How Sandra Got Her (Style) Groove, Lost, and Got it Back Again

In Terri McMillan’s loosely autobiographical How Stella Got Her Groove Back (later made into a movie) an overworked, love-starved middle-aged woman travels to Jamaica and falls for a man half her age. Her real-life Prince Charming unfortunately, just sashayed out of the closet where he’d been hiding all along. I guess that old groove thing has gotten away from Stella once again.

My own closet is sad, though not quite so dramatic.

As I approached middle age I began slipping into secret shame -- the shadowy world of the unhip, the unstylish, and the hopelessly fashion-challenged. I could have become one of those unfortunate people humiliated before the nation on TLC’s What Not to Wear. You know that reality show where friends and family are encouraged to drop a dime on their frumpy loved ones. A new $5000 wardrobe is part of the deal, but not before the unfortunate fashion victim in double breasted blazer with linebacker shoulder pads and pleated tapered leg pants has been duly evangelized by Stacy and Clinton, the show’s hosts and style wardens.

Yes, there but for the grace of God went I – couldn’t tell the difference between low-rise bootcuts and a pair of mom jeans if I tried. But now I’ve been saved, hallelujah! After four short days in Paris I have emerged a changed woman.

It’s hard to mark the point where I lost my style groove because I can’t quite remember when I first found it. I was tall and skinny as a kid, all limbs and elbows and knees. Back then I was assaulted with an arsenal of ready-made insults from Motown music and pop culture – “Ho, ho, ho. Green Giant!” “Long Tall Sally from Carolina” (even though I was born and raised in Chicago). I guess “Bony Maroni” was a gate crasher in the “Land of A Thousand Dances,” since she was pointedly challenged: “Do you know how to Pony?”(I did then, and still can dance the Pony, thank you kindly).

High rounded butts and big legs were the mark of female pulchritude in 1960’s Black America and I was nobody’s “Brickhouse” – the kind of girl “who’s got everything a woman needs to get a man.” With legs like a baseball bat, it was better was to cover them up and pretend not to hear when somebody came up behind me singing: “Skinny Legs and All.”

My type was “in” for a hot minute back in the 1970’s. Long legs and a lean body filled out a bit in my late teens. Black America was rushing out the gate to meet White America, and skinny was coming in. I was a college student then, low on funds and not quite in full possession of the self-confidence lost back in the Boney Maroni days. Still I somehow found the wherewithal to get my look together.

All it took was a micro mini skirt or two, several pairs of bell bottom hip-huggers, and at least one of those African dashiki mass-produced in Holland. We didn’t know any better, okay? We bought Javanese Dutch caftans and didn’t read the fine print. You polished off your outfit with Earth Shoes if you were into flower power, or clunky platform heels if you wanted to be fly. Those shoes have made a comeback by the way, and so have bell bottomed hip huggers. Now they’re calling them “low-rise flares.”

Back then in the seventies James Brown was singing “How you gonna get respect (when you ain’t cut your process yet?)” His natural lasted all of five minutes, and then it was right back to the conkalene and processed pompadour. An NBA regulation-sized Afro was a necessary accoutrement for any stylish 1970’s black girl. There were several different versions to choose from.

You had your run of the mill natural, a free-form style that embraced the power of the kink. The Blow-out ‘Fro was a special look achieved with a little help from lye-based perms. We also had the curly Freedom ‘Fro and The Shag, a black version of the Mullet – shaggy on top, short in the middle, and long at the back. Think Lionel Ritchie in his Commodore days. Finally there was the TWA, or teeny-weeny Afro. This was what you sported when you didn’t have enough hair for any of the above – which was pretty much the vast majority of Black America. Afros were supposed to save us from the tyranny of the beauty industry and its impossible standards, but many a young girl cried into her pillow because she couldn’t get her ‘Fro to grow wide and woolly like Angela Davis’ or Foxy Brown’s. Women weren’t the only ones susceptible.

“I hear you got a new boyfriend,” someone might inquire. “Is he cute?”

“Yeah, girl,” might be the response. “Brotherman got a big ‘Fro and everything.”

We went to such lengths to get “the natural,” we might as well have gone back to the perms and straightening combs – which we eventually did.

I loved my Afro but it was like a part time job. I braided it every night to avoid a snarled rat’s nest in the morning. My daily routine was to dampen it down then pick, pat, and Afro Sheen it into a perfect ball. Even though I had what black women in the beauty shops called “a good headful of hair,” I wore a huge Afro wig for almost a year to save myself the trouble of grooming it.

