This is how I look, how I dress, on an average day. Makeup-free. Hair let down or wrapped up in some version of a turban. Face framed by thick glasses containing a prescription that's been strong since childhood. Feet shod in the most comfortable, worn-in pair of shoes I own. Wearing some combination of my usuals - heather grey sweatshirts, slim fitting pants, a proper wool jacket or trench for the days when it's chilly...
These are my signifiers, the garments I choose without premeditation. They represent many things about my personal beliefs and lifestyle, but most of all, they are the familiar, beloved items I've worn throughout adulthood - nothing is trend-making or high-fashion. Recently, I've been thinking about what it means to be in my thirties and to be wearing the same few things I've been drawn to since my teens.
I suppose it means I inadvertently channel a younger version of myself through my sartorial choices?
The shopkeepers in my section of Amsterdam certainly think so. On multiple occasions and by different people, I've been carded and brusquely interrogated when trying to buy a bottle of wine for a post-dinner drink at home. A compliment of sorts, yes, but highly irritating when it occurs too often. And this, with a wedding band on my finger, a curious toddler squirming in my arms, the beginnings of parentheses etched around my mouth, and the occasional dark circles surrounding my eyes.
By the time I present an ID to my interrogators, the questioning is always replaced with a look of shock and a quick apology.
According to one cashier I decided to chat up - a mere youth who himself seemed far too young to be selling wines and liquor - I appeared to be 22, maybe 23 at most, which was a problem given that one had to be at least 25 in order to purchase alcohol in the Netherlands. Turns out, the lad was 20 years old; he said I didn't dress, "like a married lady in her thirties." When prompted to explain what a married lady in her thirties looked like, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I suppose more... mature and mumsy? Not out and about, and so slim in skinny jeans, maybe." I stood there with a shopping list for dinner in hand, my son now drifting to sleep in his stroller, and I wondered just how 'mumsy' one needed to be in order to appear mature enough to pay a 20 year old boy for a bottle of wine.
Was he being ageist, and even a little patriarchal by implying that maturity manifests itself through dowdy, shapeless clothing worn by a curmudgeonly and tired-looking woman who briefly ventures outside her natural domain to run a few errands before retreating into marriage and motherhood?
Maybe. Maybe not.
He didn't look to be the sharpest fellow around, so I doubt he spent his lunch breaks constructing arguments against notions of double-burdens, feminism, or self-fashioning. But then again, one never knows what sort of limiting, ill-informed assumptions a person could be using to navigate the world around them.
I like to think of myself as an old soul with an eternally youthful, hopeful approach to life. Perhaps it is this outlook more than my style or countenance, that makes the average person think I am so young. That's a pleasant belief to have, not so? Once, in the relaxed atmosphere of a post-conference party in New York, my husband's twenty-five year old lab manager shyly confessed that she thought I looked, "too cool to be a professor's wife," and asked my age, wondering if I was much younger than she.
I need not describe how red she turned or how quickly she slinked off into the crowded night when I disclosed how old I actually was.