Hello my Dearies!
It's Wedding time. A gorgeous woman is standing in the dressing room. From both mirrors and across her face beams a radiant energy that makes the very air buzz. She is not just large, she is larger than life. She is not just black—her polished ebony skin gleams darkly in the light. Her head is piled with tiny glossy braids that sweep in circles like an upside-down basket on her head. Her laugh burbles easily from her open throat as she gazes joyfully at her wife-to-be. I finish making a few adjustments to a dress that fits her like a second skin and step back. We all agree. She is Magnificent!
They leave the shop together, smiling, and suddenly everything seems a little dimmer. I slip on my thimble and pick up a threaded needle and wonder what it takes to be Magnificent like that. For a moment, I think "If only I was black, and curvy, and a lesbian. Those lucky big, black, lesbians! Magnificence comes so easily for them. Having what the Scots call “peely-wally” sallow skin and frizzy red hair that refuses to behave—that’s got to be what’s holding me back."
The bell on the door rings and a white woman in her mid-seventies comes in. Her grey hair is shaved closed to her head and her ears bob with multiple earrings. She is tall, with large, expressive hands that flutter over her boldly-colored flowing clothes as she describes how she wants her Grandmother-of-the-Groom gown to fit. She is comfortable. She moves gracefully, laughs easily. The deep lines around her kind eyes make it look like she is smiling all the time. When she leaves the shop, I slump back in my chair. Maybe I don’t have to be black or lesbian to be Magnificent after all! I just have to wait until I am seventy and then shave my head. (That certainly will solve the frizzy red hair situation.)
My favorite crabby person comes in. She is in her mid-sixties and Jewish, with grown children who never call her. She too is Magnificent. I see right through her fabulous crabbiness in an instant. She is just extremely knowledgeable and unappreciated, perhaps even misunderstood, and sometimes her crankiness intimidates people. She leaves and I think if I had been born Jewish I might have a shot at being Magnificent (I am already frequently misunderstood and well on my way to being crabby).
What it is that makes three such completely different people be so Magnificent? You might think I am an indiscriminate person--that I just think every person I meet is Magnificent. Not so. I try not to judge, but when I do, I judge very stringently. Every person is Loveable, to be sure, but very few people earn my designation of Magnificent. Most of us are just merely in Danger of being Magnificent. But just when we are about to risk something big, we lower the hemline, raise the neckline, wear something prudent and cautious and beige and then shuffle anonymously to a seat in the shadows at the back of the room. (Not that I am anti-modesty, mind you! Ironically, modest clothing is often the most alluring. Here in New England, during the three months a year we don’t wear parkas, it’s best to keep things covered anyway, or at least disguised with some well-placed shrubbery!) In danger of being Magnificent, we stay quiet. We stay neutral. We don’t want to cause a ruckus or a fuss. We don’t embody Joy. Our clothes are the food-smeared caves where we hide, as we roam Wallmart in slippers, looking for snacks.
These women I call Magnificent are not so because they don’t have problems. EVERY customer has a problem—that’s how I come to meet them in the first place. Sometimes the problem is with an article of clothing that is not behaving. Sometimes the problem is with him or herself. Sometimes it is with the fashion industry and its cock-a-mamie attempts to get us all to resemble trout. For these women, the problem is definitely NOT them. They blame the clothes, not themselves. And they know how to ask for help. Once the alterations are finished, they don’t just wear their garments—they Present them. Their "outfits" represent "inner-fits" and are simply the costumes required for dramas in which they are not afraid to star.
