I rarely worry about what I am going to wear. I usually have comfortable slacks and a jacket to wear out to dinner and, with a modification or two, they can go to a memorial service. The same pair of REI Merrell slip-on shoes is adequate for both occasions. Everything else I own is for gardening: stained t-shirts, comfortable sweat pants or jeans, worn sweatshirts, piles of dirty sneakers and boots. And, most important, the smartest wool socks to keep my toes dry. Plenty.
But a few years ago I accompanied my husband John to his 50th Pomona College reunion and, preferring not to embarrass him in front of his best and longest friendships, I surveyed my gardening wardrobe and saw that it was, indeed, unfit. Reluctantly, I went shopping.
The wardrobe survey had revealed a pair of good black slacks and a blue-green linen suit worn once, 10 or 12 years ago, when my own college’s president visited Seattle. A color palette, of sorts. But no shoes, short of the worn Merrells or mud-stained sneakers.
To prepare myself for the coming ordeal, I tried to imagine I was shopping for plants. Before I shop for plants, I survey the garden, looking for areas where plants are much too big for their britches or have settled in so comfortably their knees are baggy. I study the borders, monitoring color balance, leaf texture and shape, ultimate height and rhythm—too many orange grasses, not enough lime green. If it’s particular sorts of plant I want, I search Web references, visit others’ gardens and favorite nurseries, review catalogs. Before long, I have a list of appropriate possibilities and, with luck, several places to find them. I feel confident; I know how to shop for plants.
But when it comes to shopping for my own clothes and shoes, my dismal lack of confidence is only surpassed by my ignorance.
Other shoppers are better prepared. It seems to me that every customer at the cosmetics counter—intimidatingly placed at the entrance of the department store—already owns enough lipstick and mascara. They’re wearing it. Their clothes match, and they show just the right amount of flesh between jeans and tank top. And women looking for clothes already seem to know what size they wear. They don’t seem shocked at the prices. (I could buy a tree peony for the cost of that shirt.) And the sales personnel know them by name.
I trudge in and out of the dressing room, trying out colors and shapes, asking myself if the colors of this pale pink and sea-green blouse will complement my old linen suit, wishing I had worn it. And remembering an earlier time when my color memory failed me, and I planted a brilliant vermillion climbing nasturtium too close to a dusky violet-purple Clematis Purpurea Plena Elegans. Tacky. I still cannot choose which of these treasures to remove.
Ultimately, I buy a white silk shirt to wear with the linen suit, and a dressy cream blouse and black silk jacket with Chinese knotted buttons to wear with my good black slacks. I even survive the icy disbelief of the shoe salesman, who clearly views my comfortable Merrells as if they were dandelions among his most treasured roses. I escape with suitable shoes, but only tattered dignity.
The reunion was a success. Folks wore what they wanted to wear; they were comfortable. With a bit of clever weeding, I could have worn the clothes I already owned. And there were plenty of folks standing around in the equivalent of my worn Merrells. For all I know, they, too, were gardeners. John would not have been embarrassed, and instead of spending time shopping, I could have spent a whole afternoon deciding how to garb the garden so neither it, nor I, will be embarrassed the next time one of John’s college classmates comes to visit.
Lee C. Neff is married to Dr. John Neff ’55.