Beginning with my mother’s obsession with dressing her “Irish Triplets” in nearly identical outfits (replete with matching Pixie cuts), followed by Catholic School, a stint in the military, and dozens of sports teams, my wardrobe has been dominated by some sort of uniform.
Outside of recognizing it when I see it, I’ve never been a fashion devotee— more like a dilettante. Au courant haute couture requires way too much effort for a “basic bitch” like me. I’ve found freedom in fewer, and finer quality garments—where function dictates form, and said item remains serviceable beyond one fashion cycle.
Even better if it’s a timeless classic piece bought on consignment in the tonier parts of town. I’ll gladly take that barely worn leather biker jacket off your hands for pennies on the dollar, thank you very much.
Nowadays, I’ve settled comfortably into a post-proto-punk anti-fashionista uniform as sartorial self-expression. Which is to say consistent—and cute AF.
Uniformity Indoctrination: Parochial School
Knee length wool jumpers, prim white blouses, superfluous snap-on ties, boxy cardigans, “accessorized” with white socks, Buster Brown brogues—and nothing else—not even a flounce of lace on our anklets.
“Conform, or else.”—The Nuns
The parochial school uniform symbolized “belonging” to something bigger, including “closer to Thee.” The great equalizer of socio-economic stratification, and trimmer of “Tall Poppies,” these uniforms were designed to blur, if not erase, the line between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Yet, somehow, we all knew exactly where we stood.
Fashion Freewill Free-for-All in Florida
After two messy divorces our now thoroughly ex-communicated mother was liberated from the constraints of holy matrimony and Catholicism. She promptly packed up her secondhand Pontiac and moved us to the warmer climes of Florida in hot pursuit of Mr. Right #3.
It was our first taste of Florida’s beautiful white sand beaches, warm winters, legendary lawlessness, and the beginning of a fashion freewill free-for-all.
Gone were the confines of itchy woolen skirts, buttoned up blouses and butch-y brogues. Panhandle girls wore flip flops, short shorts, and barely-there halter tops (made from bandanas) to school—and there wasn’t a teacher among faculty who was gonna argue with their Mommas about it.
My shiny new Southern-fried friends found lots to snicker about over my co-opted Catholic School sweater (still emblazoned with the sanctified crest of St. Catherine LaBouré), and my clunky blue (but not suede) lace up shoes.
As a skinny, flat chested pre-pubescent “new girl,” I longed for the cohesion, and sense of belonging that came from our matching sweaters, blouses, and jumpers … just not so much the dogma. And, my mother would beat my ass if she ever caught me in a bandana halter top.
Turns out, it’s the uniform, not “The Man,” I love.
During my public school tweens and teens, softball leagues and tennis teams put the uniform back into regular rotation in my wardrobe. But it took another busted up home, bad grades—and a worse attitude—to get me accepted into the big leagues of wardrobe uniformity, when I enlisted into the United States Marine Corps—of my own free will.
Shock & Awe
“I had to regain my self-respect, so I got into camouflage…” —Gang of Four
If “empowerment” were an ensemble it would be a Woman Marine in full metal jacket. This uniform was designed to command respect—or deference—while intentionally “engineered” for function and, occasionally flamboyance. When worn, “Shock” and “Awe” are appropriate responses.
I survived. Thanks GI Bill.
Today, you couldn’t pay me to wear camo, but that’s another bedtime story.
Kitted and Cuted
Shortly after exiting the military, I moved to Berkeley, California to take advantage of all those good soldiering benefits—like a proper education and a “gubment” home loan.
It was on my morning commute aboard “Trusty Rusty the 10-Speed Bike,” that I heard them before I saw them—a whirring of wheels and clicking of gears, a blur of green jerseys and shiny black leggings, followed by wafting snippets of conversation—and a whiff of BO.
I watched them ride away, two-by-two, shoulder to shoulder, mere centimeters from one another, looking fit, fly, and all kindsa matchy-match.
Yo! Where do I sign up?
The next morning I showed up at Velo-Sport for their weekday “9 O’Clock Ride” in my best facsimile of the “look”—not quite right “cycling” shorts, a snugg-ish t-shirt, and beat-to-death Brancale touring shoes, sans socks.
This rag-tag ensemble elicited a grade-school-days’ response from my even shinier new friends, who were not-so-surreptitiously giving me the once over twice-—-while simultaneously ignoring me.
“Mkay, I see how y’all roll.”
Deterred I was not. Day after day, and much to the dismay/chagrin of some of the “elite” women racers, I hung on to that back of that pack like a booger. It was the mercy of a couple of “seasoned” gentlemen riders who recognized raw talent (or blind ambition) when they saw it, and took me on as a project.
Soon enough, I was rocking Assos shorts and Sidi shoes (strapped in tight with Alfredo Bindas), a fine Italian bike (that fit), a couple of team kits, and a little “walking around money” to get me to the races.
Three years later, after watching what I learned was called a “peloton” zip past me, this unscruffied street urchin found herself standing on a podium in Paris, France, surrounded by a team of ferociously fit and fearlessly fast women in matching Stars & Stripes kits, as a member of the Tour de France Feminin Team.
My pride was unbridled.
The Only Club that Will Have Me
“I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” — Woody Allen
Of all the uniforms I’ve worn, the cycling kit is my hands-down favorite. Not just because it makes me feel like a super-heroine when I slip into chamois, or the anticipation of adventures to come, or, for the many memories conjured.
It’s because when I’m wearing mine, and you’re wearing yours, we’ll immediately recognize each other as “Tribe”—a couple of long haul iconoclasts in uniform—looking every bit the part.
It’s good to belong to the only club that will have me. Don’t forget to wave.