We act in accordance with our self-image – Moshe Feldenkrais
Make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant – Moshe Feldenkrais
At times, my relationship with clothing has felt impossible, like an ongoing unsolvable puzzle, a perpetual riddle whose answer is always one accessory out of reach. Perhaps the conundrum began with my grandmother, who made clothing for her two daughters. Being a poor, uneducated Polish Jewish immigrant in Brooklyn, New York, she didn’t want to send her children into the world wearing anything other than impeccably crafted armor, as if her flawless seams, perfectly placed and sewn buttonholes, meticulously lined coats, sturdy zippers and fashionable designs could pre-empt or deflect any cruelty, scorn or disdain that might be directed at her children. She stitched into my mother’s consciousness an appreciation for quality and for the myriad details that comprise a well-constructed garment, as if it were a survival strategy. My mother imparted this knowledge to me when we went shopping; it landed in my impressionable, obedient psyche as if it were the Ten Commandments of Clothing. These seemingly inviolable precepts, which would be a useful guide when considering a purchase from a Paris fashion atelier, created a very high standard. At Marshall’s and Filene’s Basement it seemed that only a minority of the mass produced clothing was of high enough quality and carried a reasonable price tag. Such began my unsatisfying and frustrating relationship with attire: I learned exactly what was the best and that often our money could not buy it. Often what I gravitated towards didn’t pass muster, or I didn’t like what my mother picked out. If the experience of shopping were a fabric, it resembled burlap rather than smooth, seamless satin.
Since my teenage years, my feelings about fashion have ranged from indifference to deeply conflicted. I envied girls who wore the latest styles, who owned stacks of Fair Isle sweaters in different colors whereas I had just one, and who upgraded their wardrobes seasonally, enjoying the pleasure, even if ephemeral, of new clothing. To have a current wardrobe would have been a luxury while contradicting my family’s values of investing in quality items we needed rather than indulging in short-lived, often shoddily made styles. Then, I also lived in fear of being considered or called a JAP (Jewish American Princess), a nasty label slapped on girls who, by virtue of their appearance among other things, came across as spoiled, demanding or “better than” others. To work around my confusion, anxiety and unarticulated, contradictory desires, I told myself that focusing on attire was superficial, that there were worthier things to think about and focus on. Unbeknownst to me, around the same time, in 1981, Moshe Feldenkrais published The Elusive Obvious in which he wrote:
“We organize our life around that which we can do to our satisfaction, and avoid those acts where we feel we are inept. We decide that the activities that involve our ineptitudes are not congenial to our character, are uninteresting, and we usually have more important things to do.”
Indeed. Still, every so often my inner fashionista stuck her neck out. I remember convincing my mother to buy me a pair of trendy Frye leather boots. I didn’t get the pair I really liked, because another girl had those already, and I didn’t want to be perceived as copying her. I believe I wore those boots a handful of times before losing interest. Perhaps they were not as comfortable as they looked. I felt guilty for and ashamed by the splurge as it violated one of the clothing commandments: only buy things you’ll use for a long time. I couldn’t view the purchase as just one of many approximations in my journey with clothing.
In college, while others experimented, often wildly, with self-expression in the sartorial and sexual realms, I hid beneath the cloak of androgyny and wore outfits in somber colors that were more mannish and boyish than feminine. Both my personality and my clothing remained buttoned up, with most of my energy channeled into getting good grades. Still, I remember being fascinated with a group of classmates who dressed most days as if they had stepped out of a catalogue. I don’t know which came first, their impeccably coordinated clothing or their self-confident poise, but lacking both I couldn’t help but be transfixed, especially when they sat nearby during lunch. My captivation had been so intense that a friend kept reminding me not to stare at these women, who seemed to inhabit the universe of savviness and belonging whereas I existed in the land of the frumpy, clueless outsider. I had no idea how to traverse the canyon-like gap between these two worlds.
Whether we like it or not, appearance and first impressions matter in this culture. What we wear and how we wear it signals our self-image to others. Yet self-image is not formed in isolation but in society, which often sends confusing, confounding if not conflicting messages, especially to women, about what it’s acceptable to wear, when to wear it and with what. While I never subscribed to women’s magazines other than Ms., over the years I’ve flipped through dozens while waiting to get a hair cut or see the dentist. Inevitably I’d come across the column where an editor dissects some unsuspecting woman’s choices of skirt/blouse/belt/bag/shoes/jacket/you name it and “corrects” all the wardrobe mistakes. Rather than take careful notes, I decided to avoid the minefield of attire by keeping things as simple as possible, a decision reinforced by a lack of closet space. Yet, I often lamented to another friend that I didn’t like anything in the stores. She, a talented seamstress and knitter who made some of her dresses and sweaters, eventually suggested I design my own. Her remark stopped my complaints. I didn’t know what I’d want to make. I didn’t know myself well enough to know that. Caught in perfectionism‘s death grip, I feared that if I picked a pattern and some fabric and learned to sew, by the time I completed the project I wouldn’t want or like it anymore.
