The harvest moon has been glowing beautifully in the evenings here in the last official week of fall. It’s still hot outside, of course, but the days have taken on a fallish flavor, slightly cooler, slightly duskier, slightly less intense. The mood has prompted me to my long-standing, post-Labor Day ritual of the changing of the closet. Even though seasons don’t change here all that much, I still persist in packing away my summer clothes (mostly white/light linens) into the cedar chest, and pulling out my fall and winter clothes (dark cottons and a few sweaters).
Now you would think, given where I live and the fact that I am more-or-less retired, that this “changing of the wardrobe” business would be fairly quick and easy, but you would be wrong. It took me four days this week. First comes the culling of the closet, you see, and the folding of the items to be stored: linens and short-sleeve blouses, shorts, swimsuits and cover-ups, patio dresses and palazzo pants. From there, it’s on to the cedar chest where I’m met by the piles of fall clothes last placed on top in the spring. Some of these items get aired outside, some go into the laundry, and some that had a dubious determination in the last change-over, as well as older, heavier pieces that have lain in the very bottom of the chest for a long time, must all be reevaluated yet again.
This cedar-chest ritual was established during 40 years of living up East and working and teaching and needing a professional wardrobe that could handle any weather challenge from snow to rain to summer heat. Now, of course, things are a little different and wardrobe demands are dictated more by the travel destinations we have in the offing than by local weather patterns. But as the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” Certainly, this particular habit gets decidedly longer and harder each year, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Maybe it’s because my very first job as a newlywed in New York City was in the garment industry. I worked in menswear in an office on the 54th floor of the Empire State Building at the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue. Not only was I right across from the venerable B. Altman & Co. department store (my favorite until it closed in 1990) and just three blocks down 5th from the flagship Lord & Taylor store (closed in January of this year), but I could easily walk farther up 5th on my lunch hour to Sak’s, Bonwit’s, and Bergdorf’s; the Macy’s at Herald Square was my daily subway stop! (For a fascinating history and information about the grand names of retail, see thedepartmentstoremuseum.org, an on-line museum.)
Mid-town Manhattan was then, and to some extent still is, an international mecca for shoppers, as well as the epicenter of clothing manufacture and retail sales in America. And there I was, a newly-arrived young woman from Texas, right in the middle of it all. I had always liked clothes, of course — what girl didn’t?— and I had even acquired a passing familiarity with the sewing machine, but this was waaaay more of an immersion in style and fashion than the occasional mother-daughter shopping trips to fancy department stores in Corpus (Lichtenstein’s, sold 1972) or Houston (Sakowitz, bankruptcy 1985) or San Antonio (Frost Bros., bankruptcy 1988) that I had experienced while growing up. This was the real deal, the everyday living-and-working deal at the source along 5th Avenue.
My workplace colleagues, native New Yorkers all, were eager to show me their City and equally generous with their time and knowledge about the garment industry. This is where I learned about design and construction, quality and workmanship at different price points; this is where I began to develop my own sense of style and to understand that good taste is not only about price (just ask style icon Iris Apfel); and this is where I began to shop seriously and choose wisely, to appreciate lasting value, and to see clothing as an investment in one’s self.
My love affair with fabrics really began as I visited mills, watched weavers and designers at work, and experienced the “feel in hand” of a material’s body and weight. To this day, I have to touch a textile, whether in clothing, on furniture, or on the bolt, before I buy. I soon acquired my own sewing machine, took specialty courses and tailoring classes and developed my home skills with the help of Vogue® designer patterns. From apparel, I moved on to home decor, to sewing draperies and window treatments, table linens and upholstery. Ultimately, I found quilting — or rather, quilting found me — and then art quilting. And now here I am, having come full circle, albeit within different, concentric circles.
All those lessons from long ago still resonate but, at the same time, they have been more broadly interpreted and applied over the years. Yes, the solid black-grey-taupe palette of the typical New York woman continues to dominate my wardrobe today, even as I dwell among the prints and pastels favored in the South. I still buy “investment” pieces, though not as many as I used to, and I still read the “Style” section of The New York Times and peruse the fashion pages in the Sunday edition. Remarkably, I even have a few, very few, articles from those early years when I lived and worked in New York: a well-worn black fedora, a stunning pair of Bruno Magli evening shoes, an iridescent taffeta ballgown skirt, in taupe. Timeless pieces all, whose time has come and gone, along with the needs, the youth, and the figure of their wearer.
Clothes become a tactile scrapbook. One touch brings to mind the circumstances of where, when, why and how we acquired these garments, and going through them forces us to confront the realities of what will likely never be again — whether it’s fitting into that size, or living in that place, or attending those parties. We hold on to our favorites, to the hat or the gown or the scarf, because we fear that by giving it away we will lose the memories of the people and the image of who we were, of who we like to think we still are. And that is unsettling.
And that, I think, is at the core of why it is taking me longer and longer to get through my closet each season. I’m moving farther and farther off 5th, and it doesn’t look like I can get off this bus.