Dressing for Success?

Walking from the subway to the Graduate Center, where I teach, I pass by the shop window of the Garment Center, or at least what it’s become since its heyday. Some of the stores sell only wholesale (Al Por Mayor, bilingually); others tempt passers-by with clothing racks strategically positioned outside the store, heterogeneous tops and bottoms, all for $10. I peer inside and try to imagine who wears this clothing and where.

IMG_0424If I were to enter, would I find anything to wear? Certainly nothing to teach in.

In what universe would a woman, what woman, wear an evening gown like this? Clearly, I’m not the intended shopper, even if I’ve stopped in front of the window, fascinated. I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on a lot of fun and glamour. I think this is called cultural dissonance.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had a tailoring shop in this same neighborhood, one flight up on 35th Street, off Seventh Avenue. He sold men’s suits, but he also made coats for his grandchildren in beautiful fabrics–serge, gabardine–with handmade buttonholes and sleek linings. He cut and Harry sewed, bent over the sewing machine, his lips closed over pins.

If the photo album tells the story, we were well-dressed little girls. Not that we appreciated the details at the time.

On the few bare building surfaces that remain, in this area dotted with quickly constructed glass skyscrapers, you can still see traces of that era―dresses hand painted on the walls. Soon even they will be gone.

I have very few childhood memories, surprising, perhaps, for a memoirist. But the atmosphere of quiet creation inside my grandfather’s shop, reached only after navigating the treacherous racks of dresses and coats being pushed along the sidewalks at breakneck speed, is a scene I now return to weekly, as I thread my way to work.

Three Shades of Black

NancyblackshadesSummer Black, of course. No New Yorker needs persuading about wearing black in the summer―is there any other color?―but apparently London women need help, or at least encouragement to believe that black is still the new black. Hence the reassurance by style mavens that it’s more than OK to dress all in black this summer, despite the heat wave (a blip compared to New York weather), and despite all the advice to go floral and, well, summery. To wear black is to aim for “cool girl Scandinavian.” I have no idea what the “cool girl Scandavian” look is (the sartorial version of Scandanavian noir?), but there is plenty of black in London.

A recent trip with a visiting American teenager to Harrods had lots of black on display. (The fabled store is now owned by the father of Dodi, the boyfriend of Princess Diana, who died with her sixteen years ago; there’s a memorial shrine to the couple on the lowest floor of the store)

But the black that caught more than my eye was the number of women dressed entirely in black, shopping.

burkasIt was hard for me not to stare as I tried to try to make sense of the contrast between these women covered head to toe in black, with only a slit for their eyes, and the display of gorgeous luxury items for which the store is famous. What, I wondered, were they shopping for? And what were they wearing under the burkas (or burqas as it’s often spelled here)? In London burkas and headscarves are omnipresent and, for the time being at least, the fact of women covering their faces is not moving forward as a political issue. It has, however, been raised by conservatives.

The same is not true in France, where the question of the scarf (le voile) and face covering is a hotly debated and fiercely argued question.

burka2In France the rationale for banning the wearing of the headscarf is part of the secularist legislation banning all “ostentatious” religious symbols from the cross to the yarmulke–and the anti-headscarf position is largely supported by many well-known French feminists. But given all the other political and economic issues associated with the large Muslim population in France, the question of the headscarf is rarely just a matter of opinion. It has become a lightning rod for protest, often accompanied by violence on both sides―protesters and police.

In the summer of 2003 I was in London for the astounding heat wave that caused many deaths here and in Europe. I found myself more than puzzled, horrified really, to see many Muslim families in Kensington Gardens where the men were sitting on the grass in open-necked shirtsleeves, and the women tented in black tending to the children running around freely.

Surely, the acceptance of cultural difference has its limits? Or am I just depressingly Western?

Reading the signs of spring in Manhattan

I’ve been trying to decide whether my negative feelings about being back in New York after a month at sea, well, by the sea, should be described as churlish, curmudgeonly, or cantankerous―there’s a lot of overlap, of course. I’m thinking that cantankerous comes closest. There’s also carping―why so many c’s, I wonder. Anyway, this will be my last post for now in the series of (well, OK, there are some good–interesting, beautiful, weird) things about New York, especially now that the weather is beautiful and spring is literally bursting out all over, that remind me why, all these years later, I still live here.

I’ll start with beautiful:

On the sidewalks of the Upper West Side, I stop to contemplate the less dazzling but quite charming multi-colored petunias–oops, I think they may be pansies–that the residents fond of trees plant and then try to protect from dogs (usually unsuccessfully). I’m touched by the botanical effort to cheer us up. (What I know about flowers could be put in a flower pot. A small one.) Anyway, if you want to know why “the recession can’t stop the flowers from blooming,” check out the report on the phenonemon.


