Monday, March 30, 2015

You're Never Fully Dressed...Smile

"Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours. I hope therefore the moment you rise from bed, your first work will be to dress yourself in such a style as that you be seen by any gentleman without his being able to discover a pinamiss." "Remember to...not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much."(1)

Quote from Thomas Jefferson, much-lauded hero of homeschoolers and the father of "keep the government out of our lives, please,"
(Republicanism), in letters to his daughters, aged 10 and 6, respectively. 

So much for laissez-faire.

This is a sticky topic. And lest there be any bad feelings before the end of it, please know that; 1) I have always allowed my children to play in sand, mud, dirt and puddles with no regard to the state of their clothes or shoes, and; 2) I have learned much from my American mother friends who have taught me about freedom and not giving a hoot about what anyone else thinks. This is meant to be an exploration of the subject, open to debate on both sides. The debate is between total freedom (and the case could be made for freedom being linked to creativity) and making a choice for a child when his or her own innocence/naivete might produce unmerited prejudice. Is a kid in sloppy sweats, t-shirt and shoes meant for the beach or the gym:

viewed with as much indulgence from any adult he runs into as one in pants, a button-down shirt and polished shoes, or more simply, clean jeans sans holes and a clean sweater?

Is this good or fair? No, but is it reality? Is choice more important than reputation? Aye, mi!

My American roots and upbringing were already at odds with French culture early on. I still remember sighing and asking my husband's aunt how she managed struggles with her two children on what to wear every single morning. Her son was four and her daughter was seven at the time, and she simply looked at me, puzzled. "What struggle? I lay out their clothes, they put them on and we go to school."

Oh man. My three-year-old had definite ideas on what she would and would not wear, and she could make life miserable for the ten minutes or so every morning (remember, France has 5-day-a-week public school beginning at age 3),  while getting dressed. She had a "bib overalls only" period, for months on end.  A friend took pity on me and contributed a few pairs her boys had out-grown. And her hair had to be in two plaits, lest her teacher not recognize her in the morning. (She loved her teacher very much.) But then she had a nothing-but-dresses year, at a school where she spent recess on a tricycle and chasing after boys. Can you take a guess at  how many pairs of tights she went through that year? Nice, thick, cotton tights with pretty designs on them? Dang.

Early on, I took the view that children should wear what they were most comfortable in for playing and moving. I allowed them to choose their own clothes, and since they only owned one pair of shoes at a time, life was not so complicated. There was only the occasional regret from my mother-in-law that her grandchildren would shun skirts and button-down-shirts for stretch pants and t-shirts. (I still believe that a baby girl cannot learn to walk in a dress.)

Dressing as a creative outlet was taken to an extreme by my first two when they were tiny people. Every day, they would change clothes a dozen times, leaving heaps of laundry for me to refold and put away. They spent hours doing it, making up stories for each costume change, playing rather nicely together. To me, it was cheap entertainment and fostered imagination. To my French husband, who sometimes came home to the heaps of yet un-refolded "disguises", it was chaos.

Then we moved to the United States. The first year or so, my children were still wearing the clothes we had brought from France. Then, little by little, the new clothes looked less and less French. I mourned the shoes the most. Cute shoes for kids 13 years ago, were limited to baby shoes. Even though most of those were white, it was still possible to find shoes that were supportive and colorful. Then, the decline into sports/sneaker-hood set in. It was only a little bit of sadness, much compensated by the fact that we lived in a country that allowed for freedom of choice in so many areas, as well as more affordable shoes.

Up until two years ago, we maintained a family rule of "presentability in public," which meant that if you leave the house for anywhere but the gym or a park, you look presentable, which definition expressly forbids sweat-pants, anything with holes or beyond-old-and-sloppy.  Neither my husband nor I found this an unreasonable request. No one was forced into uncomfortable hosiery or ties, tennies were allowed, since that was about all the boys owned for shoes anyway.

Then my son became more skilled at debate than his father, a real feat of mental prowess. He very eloquently (and more importantly, I think, at length), made the point that if we maintained that one should be judged on what one wore, we were promoting superficiality and prejudice. He let him know that the values with which he had been raised; fairness, honesty, tolerance and acceptance were being betrayed by this insistence upon appearance. "Why dress up for someone just so they instantly think well of you?" was his argument. "Why would you want the good opinion of someone who has such shallow perspective?"

My point varied from his by one word; I never, ever said you "SHOULD" be judged on what you wore, I merely observed that you "MIGHT" be. Important distinction. I maintain that I am right, in this instance. My son was, from then on, allowed to go to high school in whatever he chose, sweats not exempt. However, when he first met his teachers, he had been dressed neatly and in what I considered school-appropriate clothing. First impressions make an impression. And creativity can be expressed through dress. However, I am not ready, just yet, to pronounce: "let them wear rags."

Differing views, as well as confirmations, as always, are welcome.

(1) Taken from "Founding Mothers" by Cokie Roberts.

More examples of grunge vs. "sharp-dressed" which, by the way, only ever happens to this extreme in our house when there is a baptism, wedding...or a school dance. And, going through my photos, as a mother, I know that I have never cared one way or another; they look just as cute to me in rags as in evening dress, and always will.

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