I think I lost my style groove sometime in my thirties. I was raising two young children, trying to make it as a freelance writer and working on my first novel. I didn’t have time to comb, let alone keep up with the latest hairstyles. I got my oversized natural cut into a TWA, but found the benefits were short term. My hair grew so fast it seemed I was going in for a trim every other week. I started wearing cornrowed braids with acrylic extensions because I could wash and wear them for a couple months without having to lift a comb.

I gained weight over the years and began to gravitate toward anything to wear that was loose and stretchy. I did shop Lane Bryant’s in my skinny 20’s, but that was for the Tall Girl shop on the top floor. I’d avert my gaze when passing the plus-sized fashions, somehow embarrassed among them. As my thirties turned to forties, I still needed tall sizes for my long legs, but I found myself lingering in the vicinity of elastic-waist pants and shapeless tops, thinking “you know, these aren’t quite so bad.” Actually, Lane Bryant has been offering some rather stylish options for queen-sized women these days. And did you know they’ve changed their name? Um-hmm. Lane Bryant, the queen of queen-sized fashions has now become “The Woman Within.”

By the time my kids entered their teens it was official. The woman within Mom may have been taking fashion advice from Minnie Pearl or old Moms Mabley. My daughter Adjoa began subjecting me to wardrobe inspections whenever I left the house. Resistance was futile.

“Mom! You cannot wear those mom jeans out in public.”
“Why not? I am a Mom.”
“And Mom! You look like a teacher in that sweater.”
“Maybe that’s because I am a teacher.”
“You don’t have to look like one.”
“Alright. But I thought this sweater was kinda jazzy.”
“Mom! Anyone who uses the word jazzy … isn’t.”

She even created her own vocabulary of fashion offenses.

“Do not buy that, Mom. It’s frolly.”

fro-lly / fro le / adj: An unfortunate condition in which “frilly” meets “frowsy;” the deadliest of the seven fashion sins.

Now we fast forward several years. My daughter went off to college, coming home at regular intervals for wardrobe checks. I’d lost my groove and didn’t know where to find it. It never came home wagging its tail behind it. In March 2007 things would change – hopefully forever, though it’s too soon yet to tell.

We blundered into Paris at the tail end of Fashion Week, but that’s not what brought us there. Me, showing up at runway shows and haute couture houses in my Mom jeans? Not likely. Adjoa was doing her spring semester in London, studying design and buying clothes she couldn’t afford. When I and an old friend from Jamaica came flew out to visit, we all climbed aboard the Eurostar and crossed the Channel to spend four days in the City of Lights.

Immediately upon alighting in Gare du Nord Station I began to realize I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. First, there were pay toilets that cost 2 whole Euros (almost three dollars). We could have kicked ourselves for not using the free ones on the train. Then I began checking out the people milling about. A young woman whose leather boots met fringed knit Capri’s. Hmm. Quite stylish. A guy dressed all in black, carrying a guitar case. Like a young Johnny Cash. An older woman of the type black people describe as “settled” and whites call matronly. Not sporting any church lady drag, but an exquisitely tailored woolen coat in a bright shade of salmon.

The more I saw, the more apparent it became. I couldn’t speak for the rest of France, but Parisians were some stylish so-and-so’s! They didn’t just dress up for special occasions, keeping their grunge for everyday wear. It was all fashion, all the time. The old ladies and men. The young and the middle aged. School kids in uniform. Parents with youngsters. According to Adjoa, “even the babies are sexy.” The little fashion tyrant became a little intimidated by the elegance around her and was too busy inspecting her own wardrobe to give much attention to mine.

On Saturday afternoon we passed a loud, boisterous horde of young black men roaming Les Halles. All clumped together in a cordon, these teenager still found it necessary to shout back and forth to each other. They zigzagged recklessly through the space, seeming intent on making their presence known to everyone in sight. Although I realize teenaged armies of any race are wont to behave badly, I couldn’t help thinking of the race riots that rocked France just two years before.

Our host and tour guide nudged us out of harm’s way and wondered if we were frightened. I try to carry my street smarts when I travel; there’s no sense in getting on a plane and getting stupid. These kids were feeling their testosterone but didn’t seem to be causing any real trouble – not that I could see. Although somewhat fitter, more stylish – and of course, French-speaking -- these young men could have been my college students, or my son. My friend and I bravely assured her that we’d seen much thuggier looking thugs in the streets of Chicago and Kingston.

“At least they’re cute,” Adjoa added.

