December 10, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Ann Weikers
When I left corporate life to embark on an MFA in writing, I decided a style makeover was in order. I wanted to fit in, to look the part.
I cobbled together a winter wardrobe and arrived at my first residency in a snowstorm, decked out in a Mad Bomber hat and giant UGG boots pulled up over leggings, hoping to look a little less like the grandma I could easily be. For the summer residency I sported Birkenstocks and skinny rolled up jean shorts. With the addition of a hefty multi-zippered knapsack, I was set. Though I realized that throughout the country twelve-year-olds were clamoring for the identical wardrobe, I consoled myself with the conviction that all my choices were at least practical.
The bomber hat would keep my head dry and warm. Because it clasped firmly under my chin, it wouldn’t get carried off in a blizzard as I trudged across campus hoping not to die slipping on ice. Toward that end—not falling and breaking a hip—the UGG boots would be life savers. Their wide bottoms and deep treads would stabilize me like pontoons.
My Birkenstocks, which admittedly looked like something a troglodyte would wear if troglodytes wore shoes, with their German engineered cork footbed, had the added feature of preventing my arches from falling. My skinny shorts held in my tummy, the most welcome quality of any of my utilitarian threads.
To help me choose that wardrobe, I’d scrutinized website images of students gathering on campuses. I’d made two columns on a yellow legal pad, one headed “Purchase,” and one headed “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In.” I was satisfied I’d made the right, albeit incredibly unattractive, purchases. And I was proud to have eschewed some of the other fads, the items on my “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In” list.
First is the modern version of the beret, the floppy beanie. I won’t wear a floppy beanie because I want warm ears. Worn fashionably, these hats must flop to the back or side of the head, leaving the ears exposed to subzero weather. Also, I won’t wear a floppy beanie because it reminds me of the hats atop the heads of the seven dwarves, most particularly Dopey. Dopey is happy, silly, speechless, bald as a baby, and portrayed as an awkward child. I ascribe much of his goofiness to his maladjusted purple cap.
Next on the “no” list: ripped jeans. This trend has been around for a long while, and somehow has not lost its appeal to many. There’s a certain impracticality to wearing holey jeans in single digit weather, but ripped jeans still abound in every season.
In the days when punk rock first came on the scene in the seventies, ripped clothing was just one element of punk’s anti-establishment dress code. Wearing torn clothing paid homage to the genre and was arguably a link to that form of art. Now, though, frayed, holey jeans are worn by everyone from infants to soccer moms, with no link to protest or art. No longer are ripped jeans an apropos cultural statement, especially when they are worn over diapers. The trend has lost its artistic anchor.
Finally, I’ll never wear bobby socks with shorts or skirts. Bobby socks in Mary Jane high heels were an essential part of the “goth” naughty schoolgirl trend years back. While I seldom see the tartan plaid tunics now, the ankle socks feature of the trend is strangely still alive. When I typed into the keyboard “Bobby Socks with mini-skirts,” my screen filled with porn site links. I quickly ended the search and deleted the search history.
On campus for my first Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter MFA Residency, I sat in the stunning high-ceilinged meeting hall called “The Chapel,” where students were being welcomed by the program director. Behind her on the stage rose the floor to ceiling pipes of an immense organ. What a beautiful place to begin.
The garb around me, bundling my fellow students, was the garb of practical people, all just trying to keep warm. Yes, there were one or two floppy beanies, but I saw no ripped jeans, no bobby socks with skirts. UGG boots were not de rigueur here.
I would see both ripped jeans and bobby socks in subsequent residencies, and even an evening gown and a full-on Western suit with bolo tie and cowboy hat at graduation. I would see rompers, revealing laced bodices, floor swishing skirts and miniskirts, pretty ensembles straight out of Talbots, everyday Levis and faded tees. In short, there was no uniform.
The clothes that had mattered to me, but likely to no one else, had served their purpose: to boost my confidence the tiniest notch as I first walked among that busy hive of writers with terror lurking beneath my cozy layers. So many were blessedly as self-conscious as I, equally alarmed at the prospect of the critiques we would face for the next two years. All were equally committed to getting our words on the page and getting it right. Whatever garb adorned the reader, the lecturer, the workshop leader, the fellow student, words quickly became the only important thing.
One of my writing teachers wisely said, “You don’t become a writer by donning a beret.” I get it. My bomber hat will never turn me into the next Joan Didion, but I’ll still wear it at my writing desk on chilly days, earflaps down to muffle distractions.
Ann Weikers is a candidate for an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She received her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and after decades in law firms and corporations, decided to change her wardrobe and become a writer. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband.