BERNARDSVILLE, N.J. — I'm looking at a photograph of an adorable little girl. She's wearing a smocked dress with puffed sleeves and has a sassy bow on top of her head. Cute as pie.
It's a picture of me. In 1941. In the dress I wore on my first day of kindergarten.
My older sister didn't think I looked so cute. She said I looked like a monkey dressed up to roller-skate.
My mother always bought my back-to-school clothes at the end of August. At Macy's. She planned exactly what I was going to wear the first day. That's the way life used to be. Parents were in control.
Those were the days when the expression "Children should be seen and not heard" was really believed. The days when children thought their parents were always right.
By the time I had children, it was the 1960s. My opinions didn't matter to them.
When my son was 6, he would no longer wear jeans with reinforced knees from Sears and whatever shirt they had on sale that I picked out for him. Even in first grade, he had his own ideas about everything. We seldom agreed. You think I would have picked out those girlfriends?
At 7, my daughter told me exactly what she wanted to wear the first day of school: a pink mini-dress and white boots. She wanted to look like Twiggy. I was thrilled. She had style. And was thin.
What kids wear to school is definitely a sign of the times. As somebody said, "These are the times that try men's souls."
Last week, I was in the mall with my granddaughter. We were having a fast-food break and sharing a table with two teenage girls. They were wearing frayed jeans, T-shirts and dirty denim jackets.
How I wanted to take them shopping. When I was 16, I never would have left the house wearing outfits like that. What if a boy saw me?
I couldn't help overhearing their conversation.
Girl One: Whatja buy for school?
Girl Two: Five CDs. What are you getting?
Girl One: A henna tattoo.
What style of music kids like is more important than the style of their clothes. Accessories are more important than their clothes.
When I was a teen, my friends and I dressed to be admired. We always wore a bra and girdle, not because we needed to but because no part of the female body was supposed to jiggle. We didn't care if we were uncomfortable. We just wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn.
Nobody wants to be restricted about anything today. Kids hang out with everything hanging out. Comfort is what everything is about. When I'm comfy in clothes, I'm ready for bed. I'd never think of wearing my Dr. Dentons out to dinner.
Malls are full of clothes. All comfy. All stretchy. All denim. All jeans: flare-leg denim jeans, dirty- wash flare jeans, knee-seam flare jeans, fit and flare jeans, stretch-pocket flare jeans. This is a choice?
Whoever said "Variety is the spice of life" wasn't talking about back-to-school fashions. Teens always buy the same things: jeans, jean jackets, T's and sneakers. At the mall, in boutiques, via catalogs, on the Web, in vintage stores. But tell me, how gorgeous could an outfit be if it comes from a store called Old Navy?
What the well-dressed girl wears to school these days are not smart clothes but smart technologies: Walkmans, cell phones, beepers, pagers, Palm Pilots.
I hate to admit it, but in the 1950s, what I wore in college was more important to me than the courses I took. And I went to an all-girls school!
I remember you couldn't see out the back window of my uncle's Ford Falcon when he drove me to college. I'd been shopping all summer for winter. The entire back seat and floor were filled with my clothes in my old camp trunk, three suitcases and numerous shoe boxes. The car's trunk held my winter coats, boots, a professional hair dryer that fit over my entire head, makeup and my favorite books--"The Fountainhead" and "The Complete Works of Dorothy Parker."
I heard someone talking on the radio the other day about driving their daughter to college. They rented a large van--not for clothes--for the stereo, the computer, the scanner, the TV, the VCR, the videos and CDs.
Whatever happened to frocks? What happened to individuality? Whatever happened to glamour? Whatever happened to my waistline?
Whatever happened to dressing for success? Will there be no more Mr. Blackwell's Worst Dressed List because everybody will be? Will dress-down Fridays become the daily dress code? What will happen to the ladies who lunch in their pastel Chanel suits and pearls? Another minority to worry about!
So there I was in the mall last week, giving my daughter a break by taking my 8-year-old granddaughter shopping for school clothes. She knew exactly what she wanted: red glider pants and a pink pucker belly shirt. She wanted to look like Britney Spears. She was going to accessorize with rainbows.
While she was in the dressing room trying on the new plated look pants (could someone please tell me what these fashion terms mean?), I brought her in a darling dress in her size. It had little bouquets of purple violets on a lavender background. (I thought about the purple velvet hair-band I could make to go with it.)
There was about as much chance of her trying that dress on as my finding an Armani suit that fit me for 50 bucks.
I know that, all too soon, my granddaughter won't be shopping for school clothes with me or her mom. That she won't want to look like Britney or whoever is the next Britney. That right before my eyes, she'll turn into one of those denim people. There's nothing I can do to stop it.
Some things just never change. Especially me. *