With a Little Help From My Friends

As I was getting ready to embark on my first overseas trip, to London and Paris, I found myself worrying about what I should wear. “I am terrified of looking unsophisticated,” I said to my friend Tanya, a well-heeled traveler who was born in Greece and has lived and worked in Switzerland and Boston, as well as having visited other parts of Europe. I was going to be mixing with people who were graduates or parents of graduates of a very prestigious prep school, people who (I presume) know how to put themselves together. Tanya volunteered to come to my house the morning before we were leaving, to evaluate what I had chosen to pack and to loan me her favorite “classic” clothes — black, of course: a long, weighty skirt, a sheer caftan which went past the hips, and a pair of elastic-waisted pants which gave the appearance of flowing down to one’s ankles. “The more seams a pair of pants has,” Tanya told me, “the further it is from haute couture.” I had already packed a pair of black pants, although mine weren’t elastic-waisted. It turns out Tanya and I are exactly the same size, and although none of the items she brought me were what I would have chosen for myself, I could relate to the person I became when I put them on; I looked like a woman of substance. I demurred about putting her special clothes at potential risk of loss or damage, but she told me that she was unlikely to wear them again, and she wanted her clothes to live vicariously through me. I decided to pack them, as I had no idea what to expect and at least I would have the choice of wearing them.

I showed her the jacket I had bought the week before, specifically for this trip, which John and the girls thought was so ugly: a pink, white and black plaid fitted suit jacket with black piping. “That’s definitely going! Perfect!” Tanya cried, to my gratification. It came with a knee-length black skirt, which I packed as well. She recommended that everything I bring be complementary and multi-purpose, as space to pack was at a premium, and weight of luggage to be hauled around should be taken into consideration. “You can wear the same pair of black pants for six days, I don’t care if they stink!” was Tanya’s opinion. It was best to stick with black and white or cream-colored basics, and add accents of color as possible. “Do you have anything like a shawl? Maybe plum, or red?” Tanya asked. I had forgotten the deep red pashmina that my mother-in-law had given me, hanging in my closet, and I brought it out. “Perfect!” Tanya cried again, and she showed me how to wind it around my neck as a scarf when I was wearing it with my outer coat (a London Fog, by the way, also black), and then to drape it over my shoulders for evening wear over the black pants and a black silk blouse I have had since the mid-’90s. I fretted about the shoulder pads on the blouse. “Nobody will be looking at your shoulders,” said Tanya. “Hold out your arm as though you are holding a wine glass.” John brought me back a set of pearls from China last summer, two strands which can be worn separately or attached to each other to form either a double strand or one long single strand. It would never have occurred to me to wear them as a long single strand, as I thought that was reminiscent of my grandmother’s time, but Tanya said the long strand would go well with the shawl or the caftan, as the pearls gave me a look of height which I lack, at five-foot-four. I was able to get on the plane to London feeling more secure about the image I was going to make. It turned out that I didn’t wear anything except black pants with any of the tops I brought, and I only wore Tanya’s pants once, with my black silk blouse and the red pashmina as a shawl, along with the pearls as a long strand, to an evening function at the Royal Automobile Club. I am grateful to Tanya for showing me that everything I needed was already in my closet, that I just needed help to know how to put them together.