I’m trying a new yoga class at a different gym. This particular class is the kind of yoga called “Anusara” that I have done in the past―elsewhere. One of the things that drives me crazy about anusara is that the teacher begins each class not only with a chant in Sanskrit (I will not chant in Sanskrit, even though I know that what is being said is not offensive―something about our inner light), and I hum “om” since it embarrasses me to sing “om” in a group―but with a theme. So today the theme had to do with spring, and how when we look at the flowers blooming around us and realize that soon they won’t be blooming, and then feel sad, we are making a philosophical error. That is: when we perceive beauty―flowers, for instance―we think the beauty is in the flowers but in fact (fact?) the beauty is just a reflection of the joy in ourselves, in our capacity to perceive beauty. Hmm…I thought about myself looking at the tulips and the pansies and I was sorry to say that I did not think that the beauty was in me, certainly not joy. And yet I had to say there was something sweet, vaguely Platonic, about this idea. Definitely an optimistic view, if not, for me believable. Fortunately, the actual practice of anusara is quite wonderful, and I like this teacher. I am even grateful to her because I am returning to yoga after  a long hiatus because of my illness. And, and I would have to admit that when I struggle with the poses―my joints complain loudly―I can tell that the practice exists somewhere in me.

What about New York is unusual? One of the things is the amount of time we spend standing on line (I know most people say standing in line, but New Yorkers don’t). I caught two surprising lines this week. I could not figure out why the people (mainly young men) with backpacks and computers were lined up near Fifth Avenue and 40th Street in the morning. What were they waiting for? When I reached the corner I saw that they were waiting to enter the Mid-Manhattan library that opens at 10 a.m. There have been lots of debates about the future of this popular branch of the NYPL system, and the line seemed to me proof that the library was needed, and should not be dismantled in the name of some hollow sounding progress. Maybe this article about help for veterans explains the unusual mission fulfilled by the branch, across the street from the flagship, as it is called.

And then, the first mystery solved, this line of young women, studying their cell phones, lined up on a side street in the garment district:


They are waiting, the sign says, to take a class of Bikram or “hot” yoga…(I did try that once or twice–definitely not for me, even though it promises weight loss).

What always makes me pause when I’m walking in the city is the the cliché, but nevertheless poignant in its effects, the proliferation of contrasts–in scale and style–which to me is at the heart of why New York remains an always surprising place:

For instance, last weekend, my friend Victoria’s son Judah, playing the cello in a group recital at his Upper East Side music school. The beautifully dressed and absolutely adorable children―some of whom looked like toddlers with miniature violins―all performed with concentration and seriousness (hard to evaluate talent at this point…) Note Judah’s signature bow tie.


And then, across the park, on my way home, I came upon (their sounds preceded them) this youthful orchestra, composed of middle school students from Manhattan, playing on 94th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. The members of the Roy H Mann band sounded great, loud, brassy, and full of life, and I hoped that their capacity to make music would bring them into bright futures. Why this group was performing for a Russian cultural festival is not entirely clear to me.

The performance did not benefit from a glamorous or elegant setting―around the corner from where I live, a neighborhood that’s a study in contrasts itself―but it was beautifully alive with the sounds of music.

Perhaps the music was also alive in me.

Never can say good-bye….

I’m back home after 33 days of if not total bliss, daily doses of beauty on the Italian riviera, the part known as the “levante.” We all know the drill of return: everything is so real. And in New York everything is not only real but more real: loud, dirty, unforgiving. Even if I can force myself to acknowledge some good aspects to being home―a performing washer/dryer (that dries socks in minutes, not hours), a stellar printer/scanner (with long enough memory to print a whole manuscript in one go)―more pieces of clothing than the ones you’d been wearing (and washing) for 33 days. The list is not long, though, at least not for me, not this time. Oh, let’s see: drinking morning tea in bed―a forbidden pleasure at the Fondazione. Watching movies at night on tv in bed (ditto). Reading The Times on paper (had to make do with the recycled news of the  Herald Tribune.) I guess I could come up with a few more if I really tried.

But I thought I should try harder.

So I made an experiment. Instead of the gorgeous passeggiata along the Mediterranean, now consigned to memory, I took my daily walk on the Promenade along―well, parallel to―the Hudson River, on the Upper West Side where I live. I decided to take my camera as I did daily in Italy and see whether I could focus my eyes on pieces of beauty in the streets, enough to cheer me up. I pretended I was visiting the city as an enthusiastic tourist, instead of a lifelong, grouchy New Yorker.

I made a first stop walking down the hill to the community gardens at 91st Street and Riverside Drive, where spring was edging its way into existence.


Then took a shot of the river with a freighter in the mid-ground―recalling the freighters that sat on the horizon of the Mediterranean waiting to dock in Genoa. That didn’t quite work, mainly because of New Jersey’s dreary architecture in the background.


I looked for another angle but was defeated by the highway. Lordly as the Hudson is, it was not going to give me sublime.

I left the park and wandering home, I was surprised to see a plaque on the wall at 160 Riverside Drive that I had never noticed, in honor of Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for the New York Times. I even remember reading his columns when I was growing up.


And a few steps farther, on the same block, 88th Street between Riverside and West End Avenue, a plaque to Babe Ruth. They seemed new. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

So I walked up to 94th street to compare with a much larger tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that’s been up there for a while.

Could New York be on its way to becoming London and recognizing its writers and artists? Rumor has it that our own building is going to have a plaque in memory of the painter Barnett Newman.

My excursion cheered me up slightly, but I can’t help feeling that this neighborhood tour, whatever its charms, will not console me for my sense of paradise lost.

photo (8)