Desperately seeking sartorial success

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During our career years, my husband, Ken, and I often considered ourselves workhorses, but never clotheshorses. The dress code was nonexistent at the university where we toiled - I as a low-profile editor, he as a landscape-architecture professor who spent more time on outdoor field trips than at professional meetings.

When we retired recently, our lifestyles slipped us into even more comfortable attire. Then, this summer, we were invited to a big-city, evening wedding. While Ken's serviceable slacks and my skirts sufficed for church and an occasional concert, they weren't up to this upscale event.

No problem, we thought at first; we still had the stepping-out outfits we'd worn to our neighbors' 50th anniversary celebration several years before.

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Little did we know that those holdovers had acquired a shabby patina during their hiatus in the recesses of our closet.

In fact, in the bright light of current styles, Ken's beige suit bordered on unsuitable, with pants that flared, sub-knee, almost bell-bottom style. And my "best" dress, with its sateen rosette on the bodice, now hung limply in an uneasy limbo between "vintage" and "retro."

When a try-on session further revealed that time had taken some strange nips and tucks in these garments, there was nothing to do but head for the mall. There, we browsed a dizzying selection of men's suits. Finally, the haberdasher talked Ken into an elegant, dark-green number. He slung a slinky tie over Ken's shoulder, clinching the sale.

This natty suit demanded a shirt in some hip new hue, and Ken paused briefly to mourn the passing of his beloved button-down collars. After short courses on shoes, belts, and pocket handkerchiefs, his ensemble seemed complete - until the salesman nodded toward a hosiery display, hinting that Ken's gray cotton socks might not "work" with his new look.

Meanwhile, I'd begun contemplating my own transformation. As the tailor began marking Ken's cuffs, I darted into a nearby department store, feeling blessed that I needed merely a dress.

But my refurbishment soon posed challenges of its own. For starters, current hemlines hung haplessly near my ankles - except for those that rose alarmingly above my knees. I felt suddenly dazed, disconcerted, like a rumpled Rippette Van Winkle who'd just awakened in women's ready-to-wear, her fashion sense having long since pranced off down some distant catwalk.

I soldiered on through the racks. One dress beguiled, but I could imagine myself donning it only for the sort of black-tie affairs that had populated my Barbie-doll fantasies of girlhood. I resolved not to wear any frock that seemed determined to wear me.

Nevertheless, Ken's new finery had subtly upped the ante, for when finally I found a dress I liked, it seemed drab by comparison. I felt stymied indeed - until an authoritative young saleswoman approached, eager to explain that the dress just needed "dressing up" - a process my Aunt Mabel wryly called "excessorizing."

Forty minutes, some decorative hardware, new shoes, and a matching purse later, I found Ken and we headed for home, spent in more ways than one, but satisfied with our sartorial overhaul.

The night before the big wedding, we donned our new duds in a trial run - and were startled by the well-turned-out couple in the hallway mirror.

"You clean up superbly," I told my dapper groom of yore, giving his reflection an appreciative once-over.

"You don't look so dowdy yourself," he replied, waggling his eyebrows.

Then, abashed at our preening, we reminded ourselves that we'd upgraded our special-occasion threads not to stand out, but to fit in.

And fit in we did. The wedding party was dressed to the nines, naturally. And in keeping with our status as mere guests, we ranked a seemly six or so.

Although we enjoyed getting gussied up for a change, we still prefer our couture more humble than haute. The favored fashion statement of these two workhorses will always be "Shhh."

Still, it surprised me to learn that being a clotheshorse is hard work. That's why, now that the wedding is over, I'm looking for somewhere else tony to go - quick, before our glad rags go out of style.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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