Some women just don’t get this. They look in the mirror with defeated sighs and say “I really need to lose some weight. I really want to wear this (skirt, dress, hideous lemon leotard) for some occasion (wedding, funeral, family reunion where weird Uncle Larry is going to eat all the cheese balls again). I always protest and say “Change the clothes, dear heart, not you!" Like a dog-trainer, I show the customer how to take control of the situation by shaking her pants and saying “you naughty pants! Shame on you! How dare you make this woman’s bum look big!” (Sometimes, the pants snarl back “hey! It’s not MY fault that cow likes pumpkin lattes! Don’t blame me!” Pants are vicious creatures sometimes, especially when they use the voice of our own savage inner critics.) Fine if you want to lose weight for health reasons or to feel more energetic, just don't let that uppity blouse from Ralph Lauren try to be the boss of You. But really, it’s not about the actual size of your bum at all. It’s about the size of the woman inside that bum that counts. I can tell by how these women enter the shop that they are terrified of being Magnificent. They approach timidly, apologetically. They are sorry they have this dress, sorry they aren’t the right size, sorry to bother us, sorry for living. They meekly follow me to the dressing room, where their shoulders sag like bent hangers and their clothes dangle forlornly, like laundry left on the clothesline after a rain.
Being Magnificent is totally dangerous. It carries us to the edge of our discomfort. It exposes. It risks. The easiest thing to do is to stay home dressed as an amorphous blob under a fluffy bathrobe and a pair of sweat pants. (Sweat pants—ew! Even then very name tells you they are NOT magnificent. Though if your wear them to a gym, where they belong, and actually sweat in them on a regular basis, well, you will become very strong, which is a good piece of being Magnificent.) The much harder thing is to claim your own femininity or masculinity and dress yourself in a way that defines not just who you are right now but who you want to be, moving forward, as your roles evolve. What is fun for you to wear? What colors do you love? What makes you feel comfortable, vibrant, ready to Live? Do you really want to wear four-inch stilletoes to the prom? Or would you be happier in some blinged-out keds?
Being Magnificent has nothing to do with what size, shape, or color you are. Trust me, I study this species close up during my daily dressing room safaris. Right now, it’s also Prom Season and there is an endless parade of physical youth and perfection in the dressing room. I have seen elegant creatures with long, sylph-like limbs, pert noses, and hair tumbling in silky waterfalls down their backs who look hollow, somehow uninhabited—as if they are less than the sum of the parts they have assembled under all that chiffon. They are tightly furled, un-bloomed. The runways are full of these long-legged things held up as the icons of beauty on every magazine cover. Well, they ARE beautiful. They are just not Magnificent. Not yet. There is a difference.
Women who are truly Magnificent are not born that way. It takes a while, and some significant suffering, like the growth of a pearl in an oyster. (Young people can be Magnificent too, but it's rare--and only if they have overcome something big.) A woman over seventy has had to live through a thing or two, not the least of which are multiple eras of bell-bottomed pants and line-backer shoulder pads. These women have stopped accepting the dictates of arbitrary fashion designers who think we need to consign ourselves to a lifetime of lean cuisine and stevia to conform and have begun to exercise their own free will. Which is pretty much how this whole “wearing clothes” thing got started, if you will recall! How much more dangerous can you get?
There is a price to pay for being Magnificent. No doubt about it. People will notice you. People will talk about you. People will listen to you. Frizzy red-haired people might seriously be tempted to shave their heads upon meeting you. Some people will admire you and some people definitely will not like you. That’s a frightful amount of responsibility, to be sure. Most of the time, my own personal fashion focus consists of making sure there is no animal dung on my shoes, no hay in my pockets, and that the hem of my skirt is not inadvertently tucked into my waistband—like that time I unwittingly mooned half of High Street before a polite stranger clued me in. Still, I admire these Mavens of Magnificence who have the courage to inhabit their whole selves, who understand that sheer radiance will triumph over any kind of genetics, race, or creed, who know that Happiness is the best make-up ever. Too many of us come into the dressing room and fuss and pick over the tiniest details without actually looking at the bigger picture in the mirror. Expecting to be a beacon of light without a shadow of a doubt is expecting Perfection. It’s impossible. So why strive for Perfect, when Magnificent will do?
Be well and do good work!