I believe in party dresses.
My mother and I both use clothes to make a statement.
For 26 years, my mother, Margaret Simmons, worked as a high school home ec teacher. She can sew anything: business suits, wedding dresses. She must have altered a hundred prom dresses over the years for her students who were not conventionally sized.
My mother loves fabric in bright colors, purples and reds. But she went to work every day in rather conservative business suits. That was her cry for some modicum of respect from school administrators who thought nothing of interrupting her class to get a cup of coffee from the home ec room kitchen.
My mother started college in the 1950s. Teaching and nursing were pretty much the only fields that were open to her. Like most of her female classmates, she dropped out to get married. Three kids later, she finished her degree at the age of 40, staring down the difficult reality of single parenthood.
She needed respect and a living wage. She didn’t get either.
Like most working women, she was underpaid relative to the value of her work. She was a brilliant seamstress, but much of that work was unpaid. She sewed dozens of dresses for me. Even when they weren’t my taste, I loved them because she made them with her own hands.
My mom is retired now, and surprisingly not bitter. Several months ago, I called her during the Oscars.
“Watcha doin’?” I asked.
She was sketching every dress as the award recipients walked on stage.
In looking at my mother’s life, I am painfully aware of the cumulative cost of being underpaid, all the compound interest that did not accrue over the decades.
My mom is OK because she is frugal to a fault. I was in line with her at the grocery store once on double coupon day. After the clerk rang up every item, then took my mom’s stack of coupons, she actually handed money back to my mom.
But there are millions of older American women, our mothers and grandmothers, former teachers and nurses and cleaning ladies, who are living in poverty, taking odd jobs when, really, their hands are too arthritic to perform the work without pain.
I imagine these women in their youth, wearing white gloves and that one nice dress, how they squeezed into the narrow confines of what was allowed for their sex.
Today I wear bright flowered party dresses, some with crinolines sewn into the skirt, to bear witness to their plight. I want to put the lie to the notion that those who conform and do as they’re told will be taken care of.
My hair is neither curled nor sprayed in place. My shoes are not dyed to match. But I believe in party dresses. I’m hoping that when I wear one, it will jar you into thinking about all the women who did all the right things, but did not come out ahead.
Cindy Simmons is a professor in the College of Communications at Penn State University Park.