When I think back, I believe it was at a very early age that I realized I was different from other little girls. I didn’t like dolls, I preferred cars and trucks and dirt (my mother said I was the grubbiest kid in the neighborhood). I wanted all my brother’s hand me downs, which I did get for play clothes. The jeans (I think I even had a pair of Osh Koshes), the T-shirts. All suitable for a unisex child at play.
At first I was not cognizant of what the heck I wore (although I did like a little sailor suit - military lapels, you know). But then came the realization that not everyone dressed the same. Boys wore better clothes. I wasn’t a boy.
My mother sewed well, and unfortunately thought making little girl frou-frou clothes was just what I wanted. I didn’t. I hated birthday parties – why? Because I had to wear something with a crinoline. I even remember the torture of going to Sunday school at the age of 6 and wearing a brown velvet ‘bonnet’. Yes, bonnet. My mother thought it made me look cute. I felt so disgraced. I looked more like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm out to kill her favorite chicken.
Fortunately at school we wore uniforms, which despite the skirt felt more comfortable than patent leather shoes and white gloves. At least we got to wear a tie and blazer and oxford shoes.
There were terrible tantrums about wearing my mother’s carefully made dresses. She must have been hurt and puzzled, but I had no way to tell her that they humiliated me. I wasn’t even sure why myself. I didn’t want to sit with my legs together, I wanted to play like my brother. I loved the feel of pants on my legs. I simply did not feel feminine enough to wear even the simplest of dresses without shame. It felt so unnatural. I was forced into drag.
I didn’t want to be a boy. But I wanted the freedom of dress and all that implied. Once I remember my brother in his 12 year old's ‘suit’ still being able to go out and toss the football with our male cousins. I sat and watched from the front step. I began to cry. No one could understand why, and my father lifted me comfortingly into the house, unable to know what set me off. Being a girl meant not having fun. Not being a part of the ruckus. Being left to watch, not do. Those knees glued together, and god forbid the sight of those white cotton panties (I always hated that word – why did my brother wear ‘underwear’?).I know I was the anomaly. Most little girls, enjoyed their own privileges by staying more with the adults, and feeling special in their floofy dresses. I don’t criticize them, I just didn’t understand them.
By the time I was able to say ‘NO!’ and not just tantrum, it became the battle of my life to get my mother to stop putting me in empire line dresses made of liberty cotton. If a dress was involved, I became rude, defiant, and generally a monster. I still have a picture my mother took of us in Montreal in front of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on vacation. I was wearing a liberty cotton dress with…an empire waistline tied with a bow. My brother and father, smiling for the camera but I was stepping towards the camera (my mother) with a jutting out chin, and the eyes of a storm.
I never truly escaped the dress issue until I went away to boarding school at the age of 13. Again, more uniforms for all occasions. Nothing fruity. By the time I graduated and was headed for college, my mother had little say in what I wore. Thank god for dress pants.
I don’t even own a dress now, and haven’t for 25 years. There are too many options out there for women my age who wish to look dressy, but not wear a cocktail dress.
I do, however, still shudder when a little girl in a pink dress and patent leather shoes passes by.