Fashionably (and Seasonably) Ugly

One day during the week, I took a break from work to make some tea. I mindlessly turned on the TV.

I saw Kelly and Ryan or some other pair of daytime talk show hosts depart from their attractive and well-put together looks to greet studio and TV land audiences wearing bulky, sparkly and tassel adorned sweaters featuring Santas and reindeer and decked out conifers.

Ahhhh. Ugly Christmas Sweaters.

When did this fashion become so chic?

I remember Colin Firth, in the first Bridget Jones movie, adorably awkward, wearing a ridiculous hand-knit pullover gifted to him by his mum. I don’t know if this was the start of the trend, but the situation really spoke to so many people.

What do you do with a gift of clothing that is ugly in the extreme yet given with so much love?

Do you wear it publicly and risk humiliation, or do you say thank you and hide the garment in a rarely opened drawer, taking it out only when needing to show the person who gave it to you your affection or when you want to re-gift the item?

The possibility that friends and neighbors would mistake you for having such bad taste is horrifying, right?

But, it’s natural to want to please someone you love, the person who chose the woven collection of yarn, sewn-on sequins and sewn-in sentiment.

And then, everyone started laughing about the phenomena. Misery loves company. It was a shared experience. Most of us received presents of clothes we couldn’t bear wearing, or would not wear anywhere we would see people we knew….and then, because it was a shared experience, it became fashionable.

The uglier the better.

We got a collective chuckle when we saw Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Roseanne Barr wore some doozies of Seasonal Ugly cardigans during the nine seasons of her sitcom.

When Ugly Christmas Sweater parties became the rage, those of us who suffered through years of receiving more tasteful gifts, had to excavate bins or shuffle through hangers at Good Will in order to find something suitably ugly — that fit.

As Ron Popeil, the pitch meister of gadgets would tease…..But wait. There’s more….

Now, ugly Christmas sweaters seem to be high fashion.

Nordstom’s offers a whole category of them. (Hopefully, they don’t waste good cashmere.) Amazon and specialty online merchants, like Tipsy Elves, offer extensive collections.

They might feature simple two-tone graphics depicting anything but subtle images, like reindeer fornicating, or they might picture St. Nick sharing a brew with Jesus, or they’ll announce something suitable for a soon to be banned sexist office party like Jingle My Bells

I think about the supposed origin of Christmas gifts. When the three wise men followed a star to a manger, to welcome and worship a prophesied infant king, bringing gold and incense and myrrh, their mission was very serious.

But LAUGHTER is holy, too.

Giving and receiving, wearing UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATERS remind us of our shared humanity, of our imperfections, of our self-consciousness, of our playfulness, of our love.

Wearable, washable laughter is no small thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the Weatherman’s Cooperation

Ah, people in my neighborhood were all smiles when I took my dog India out for a walk this past Saturday.

The calendar told us we were into December, but the thermometer told a different story. The mercury was approaching sixty and the wind was manageable.

Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the good weather day to put up Christmas decorations on the exteriors of their houses.

Can’t expect it will be so nice in January when you want to take everything down, I’d joke as I walked past someone trying to untangle strings of lights or wrestle with oversized red, all-weather bows they were hoping to place against a cupola or attic window.

Here, in the Midwest, where we’re accustomed to the changeability and dynamic nature of the weather, we’d refer to this kind of day as one when the weatherman cooperated.  

Not that the TV or online messenger of atmospheric phenomena has much control in the matter, this kind of day is welcomed with special delight, a kind of gratitude, which is so palpable we want to have an actual person to thank.

It’s always great to enjoy sunshine or be able to make a Goldilocks-like pronouncement that the temperature, being not too hot and not too cold, is JUST RIGHT. Still, it feels like an act of grace when the outside conditions support what we have on the agenda for the day.

During June, brides, ready for their big walk down a garden path, pray for no rain. During the summer, people planning outdoor events, from family reunions to music festivals — even baseball teams – have to make contingency plans for rain-outs.

