You Can’t Take It With You

Last year, my kumquat and I deemed mid-February a good time to soak it up in South Beach. Sunshine, not booze. At 8 A.M., he was off golfing, while I was setting up my kit on the pure white shingle (had I been naked I would have been perfectly camouflaged), lapped by azure waves. By 8:15, I was painfully aware of two things: sunburn and my one-piece suit. Never mind that this was a sexy one-piece suit, cut in, cut out, cut up—I might as well have been wearing a burqa. Casting my eyes up and down that long, long strip of sand, I took in equally vast proportions of exposed flesh. Regardless of shape, age (including a fair number of people I could call old), gender, or sexual orientation, there was not one single sun worshipper wearing even half the amount of fabric I was. Triangles the size of Doritos held together by string was the uniform in this school. Not just bikinis, itty bitty bikinis. Bikinettes. I felt like a jigging nun. I was waiting outside a cheap beach shop at the opening bell, where I charged in, grabbed some shreds of fabric off the rack, and headed for the checkout without trying them on. I knew how I would look. I would look like everyone else. I spent a surprisingly comfortable week as a hedonist, considering I’m suspicious of hedonism, not to mention public nudity. And my ass was hanging out.

The kicker to this story comes later that year, when warm weather finally made it up to Minnesota. I donned my snack-sized suit and decamped to my favorite beach on the St. Croix. Exposed? You have never seen the like. Mothers were shielding their children and even beach-blanket high-school chicks were like, “ho.” That suit now lives in exile, in the bottom of my lingerie drawer.

When I vacation, I like to sponge up the local culture, go native, do as the Romans do. It takes only about twenty-six hours before I’ve acquired some local color: an accent, crawfish étouffé, a tattoo, chaps. This is not whimsy; it’s pragmatism. Through exhaustive and often painful trial and error, I’ve learned that most regionally specific fashion statements don’t travel well. “You can’t take it with you” is not about death; it’s about lavender bustiers. To wit: In South Beach, if your naughty bits are covered, you are dressed for any occasion up to and including the opera. But what passes for body-conscious Italian swank in South Beach is full-on skank in Minnesota. Allow me to once again raise the curtain of decency for the sake of enlightenment.

New York City is a dressed-up kind of place, so I thought I’d debut at a fashion magazine event in an elegant, Oval Roomish wool skirt, sling-back pumps, foundations, the whole nine yards. Imagine my pique when one Vassar graduate after another swanned into the reception in jeans, hipbones, Chanel jackets (knockoffs, I like to think), and the kind of shoes that would be comfortable if you had really, really, really pointy feet. I was off by a dowdiness factor of two, at least, and spent a fair amount of the afternoon behind a potted palm nursing some bitterness and a cocktail. Big Apple Do’s and Don’ts gleaned from the incident include: Do strive for a certain severity via rigorous accessory editing or thin lips, whichever comes easiest. Do go for a narrow silhouette but nothing that would ever suggest that you have actual body parts such as elbows or back fat (how gauche). Do develop an interest in East Asian art or Sanskrit, or at the very least wear rectangular glasses. Don’t smile. It smacks of effort.

The following day in New York turned out to be twenty degrees below cold, to my surprise, so I emptied my suitcase and wore it all at once—skirts, pants, my I (HEART) NY T-shirt, sweaters, three or four pairs of underpants, topped off with this grotty argyle vest my daughters call “Mr. Rogers” and a table runner I’d bought, worn as a scarf. I was virtually indistinguishable from everyone else in the Village and felt very good and warm. Thrilled by my accidental discovery of a look I will generously call “bohemian,” I reprised the ensemble in the MinneApple and earned fifty cents from a woman in the restroom of the Dain Bosworth building, who took me for an attendant. She was wearing jeans, a Chanel knockoff, thin lips and really, really, really pointy shoes.

Now, let’s consider the Southwest. It has an oddly narrow definition of style––all cowboy, all the time. Bostonians don’t go around in Pilgrim duds; Chicagoans are not pinstriped and armed (at least not visibly); nuns don’t even wear habits anymore. Why can’t Southwesterners embrace anything that doesn’t go with spurs? I think they’re xenophobic, that’s why. And in a petty gesture that undoubtedly has the boots-and-bonnets industry in a snit, I have banished cowboy boots from my sartorial vernacular. This gambit has nothing to do with an incident involving a pair of aggressively authentic Western boots purchased in Arizona and brought across state lines, a lone particle of ice, my pride, and an appreciative audience of at least three hundred and fifty hurrying, rubber-soled commuters.

Because this time of year so many Twin Citians leave the I-494/694 circle of love for floating holidays, bounding up and down the gangplank from ship to shore and buffet line to buffet line, it’s appropriate to say a word about cruisewear. Cruisewear designers, inspired by the vivid painted facades of old Kingston town and all that tropical fruit, outdo themselves with remarkably evocative results: The victim looks as big as a house, tilted, and about twelve hours from spoilage. As a corollary to my sordid swimsuit tale, bear in mind that anything louder than taupe in your hometown is likely to be run up a flagpole.

While we’re on the subject of looks that don’t translate north of Juarez, let me address cornrowed hair. Every spring finds me wedged into an economy-class seat on a no-frills airline, murmuring a fervent prayer that goes something like, “Please, God, move in mysterious ways so that the approaching toasted coed in the Senior Frog T-shirt that’s three sizes too small, who is quietly hiccupping, who emits a strong scent of Red Bull and tequila when the plane’s ventilation shuts off, whose gray-white scalp is showing between her cornrows in a way that makes me think of a post-nuclear disaster or lutefisk, whose beads at the end of those Methuselah braids rattle like a witch doctor every time she turns around to snort at her friend and tell her to shut up—please let her not take the seat next to me.” Later, when the freshly raked head has lolled over onto my shoulder and the naked scalp is so close I can see the dark roots emerging from each individual follicle, I intone, “Thank you, Jesus, for showing me that there are others who need this souvenir sombrero more than I do.”