The jeans I remember as my first pair of jeans were not actually my first. I had jeans in childhood, bought for me by my mother, always in the boys’ department, because I didn’t have the lithe slender girl-body I had already internalized as being the “correct” one -- I had a belly, and “baby fat,” and it was only the boys’ jeans that fit me. I found this humiliating in the extreme, and eventually refused to wear them, favoring instead the loose printed knit pants, elastic-waist shorts, and stirrup leggings that, luckily for me, were still considered trendy in my social group in the mid to late 1980s.
My other first pair of jeans were purchased when I was 12. It was 1989. My mom was with me when I found these, too. Although my parents split when I was six and I lived full-time with my father, my mother and I have always found our closest bonding experiences through shopping. This is not as depressing as it sounds; it wasn’t about buying things. My mom had little money, and I only had my weekly allowance. It was about the shared adventure of shopping. We looked at expensive dresses. We tried on all the hats in the hat department at JC Penney. We laughed and went out and had fun and it was basically free.
I don’t remember if we went looking for those jeans on purpose, or if they just presented themselves. The jeans came in a 14. They had a pleated front, and I had to double-cuff the bottoms to keep them off the floor. They fit, and they weren’t tight. “Tuck in your shirt,” my mother suggested -- I never tucked in my shirt. I was too round for that. I was wearing a red mock turtleneck. Tucked in, the pleats hid the swell of my belly. Finally, I had jeans I could wear. All my friends had jeans, and now I did, too. I could even tuck in my shirt. It was a revolution in my desperate-to-belong soul.
A few days later, I ran into a friend at a racquetball club where both our parents were playing. I was wearing my jeans, with my shirt tucked in. I’ll never forget her reaction. “JEANS!” she said, pointing at my legs, her hand over her mouth in theatrical astonishment. She literally grabbed my hand and brought me over to where her mother and brother were sitting. “JEANS!” she repeated, still pointing. “LESLEY IS WEARING JEANS.”
I’d never felt so proud to be wearing a piece of clothing. Jeans were a thing all my peers wore, but I had always believed I was too fat to wear them. Jeans were normal, and I was too fat to be normal. But in that moment, I felt normal. It wouldn’t last, but it was a sharp and persistent memory.
The following year, when I graduated from middle school, I needed a fancy dress. Being just past comfort in a misses’ 14, I had to go to August Max Woman, a plus size mall boutique that catered to sturdy grandmas and other matronly types. I had mixed feelings about that dress -- it was nothing like what my peers were wearing. They had slinky shiny short dresses from 5-7-9, things that looked cheap and disposable and unbearably trendy. I still wished I had the option to buy what they were wearing too, but I’d also developed an appreciation for looking different. I liked the floral tapestry jacket. I loved my little lacy gloves and my beaded drawstring purse and my dyed-to-match satin heels. I can remember the feel of that dress like I wore it yesterday.
Sometimes I wonder if I have an unusually developed sense of clothing history -- I can remember vivid details of dresses long departed throughout my life. I remember the ruffled pinstriped-denim miniskirt I wore compulsively as a preteen; I remember the patterns of the three tie-dyed shirts I loved best in middle school; I remember the horrible sky-blue overalls that I hated and felt disgusting in. I remember being ten and lying on my bed to zip up too-small floral-denim jean shorts from Lerner’s until the skin on my right index finger was shredded in the effort. I remember thinking it was good that they made my stomach look so flat, and that surely no one would notice the mother of all muffin-tops exploding out the top. I’d just wear a big shirt.
I remember every band t-shirt from my early teens and every elaborate goth ensemble from my late teens and early 20s. I remember every pair of boots I’ve ever bought. I’m not kidding. Every pair. I remember one day my first month in Boston in 1995, when I was standing outside Tower Records on Newbury Street feeling the sunshine on my face and overcome with a sense of joy and gratitude, and I remember it mostly because of the ditsy-print crinkle-cotton mini dress I was wearing, with the elastic suspender clips that adjusted the waist in the back.
What’s odd is that my memories are not specific to major life events -- I remember what I wore to a nightclub sometime in the winter of 2000 as well as I remember what I wore to get married at city hall. Is it just me that marks my life by the clothes I was wearing at the time? Do you have specific memories of items of clothing that stand out to you, forever?