During the winter, we don’t plan so many outdoor events, and we rarely have to make contingency plans. But, the temperature or wind might create a rationale to postpone…and postpone…and postpone…something like decorating our houses for the holidays.

We might postpone things until we have NO CHOICE. Maybe we have to get something done by a certain date and we can’t just wait for the perfect conditions.

Seeing my neighbors out with their ladders and lights and fake icicles and reindeer kits on a sixty-degree day in December is a wonderful reminder to take advantage of any opportunity when it presents itself.

I loved looking at the houses on Eastwood. I saw fake snowflakes hanging from the awning of a front porch trim, over-sized white boxes tied up with colorful ribbons on another lawn, and a blow-up smiling Santa under brightly colored spheres, like antique ornaments, near the end of the block. Ho ho ho.

These little signs of the season would probably find their places before the holiday itself, but, because the weatherman cooperated, the process was easier for many.

Taking advantage of opportunities when they come up and appreciating something BECAUSE it has been made easier for you, is no small thing.

 

 

Breast Fest

The hostess’s son referred to the event as BREAST FEST.

I don’t think the occasion is destined to become the Lollapalooza of intimate apparel parties, but the inaugural clothes swap and bra-fitting might become a yearly get together.

A few weeks ago, my friend Nicki confided that she wanted to clean out her closet. Actually, she said she wanted to get rid of wearables (scarves and jewelry counted, too) that she recognized no longer fit or items she was tired of. She wanted to see if any friends wanted these items before they made it to a donation bag.

She thought other friends might also have skirts or shawls that would fall into this category, things they’d like to gift to friends – and she knew a woman who was a certified bra-fitter (I don’t think this credential is a four-year degree) that she felt could be an added attraction.

She announced Saturday’s clothes swap and bra-fitting open house a few week’s ago. It was dedicated to finding treasures before someone else sent them to the trash and set up shop in her den.

Three metal, caster enabled racks, suitable for the back room at Macy’s, filled her den. The dining table where we’ve sloshed down bowls of chili while watching basketball or the Academy Awards on her projection screen TV served as a display area for a wide range of jewelry; some baubles still in the original, fancy boxes.

When I arrived (about 2:00), the other Nicki was modeling a thrift store find, a black evening dress, which looked like a million bucks on her. She decided to try it on for us after she had her fitting session with Joy in one of the upstairs bedrooms (a great name for a certified bra-fitter, missioned with making middle-aged women feel buoyant about their bodies).

I started looking through the racks, not expecting to find anything. I didn’t anticipate seeing anything in my size or my style….but I was surprised.

Between visiting with the other ladies, consuming plastic tumblers of punch, and waiting for my turn with Joy, I tried on several items. We all were well-occupied with the assortment, and tried things whenever the urge came over us. No one displayed false modesty.

I ended up filling a large Nordstrom’s shopping bag with a hand-made shirt and jacket, a fitted long-sleeve Danskin knock-off, a cotton summer top, a black linen dress (with pearls, I will feel so divinely preppie in it this spring), and a rust colored raw silk skirt.

Everything was FREE, which is always good.

It felt like a different shopping experience, too. I’m not used to going to the mall with an entourage. It was affirming to hear:

That fits you well or That’s a great color for you.

Even when people offered opinions that something someone was trying on didn’t work, there was no tone of being BRUTALLY HONEST in their voice. Everything said came out NICE HONEST.

When it was my turn to go see Joy, I was amazed by the huge selection in her box o’bras. This wasn’t like a F_ckerware or sexy lingerie party. It wasn’t about trying to cop an unnatural look of seductress. It was about finding a foundation that fits right and feels right, and makes your clothes look better.

I was a little relieved that the size I would look for at a department store sale was not far off from what Joy recommended. Her small suggestions on cup size, wear and how best to put one on made a big difference though.

I thought about unpleasant experiences buying bras or swimsuits when I was younger. Every teenage girl has probably encountered an aggressive sales clerk. Every girl remembers feeling mortified then resigned to being uncomfortable over this specific type of shopping they had to do regularly.

