Making Of A Fashion Icon
All children play pretend games. And playing pretend was M’s favorite game. She played pretend for hours. And my husband gladly played with her…for hours. As long as he got to read the papers at the same time.
Cartoon Network was not available in Lagos. At least not when we lived there. The television existed for watching CNN, and videotaped Japanese TV programs, and Disney movies that came all the way from the Disney Store in London’s Regent Street.
M’s pretend games came from her favorite Disney movies. She enacted favorite scenes, and the one she chose for herself and her father was from Peter Pan. My husband was the mean pirate Captain Hook and she was his genial right-hand man Smee. Captain Hook orders Smee to give him a shave, and Smee proceeds to wrap a towel around the Captain’s head. A seagull flys over, sits on top of the Captain’s head, and Smee shaves the seagull’s rear end.
M would make my husband sit on a chair, wrap his head in a towel, and pretend that she was Smee giving Captain Hook a shave. She played this game for many hours, and my husband was happy to oblige her. He had taught her to wrap his hair alone instead of his whole head, and thus, he was free to comfortably read a week’s worth of the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Herald Tribune. In Lagos, the newspapers came only once a week. And all at the same time.
Every once in a while, Captain Hook would order Smee to get a glass of water, or a cup of coffee. And M did as she was told with great enthusiasm. My husband was after all playing pretend with her.
As M grew older, her pretend games became more complex. She was now enacting scenes from her favorite books. While living in Vienna, we had a Victorian Christmas afternoon tea inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. I laid out my Wedgewood cups and saucers, made scones and bought mince pies. M came dressed as a Victorian lady. Long pink gown, white gloves and lace umbrella. Mommy and Daddy were allowed to wear 21st century clothes.
Playing pretend required costumes, and M had a wicker chest full of them. Tie-dyed African shirts and silk Chinese dresses from friends. Discarded Halloween costumes from school bazaars. Left-over fabrics. And lots of hats.
Not all of her pretend games required enactment. At times, it was sufficient for her to read dressed like the characters of the book in her hands. Tamora Pierce was another favorite author, and M read her books dressed like a medieval girl.
But medieval girls did not go to family restaurants for dinner on the weekends.
M was a voracious reader, and on that weekend, she did not want to do anything but read. And I wanted to do anything but cook dinner. We decided to go to the nearest family restaurant.
Mommy: M, are you ready to go?
She was standing at the door. Reading intently. And wearing a long faded brown skirt. A skirt of mine that I though I had thrown away ages ago.
Mommy: Are you not going to change?
M: No. I am going like this.
She was still reading. The skirt was very, very faded, and its hem touched the floor. I looked at my husband. We were in Japan. And in Japan, nine-year-old girls did not go to the neighborhood family restaurant in long faded skirts.
Mommy: What do you think?
I asked my husband.
Daddy: I guess it’s OK.
Mommy: Are you sure?
My husband nodded. I was not so sure. And M was standing at the door. Still reading. Oblivious to my dilemna.
I could already see the furtive glances cast our way as we walk in and out of the family restaurant. The Japanese are too polite to stare. I resisted the impulse to ask M to change into clothes appropriate for nine-year-old Japanese girls going to dinner at a family restaurant. I could be squashing a budding fashion designer. The little girl standing at the door in a long faded brown skirt could be the future Hanae Mori.
Mommy: Well, then. Let’s go.
We had a pleasant evening at the family restaurant. I think we all had M’s favorite dish. Japanese-style hamburger steak.
The long faded brown skirt made another appearance in public. M wore it to school. And her best friend called it a horrid old skirt.
M’s reply was…
“If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.”
M did not often go to school dressed in clothes from her play pretend wicker chest. In New York, I did what all mothers did. Buy children’s clothes from the Gap when they went on sale. M was a Gap kid.
Back in Japan, the Gap was just beginning to do business with a few stores in major locations. It was very fashionable to be seen in Gap clothes. And M became a fashion icon. She was the only girl who wore capri pants. I bought them just before leaving New York. On sale. Fifty percent off the original price. Some girl said something about her pants being too short, but when Gap stores in Tokyo started selling capri pants, all the girls came to school in pants that were too short.
The two incidents involving the long faded brown skirt left no doubt in my mind that M was confident in her clothes. She gave careful thought to what she would wear to school, and she always planned her outfits the night before.
She enjoyed being complimented for her choice of clothes, but she did not dress to get attention. She simply wanted to be well-dressed, and be different enough to be noticed, and complimented.
And so, I was totally taken aback by her choice of clothes for her first day at the local Japanese school. Instead of summer school at ASIJ, she decided to attend the local school to improve her Japanese language skills. The night before, she laid out a very plain looking skirt, and a plain white T-shirt. And for the next few days, she wore her oldest plainest-looking clothes. No bright colors, and no Gap logos.
Mommy: Why don’t you wear your embroidered Gap jeans?
She was putting on a pair of old shorts.
M: I like these shorts.
Mommy: What about one of your Gap T-shirts?
She was putting her head through another plain white shirt.
I was getting irritated. Little girls outgrow their clothes very quickly. And I was a cost-conscious mom. I wanted to get as much mileage as possible from that pair of embroidered Gap jeans.
Mommy: What’s wrong with those jeans?
The irritation was evident in my voice.
Mommy: Then, why won’t you wear them?
Mommy: What’s wrong with them?
I ask the same question. A little angry this time.
M: I don’t want to look different. I am different enough even in these plain clothes.
I was at a loss for words. And I rarely am. My husband will vouch for that.
M was eight years old. She left Japan six months after her first birthday, and she did not return until she was seven. She has never attended a Japanese school until then, and yet, she understood that in Japan, the nail that sticks out is hammered down.
I was ashamed of myself. This little girl understood much more than I did. I never questioned her choice of clothes again. At least, not during that summer.