The Purple Polyester Pantsuit That Changed My Life

That picture above is me wearing the pantsuit that changed my life

When I was a kid  my dad  brought home a purple polyester pantsuit for me, complete with white ruffles around the neck and down the front.

I absolutely loved it. (It was the 70s, after all.)

Little did I know at the time, it would change my life.

Against  my mother ‘s wishes, I decided to wear it for school pictures — she wanted me to wear something “prettier.” And most of the time, I did, but this time I was defiant.

A little bit of backstory

The problem was not only that I defied my mother’s desires and also that my mom seriously didn’t like that purple pantsuit, but that my dad had shown up out of nowhere with it.

I’m pretty sure the appearance of the purple pantsuit just aggravated her.

See, our dad was in and out a lot. But mostly out.

He told my sister in his later years that he hadn’t been a good father, never mind a good provider. He’d left our mom without money and a co-parent time and again. He’d make promises he didn’t keep, and then he’d show up unannounced bearing gifts.

To our mom’s credit, she didn’t complain about our dad around us. Maybe she could have filled us in on things better… perhaps? But I give her so much credit for not handing her thoughts over to us back then. Lord knows, my sister and I could have ended up with so much baggage that wasn’t even ours. (And to our dad’s credit, he didn’t complain to us about our mom, either, even many years later.)

Eventually our parents split up for good and went their separate ways. We’d already moved in with our mom’s parents when I was about to go to first grade, so though the news years later of the official divorce rattled me severely, the only thing that actually changed was that now we knew our dad wasn’t coming home.

As time went on it looked to me like my parents had nothing in common. I couldn’t figure it out. They were so different.

He was a wandering hippie (for real), and our mom was, well… our mom. She sewed and cooked and cleaned the house for us. She worked full time at a department store, often into the evenings. We’d wait up for her when we were allowed to, and she’d come in the door tired and achy from standing all day wearing pantyhose and high heels (which was the dress code, omg).

So I just couldn’t picture how my parents had ever been a couple.

When I asked Mom why she and Daddy ever got married in the first place, she told me, in her gently drawn-out Southern accent, “Oh, Darling, we were so young and so beautiful. And we were so in love.”

To that, I nodded.

I understood.

It made sense, and it’s helped me make sense of a lot of things in the years to come. We simply do what we do in life. We base our decisions on what makes sense at the time.

We’re all learning as we go.

Blue just gave me the blues

I was what my mom called a “pretty little girl.” I was feminine and small, with long, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother and grandmother and our great-aunts liked to dress me up, which I didn’t mind at all.

Except that they all wanted me to wear blue a lot, because it “brought out my blue eyes.”

But I wanted to wear red. I loved red!

I asked for red all the time but the women looking after me always insisted, “No, you look good in blue, not red.”

And after the purple pantsuit appeared, they added, “And certainly not purple, either!”

I ended up resenting blue (if you can resent a color, that is) for many, many years. To this day, the only blues I like are more like aqua.

But yesterday, many decades after my childhood, I wore a navy blue top to  my aerial studio . Someone said it looked good. I’d only bought it because I liked the white version that I’d bought at Target, and when I went back for another one, the only one left in my size was navy blue, ugh. But it was $8 and fit well, so there you go.

And you know, the navy blue did look okay on me.

I’m still not filling my closet with blue clothes, but I’m opening up to trying it on now and again.

But back to the pantsuit that changed my life

That purple polyester pantsuit marked a turning point for me.

It was so different from anything I’d ever even put on.

I’d never seen myself like that! I looked bold and dramatic (for a ten-year-old, that is).

I wasn’t wearing a pretty dress or hand-me-downs. And it wasn’t that I disliked those things, because I did and still do love me some dresses and some hand-me-downs.

It was that my eyes bugged out when I saw myself in the purple pantsuit. I realized I could “be” more.

The purple pantsuit showed me a “me” I’d never seen before.

A me I didn’t know about yet.

A me I didn’t know existed until that moment.

I wore the pantsuit several more times, but I need to tell you something about the double-knit polyester of the 1970s if you don’t already know: it was hot and scratchy. It was terrific for taking brightly colored dye, but it was terrible up against the skin. I can still feel the sweat.

So yuk on that part.

As for the flash and the drama and the opportunity for expression… I was all in.

My dad took a chance with that purple pantsuit

I could have hated it.

I’d never worn anything like it before.

But maybe he saw something in me that neither I nor my mom or grandmother or great-aunts had picked up on. Either that, or he brought me that purple pantsuit because he just thought it was damn cool.

Either way, it turned on a switch for me.

So fast forward to 1981 when I wanted to wear a black velvet dress to my senior prom — a time when it was either frilly antebellum gowns or slinky disco dresses with spaghetti straps.

My mother sighed. We negotiated.

She nixed the velvet part (“You don’t wear velvet this time of year”) and finally said, “Fine on the black, but I’ll have to make it for you because the stores do not black prom gowns.”

She was right. I was the only one at my prom wearing a black gown.

When I got married in 1988 and wanted black bridesmaids dresses (again, not a thing at the time), this time my mom put her tiny little size-5 foot down and pretty much said Oh Hell No.

We couldn’t find black bridesmaids dresses anywhere near our preppy college town in 1988 anyway. (Nowadays when I see pictures of weddings with their bridesmaids all in black, I just think, “That was my idea first!”)

So then, when my mom and aunt were planning a bridal luncheon for me at one of the country clubs in town, my mom very cautiously asked me what I planned to wear. She was cautious because of my desire for the black bridesmaid dresses, of course, and because by that time I was dressing in all manner of drama and flash.

The compromise

That purple pantsuit had planted a seed.

I told my mom I was sure I could put together something that would be perfect for a luncheon at the country club. I went on to describe some of what came to mind off the top of my head.

My mom winced a little.

She then narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips and declared: “I’m taking you to Talbot’s.”

So, to Talbot’s we went. And you know what I picked out, right?

A pleated silk skirt and matching blouse with a pointy collar and big cuffs that required cuff links.

IN RED. Gorgeous, deep, shiny red silk.

It was stunning.

Even my mom said so.

Here’s my mom and dad on their wedding day. They really were beautiful, just like my mom said.


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