I studied the art of dressing under the tutelage of Leslie Harris, a friend and co-worker whose clothes are always perfect. My education was inaugurated in a state of coercion, and it happened one night when Leslie watched me select my outfit for an office party.
"What are you going to wear?" she asked me as we stood in my bedroom. My eyes roamed the room and settled on their first identifiable target: a red sweater still encased in dry-cleaner plastic. There was half the outfit.
"That," I pointed. My glance then traveled three more feet to an armchair over which were draped still clean, nearly unwrinkled black pants. "And that," I concluded.
"That's how you choose your clothes?"
"Sure. Proximity and cleanliness."
Leslie sighed heavily. "You have to let me take you shopping," she pleaded.
"I hate to shop." I truly did. Stores frightened me; I was dazed by the plethora of merchandise, almost paralyzed with indecision.
"Bite your tongue. Let's just say your shopping potential is still untapped."
"I don't want to learn to shop," I whined. "I don't approve of women spending their hard-earned money on clothes competition. I refuse to be a fashion victim."
"I'm proud to be one," Leslie said.
Just Legs and a Smile
I resisted further. "Men don't notice what women wear, so why bother?" A man had once told me that he liked nice legs and a sweet smile on a woman, and that was about all he saw. I had decided to base most of my fashion views on this one remark.
"Some men do notice, but that's not the point anyway. We don't dress for men--we dress for ourselves. Nice clothes make you confident."
"I'm already confident."
"No, you only think you're confident," she said, slyly.
Leslie was right; my confidence was plummeting with every word she spoke.
"Now go ahead and get dressed," she directed, "and tomorrow morning I'm taking you downtown."
When Leslie met me in front of Macy's the next morning, I was in jeans and a devastated blouse and she was, as usual, flawlessly coordinated.
"You look terrific even when you shop," I sighed, already feeling defeated.
"You never know who you'll run into," she explained.
"Oh, yes I do. No one. No one is exactly who I always run into."
"Don't forget the salespeople. We want them to know who they're dealing with."
"Right, Christie Brinkley and Bozo the Clown. Is this going to cost me a fortune?" My unfashionable heels were instinctively digging themselves into the sidewalk.
"We're not making any actual purchases today," she informed me. "This is a preliminary field trip."
We entered the store and Leslie turned to me solemnly. "The first rule," she intoned, "is to stay away from the junior department. One should never shop to the beat of bad music." I nodded. "The second rule is to shop early in the morning, before the crowds come in. And the third is to not shop when you're depressed."
"Too late," I said, feeling that familiar department-store malaise envelop me.
I stood in my traditional stance of paralysis while Leslie dug efficiently through the racks. "This would be nice on you," she said, holding up a teal blue drop-waisted dress. Of course, I didn't know the blue was teal until Leslie told me.
"Mona told me I shouldn't wear drop waists. She said my hips were too big."
Leslie frowned. "Did you ever notice that Mona was born without hips? And that she doesn't like you very much?"
No Taste at All
"Rule No. 4: Don't listen to people who don't have your best interests at heart. Listen to me. "
She continued to hold up unexpected items, fearlessly separating the teal blue from the chaff, soliciting my opinion and horrified to see that I never had one.
"It's not that you have bad taste," she said after two hours. "It's that you haven't got any ."
"I'm hungry," I complained. "Let's have lunch."
"Fine, this is enough for the first day." She ushered me outside and stopped at a newsstand. "Give me 10 bucks," she ordered. I complied; she gave me an armful of fashion magazines. "This is your first reading assignment. Have it done by Tuesday."
"What about lunch?"
"You can't afford it now."
Obediently, I went through each magazine page by page, trying to absorb the concept of fashion. Leslie was right: The models, whose foremothers had undoubtedly all attended the Twelve Oaks barbecue, beamed with the confidence of being well-dressed. They also beamed with the confidence of being 21, gorgeous and incredibly well paid.
"You've completed your prerequisite of visual exposure," Leslie told me Tuesday as we entered Saks. "Today we use a dressing room."
I stripped to my unfashionable underclothes and stood mutely as Leslie brought in skirt after blouse after dress.
"Why are all the shoulders padded?" I asked, naively.
"Norma Kamali," she replied. I thought it was some sort of incantation. "Nor-ma-ka-mah-lee?" I repeated.
"Try this on," she suggested, handing me a hot-pink jacket. It was surprisingly wonderful.
"Why does it cost $80?" I asked.