Bonding over finding a perfectly fitting bra was strange and unexpected. Everyone at BREAST FEST was a workingwoman past child-rearing age. Everyone wanted to look good but wanted to feel like herself.

We were tired of wanting to look like a Victoria Secret model. We bonded over the shared experience of our culture establishing an impossible image of what we SHOULD LOOK LIKE.

We were all willing to pay a little extra for feeling something really suited us as individuals.

Bonding with other women over our changing bodies and wanting to feel beautiful in the current shape we’re in is no small thing.

Bending the Rules

One of my favorite fall traditions is an excursion to Pilsen to see the Day of the Dead exhibit (Dia de los Muertos) at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Lives are grieved for and remembered in special ways through the loving assembly of objects. I am always moved.

This year’s excursion was even more special because a friend was visiting from St. Paul and she was going to experience this unusual collection for the first time.

I wanted our day in Pilsen to be special. Named after the area in Czechoslovakia famous for Pilsner style beer, it’s been the first neighborhood of many immigrant groups as they settled in Chicago. Decades ago, it was home to Eastern Europeans. For quite a few years, Mexicans have been the dominant ethnic group.

Colorful murals adorn the sides of brick houses and corner stores. En route to gentrification, you can spot Starbucks stores next to taquerias. Parking pay boxes have to be fed along 18th Street and other major boulevards.

I did a little research before my friend’s visit. After wandering through the museum, I wanted to take her, and two other friends, to an authentic Mexican bakery for a slice of tres leches cake.

I went online and identified what seemed to be an awesome family run bakery. It was my intention to enjoy tea and split a couple pastries there.

The wonderful aromas of fresh bread, cinnamon, and anise curled up our nostrils as soon as we walked into Panaderia El Acambara. Sweet breads and coffee cakes occupied displays in the center of the store. Racks upon racks upon racks of buttery cookies and flaky empanadas filled the side walls.

I thought they also had tables for patrons to enjoy tea or coffee, but it was only a store.

I studied the selection on the wall. I decided to get a couple dulce de leche empanadas, crescent shaped mini pies filled with a sort of caramel crumble. To bring home, I told myself.

I also asked if there was a place nearby for coffee and tea.

Si. Si… I was directed to a hipster coffee shop that was just down the street, which was good because I had already popped for an hour of parking.

We walked in to find a couple of twenty somethings who had probably been there most of the day.   A thin, pale, aproned barista, waited for our order from behind the counter. He looked at us impatiently as serving us was delaying his scheduled trip to the doorstep for a smoke.

I had every intention of bringing my small white paper bag containing the two dulce de leche empanadas from Panaderia el Alcambaro home with me for a late night snack, but, I looked at the selection of bakeries in the case and had second thoughts.

There were a couple over-sized cookies and four croissants that seemed to predate the last appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Not before my lifetime, but definitely too old to be healthy or enjoyable.

As I ordered herbal tea, I asked the barista if we could eat the pastries I just bought.

We don’t allow food from outside, he said matter-of-factly. I nodded and we sat down for tea and banter.

Pretty soon, knowing that dinner was several hours away and something scrumptious inside my little paper bag was begging to be shared, the four of us started to break off pieces of the sweet little pies and slipped them into our mouths. As chunks of the treat melted, we tried to keep silent, but our eyes shouted with delight.

Our indulgence was not lost on the barista. We couldn’t help ourselves… He saw — but he said nothing.

At first, we broke off pieces of the pastries while they were still in the white paper bag. Then we got bolder, laying the crescents on napkins in the middle of the table and continuing to break off bits leaving a puddle of crumbs.

Ah, each bite was the perfect blend of sweetness and butter.

The thought came up that it made no sense for him to enforce house rules more strictly as the four of us outnumbered the other customers and we all spent money on tea, but someone in his position might choose to be more hard-nosed about it.

My foursome enjoyed our visit to the café, even though we were uneasy, at first, about being called out. People’s actions often defy good sense.

Being under the authority of someone who is willing to bend the rules is no small thing.