skinny with higher rises, which look beyond hideous on me. Plus, as a result of my breast cancer treatment, I’ve put on weight and had to cut my hair shorter. And I am also older—closer now to 50 than 40. Frankly, I am at a style standstill.
So it was with great trepidation that I dressed for the Van Halen concert the other night. I couldn’t figure out how to look cool. At last I decided to keep it low-key with a black t-shirt, straight leg jeans and high-top Converses. And low and behold, so did Eddie. There he was, one of the greatest rock n roll guitarists of all time, in one of the hardest hitting bands ever, on stage, in totally basic clothes. And just like me, he was rounder and softer than he was in his heyday with way shorter hair. But he was grinning his trademark grin for all he was worth and having the time of his life. And so did I. And I didn’t even think for a minute how I looked to other people. OK, maybe for just a minute. But still, that’s pretty cool. Ciao for now my friends. Stay happy and healthy.