My strategy of having a simple wardrobe worked until it bumped up against special occasions. As someone who prefers comfort and mobility to often constricting dresses, who has been in a losing battle with pantyhose and other delicate “feminine” fabrics, who has eschewed cocktail-type gatherings for mellower or solitary pursuits, and whose wardrobe reflects a more practical rather than whimsical view of life, invitations to a wedding, bar mitzvah, or other special event have sent me into a retail tailspin. Without the habit of periodically refreshing the dressy side of my closet, I’ve scrambled to find not just an outfit but coordinating shoes, purse and jewelry. Preparing to attend happy events meant going from store to store, flipping through racks and trying on dresses under harsh fluorescent lights, an ordeal that frequently left me frazzled, stressed and insecure over my eventual choices, made under the duress of a deadline. I’d arrive to the gathering in my unfamiliar, often not-so-comfortable and jerry-rigged costume feeling more like an impostor than relaxed participant, all too eager to return home and change into sweatpants. That I dreaded dressing up, while other women seemed to relish such opportunities, added to my distress. Was I missing out on one of life’s pleasures?
As I progressed further into adulthood, I starting buying more beautiful clothing and accessories when they crossed my path and I could afford them. Still, these lovely things often hung unworn in my closet, much like those Frye boots, as objects to admire for their craftsmanship. It’s as if the person who made the purchases and anticipated enjoying them was not the same person who dressed herself each day. Perhaps I had become trapped in what Moshe Feldenkrais called a cross-motivation, wanting something but simultaneously and unconsciously acting against it. Indeed, while I no longer have the habit of gawking, I still appreciate and admire women and men who make dressing well appear as effortless as breathing, who seem to glide through life immune to sagging and frayed socks, sleeves that are a tad too long and other sartorial snafus that make a person look more schleppy than chic. To be around the skillfully attired, whose choice of clothing beautifully and seamlessly integrates with their sense of self, is both inspiring and relaxing. To master the art of self-presentation, without being obsessed by it or made self-conscious from it, is not trivial. It requires a degree of self-knowledge and comfort in one’s own skin to find and wear clothes that fit, in all senses of that word.
Before my Feldenkrais training in May 2014, I visited Montreal and had a private session with Philippe LeBlond, a practitioner there. That Functional Integration lesson powerfully disturbed, in a good way, so many of my postural habits and my sense of self that I left his studio feeling 10 years younger and uncharacteristically optimistic. Rejuvenated, I browsed some of the city’s artsy clothing boutiques. To my surprise, I bought an unusual dress, for no occasion, for no reason! At the time, I thought that might have been an isolated incident, a spontaneous celebration of the moment, but perhaps a long dormant seed had begun to sprout. A few months ago, while searching for something on eBay, I spotted a very funky jacket made by Joseph Ribkoff, a designer unfamiliar to me who happens to live in Montreal. Since the price was right and the seller offered returns, I ordered it. The dreamy fit flattered me and, more importantly, allowed effortless movement. My grandmother might have sneered “feh” at some of the stitching and the lack of lining, dismissing the item as “dreck” despite its original high price. Still, its uncomplicated construction means I can bend, twist and lift or cross my arms with as much ease as if I were wearing a fleece top. It doesn’t wrinkle or require dry cleaning and, unlike a bulkier lined coat, can be rolled up for travel, too. Could this designer, with his comfortable yet eye-catching creations, finally bridge what had felt like an insurmountable divide between my inner self and my wardrobe, making the impossible possible? Had I stumbled upon my personal motherlode of mufti, available at the click of a button?
Since finding that fun jacket, I’ve been keeping an eye on eBay and other websites for this designer’s pieces, new and gently used, whose regular retail prices can cause altitude sickness and whose clothing has limited distribution in the United States. I purchased two shorter cover-ups in cheerful hues. They, too, fit amazingly. I found more in different colors and acquired a few dresses, negotiating lower prices with some sellers. I’ve discovered style numbers, something I never paid much attention to before; they help research and locate pieces online. Having rarely enjoyed clothing sprees in actual shops, my behavior feels unfamiliar, as if my fashionista self has become unleashed, freed from internal constraints and the nuisance and overwhelm of shopping in malls and department stores. As I replenish my wardrobe, decimated while doing the KonMari method, I’m reminded of the Feldenkrais ideal of reversibility, of being able to move in any direction without having to reposition oneself first. In extreme situations, reversibility can ensure survival. For those of us who enjoy a more secure existence than either Moshe Feldenkrais or my ancestors, we can practice subtler, even invisible forms of reversibility. My hope is that a well-conceived clothing collection can reduce if not eliminate the mental repositioning of indecision when it comes to dressing up, packing for a trip or simply dressing with more flair on a regular basis. If I can find greater ease within this basic activity, and carefully collect clothing that feels great, who knows what other aspects of life might get better along with it? As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
The other day a package arrived from an eBay seller who offered a current season Ribkoff dress, tags attached, for a fraction of the regular price. The soft, buttery fabric draped perfectly, as if the item had been made just for me. All of my cells exhaled as if I had just completed a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson. Such peace and comfort is not normally something money can buy, yet Joseph Ribkoff has managed to create it. On his company’s Facebook page he is quoted as saying, “Life is easier when you have the right dress.” It’s a statement I would have either ignored or ridiculed years ago. Now, I couldn’t agree more.