Over yum char today I mentioned (which, I'm afraid, means gloated over) my latest purchase: a pre-loved Judith Malcolm confection. Black lace over bronze satin.
"Wear it tonight", said companion one.
"Mmm ... too over-dressed." Tonight is the usual Sunday milonga.
"No, it's not," said companion two, notwithstanding the fact that he hadn't clapped eyes on the dress. "You can't be too over-dressed for tango. Tango is for now."
And that's when I realised that I'd automatically slipped into the "keep it for best" thinking I was brought up with.
As a child, my bedroom cupboard and drawers housed a rigid sartorial caste system. Nearly all items of outer wear moved in at the top then, by maternal decree, worked their way down. The most populous category – comprising what we'd now call the default position – were clothes for play. Play was anything not specifically covered by the other two categories (which I'll get to) and a lot more besides: having nothing to do, trying to kill my brother as painfully as possible, climbing trees, choosing sides for cowboys and Indians on the empty plot down the road. Play clothes were old, over-laundered, darned, and often a bit too small. Dresses and shorts for summer, and for winter, pinafores and what my mother called “trews”.
Decent was the next rung up. Fewer decent clothes, and through economic necessity subject to strict conservation measures. Reserved for school, the High Street (though not the corner shops), Sunday School and other minor public occasions, decent clothes had, the minute you stepped in the door, to be changed for something in category one.
At the top of the hierarchy was best. There was only ever one best outfit at a time, and it was almost always the most recently acquired. Best was a dress, in winter or summer style and fabric, depending on which season had thrown up the most recent important event. The last best dress I clearly recall was acquired when I was about 11 or 12. It was royal blue with a fitted bodice, flared skirt and long sleeves. It had white cuffs and a generous white Peter Pan collar. A curious blend of too young and too old for me is how I remember it.
With my best, I wore my least battered footwear. Until I was humiliatingly old this was either brown school lace-ups or Clarks’ sandals with the cut-out on the arch of my foot (mentioned in an earlier blog). For outdoor play, rain and snow there were Wellingtons.
If the weather was cold or wet, I was instructed to don “your gabardine” – an unyielding item of quasi-military quality, which because of its expense was bought as large as my mother thought she could get away with. For half the coat’s life it touched my body only where it was hauled in by belt and buckle; for the other half, its sleeves didn’t reach my wrists, and my knees froze in the winter. Also in winter, a mitten dangled from each sleeve on the end of a tired length of elastic that travelled up one arm, across the shoulders, and down the other arm. For snow, there were random scarves and hats. For holidays, a swimming costume. And that, wardrobe-wise, was more or less that.
And here I was, a lifetime later, keeping this lovely new dress for best - ie not wearing it. Imagine if I'd fallen under a bus this week and hadn't given it an outing. What a waste.
A sestina on housing
2 weeks ago