By Michelle Railey
I get it.
My great-grandmother gave me, once, forever ago, a lifetime ago, a shirt. It was viciously golden yellow with blue and yellow paisleys. It came with a tie, elasticized, because accessories top a busy print like nobody’s business.
I wore it a couple times. I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. It was scratchy. Sears finest cotton-esque. It had sleeves that were permanently stitched rolled up to elbow-length. Even in fifth grade, I had a sneaking suspicion that three-quarter sleeves were more flattering.
I wasn’t that fond of paisley. I always loved stripes.
Plaid’s okay. I mean, depending. You gotta pick the right tartan. (Feel free to choose that as a mantra. Or cross stitch it on a pillow. Truths are truths and some aphorisms exist for a damn reason.)
I didn’t know how to feel about that shirt.
A million years passed. Now I think that shirt would be hella cool with pinstriped or houndstooth trousers. I still think elasticized ties are stupid and that Sears cottonesque shirts are scratchy, overpriced, and silly. But they won’t be around much anymore because Sears is dying. Which you’d think wouldn’t bother me much. But it so strangely does.
I like, now, so many colors colors: mustard, red, blue. Pastels, aggressive neons, jewel tones, spring, autumn, winter tones.
I wear so few colors now: black, navy, gray, charcoal, the occasional ivory or light taupe when I’m feeling feisty. Colors are for the thin, I think. Big girls should be subdued (and invisible).
I disagree with myself frequently. But that’s not the point of this ridiculous bit of self-indulgent writing.
My grandmother gave my sister and me identical shirts— these shirts. Button-down, scratchy. Paisley.
My grandmother said they reminded her of a dress she had when she was a girl, when she was in school.
Now both me and my sister, we can look at a paisley red and blue print on a vast golden ground and say the same.
I get it now. “It reminded me of…”
I could never have imagined the power of the stupid clothes, the colors, the brands, the fabrics. The weight of memory, I’m pretty sure, is measured in fragrance and envisioned in silly consumer goods.
I find myself, sometimes, more often than I want to admit, remembering (coveting? Wishing I still had?) things I used to wear: Guess jeans and their poorer cousins, Palmettos. Eastland dockside moccasins with their shoelaces tightly coiled. The years pastels ruled the world and everything I owned was mint green and peach (with accents of lemon, lavender, aqua, and pink; coral, for attitude). Crayons, Esprit, Coca-Cola. Generra. Swatch, always.
When my sweet great-grandmother gave me that paisley, jewel-toned shirt, I was deep in the world of pastels and cheerleading. To be honest, I couldn’t believe I had received something that wasn’t labeled by brand, that wasn’t in the so-desired pastel rainbow.
I wore it anyway, which I like to think is one small thing in my favor. Pre-teens aren’t always charitable, loving, or, well, so much interested in others. Not always. Maybe sometimes, if they’re lucky.
It was at the time of Swatch watches and Coca-Cola rugbys: fantastically, perfectly colored. But none of them paisley. None of them mustard.
I did wear it, I really did. I even wore the elasticized tie (only once; the shirt I wore more often).
I can see classrooms when I write about this. It’s been a lifetime ago: I can still see the floors, smell that powder they’d toss down when people ralphed; I can still reach out for the orange milk carton instead of the brown at lunch and see/taste the square-shaped pizza or dip my peanut butter sandwich in a bowl of chili encased in a melamine bowl. I can still see and hear the popular girls at the time: their bizarrely perfect legs and skin, big eyes, perfect clothes, their name-calling and cheating and somehow being different than the rest of us, those of us who didn’t look like them, sound like them, dress like them.
I would bet they have aged the same, though they had such a, um, prodigious (?) start. But I don’t know.
It was a million years ago. But I know this: those popular, beautiful girls did not have a severely yellow and blue and red paisley shirt. (If they did, they didn’t wear it.)
But I did. With a jean skirt. With cheap jeans. With black stirrup pants.
Not the point. The weird thing about all of it is, I wish that I could sit with my great-grandmother and thank her properly for that shirt.
In retrospect, I legitimately like it better, aesthetically. (No, not the tie.)
In retrospect, I get it.
I get it.
No, seriously: I. Get. It.
Pattern and color and fabric: they stick with you. You hit a point where you would give anything to have this shirt/pant/skirt/jacket/sweater/whatever back: maybe you’d still wear it, maybe you wouldn’t. And you know, reasonable human, you, that it doesn’t matter, not really. But still.
Bring it all back into fashion: the pastels, the Coke rugbys, the Swatches, the things that made you feel young, and fresh, and alive, or even, dare I say, happy.
Silly consumer goods can occasionally carry more than their weight. They can over-achieve. They can occasionally reach mustard-gold with red and blue paisley status.
Humans age strangely, really: we peak when our heads and hearts are all still unsettled. Our bodies may reach their sad little attractiveness and healthiness heights while we’re still figuring out who we are and how to human. But what happens is, those damn clothes from childhood crop up in our middle-aged and older minds:
If I wore something similar, could I be that happy again? That carefree?
If I held that sweater, for an instant, could my memory be even more potent?
If this trend comes back for a millisecond, can I recapture that nameless thing, smell it, taste it, love it, live it, breathe it? Could I?
And even if these things don’t happen, if I/we/you see something that reminds us of (whatever), can’t we, please, just have it for a moment, pass it on to our grandchildren or something: maybe it all was nothing (we’re sure it was nothing), but nevertheless, there was something so pleasant and wonderful and optimistic about the Coke watches and rugbys
the swatch watches
the Guess and Palmetto jeans
the festival of peach, aqua, mint, lemon, and orchid
the Converse cheerleading shoes
the Nike saddle-style cheerleading shoes
the Esprit bags
the jelly bracelets and jelly shoes
the [thing you loved]
the plaid jumper
the corduroy pants
the favorite shoes
the… the… the…
the gold/mustard shirt with the red and blue paisleys.
Dear Evelyn, I get it. (I wish I still had that shirt. Not and never the stupid tie. But the shirt. Thank you, Evelyn, for the shirt.)