Four days isn’t a lot of time, but I’m a fairly quick study. These are some of the lessons I learned in Paris: wear well-cut garments; one good, well-constructed piece is better than ten cheap ones. Fine-tailored clothes also make you look thinner. Jeans are okay if you’ve still got the figure (I’m working on it), but T-shirts aren’t becoming on any woman on the far side of fifty. Stylish, but well-made shoes in dark shades of leather, and no – I repeat no athletic trainers.

Parisians look put-together when they stepped out on the street, but I suspect they also dress that way in the privacy of their homes. I’m now beginning to purge a collection of comfortable but unbecoming clothing I wear around the house when nobody’s looking. The law of averages suggests that anything worn on the inside eventually finds its way out.

Learning these rules made it easy to spot tourists. Though we were also tourists, we certainly didn’t want to be mistaken for them. As we passed people in the streets we played a whispered version of I-Spy. “Look at that T-shirt. Definitely American … See over there? He’s American, too … That one, I think she’s British … Mom! Those big white Reeboks? They’ve got American written all over them.”

None of us had the cash to invest in any haute couture, though we gazed longingly in many a store front. “How much is that blazer in the window,” I’d silently sigh,” the one with the snazzy lapels?” I didn’t have to ask prices to know this was real designer drag – real expensive. So, I’ve been trying to pass the class without buying the book.

While still on the ground in Paris we tried our best to smarten up our style. All-black, a popular choice among chic Parisians, was an easy fix. It was still chilly in March and pashminas to wrap the throat in artistic knots were a fashionable choice. Nix on the mom jeans. Leave the sneakers in the suitcase. I may be showing my low fashion IQ by referring to athletic shoes as sneakers. I’ve also been known to resurrect a term from my medieval childhood -- gym shoes. Gotta work on that.

We went forth bravely exploring Black Paris, the subject of a travel story I was researching. I began missing the corrugated soles of my sturdy pair of New Balance gym shoes – excuse me, cross trainers – after miles of marching the cobblestones in thin leather soles. In the infinite wisdom of Billy Crystal, who created a brand by lampooning Fernando Lamas on Saturday Night Live: “You look ma-ah-ve-los! And darling, it’s better to look good than feel good.” I don’t quite go for that, but I never wore athletic shoes outside. If the Parisians can look stylish with sore feet, I guess I can too.

Now that I’m back home I’m tentatively beginning to break my old bargain shopping habits by investing in the best-made garments I can find in my price range. I’m not necessarily looking for designer labels, but superior construction and fabric quality. And I don’t go out anywhere in sweats, t-shirts, and athletic shoes.
Okay, now I’m lying. I still dress that way when I take my morning constitutional or do the circuit at Curves, but my next project is to find more flattering exercise gear. I resist the urge to run to the store in my “house clothes” – a wardrobe of loose, worn, laundry-softened sweats. I’m also paying more attention to makeup, diet, hair and posture.

The most important style lesson I learned in Paris was attitude. There’s a style sensibility that goes along with the garments; a certain joie de vivre and savoir faire. Parisians don’t just live life, they savor it with all the trimmings: fresh cut flowers, creatively prepared calorie-laden dishes (but at half an American-sized portion). Endless varieties of cheeses and chocolates. Seriously exquisite wines. This reminds me.

On the second day in Paris we encountered a down-and-out sort of guy lounging on cardboard outside the Metro Station near our hotel. Yes, they have homelessness, too – some of it right there in the “Golden Triangle” tourist district. The other social ills don’t seem in short supply, either – racism, classism, alcoholism. The French are also famous for linguistic chauvinism and xenophobia, which may be at the root of some of those other isms. But one can’t deny a certain “ooh-la-la” that goes along with it. I can now understand why African-American artistes like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker flocked to Paris in years gone by. And they’re still coming.

Back to our Metro vagabond. On the mat before him was an uncorked bottle (not the twist-off kind) of red wine. We didn’t get a close enough look, but I’d like to imagine it was a modest, late vintage Burgundy – nothing haughty or pretentious. I know for a fact it wasn’t the beverage of choice for the American wino – Thunderbird in a brown paper bag, tucked discretely in the back trouser pocket. No drinking directly from the mouth of the bottle, not this tattered bon vivant. He poured out and began to sip his wine from an actual wine glass. See what I’m talking about? You’ve got to admire that kind of panache.

What else can I say, but -- Vive la groove!

-- Sandra Jackson-Opoku writes frequently on travel and culture in the Africa Diaspora. She teaches creative writing at Chicago State University and is the author two novels: the award-winning The River Where Bloods is Born and the critically-acclaimed Hot Johnny (and the Women Who Loved Him).

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