When we were kids in the early sixties, they were the last kind of clothes we’d ever be caught dead in. They were for overweight, middle-aged housewives who watched “Days of Our Lives” on television and got together once a week for Mah Jong (if Jewish) or Bingo (if church-going — although I thought it possible only Jewish moms wore them) or just smoking and gossiping. They were loose and made for comfort, often with disturbingly large floral prints.
Shmatte. Literally translated from Yiddish, it means a rag, and among the grown-ups was often used figuratively as a disdainful put-down, as in “You can’t show yourself in public dressed in a cheap shmatte like that.” But for us kids, it didn’t mean cheap, it meant old and sexless; wearing dresses that hid your body announced to the world that you were an, uh, overweight, middle-aged housewife.
Then came the sixties, and something like the shmatte was suddenly in vogue. Sometimes low-cut, sometimes a Laura Ashley/hippy version of 19th century high-neck. Lace. Small, tender wildflowers rather than overripe, man-scaring blooms. Judy Collins. Sharon Tate. Bare feet. No bra. The shmatte, unbelievably, had become young and sexy! And whether you were reed-like or zaftig, you could flow.
It didn’t last. For during the brief career of the sexy shmatte, there was always the Other Woman: Mary Quant. Twiggy. The “British Invasion.” Mini-skirts. Hot pants. Long, skinny legs. Boots that went up over knee and half-way up the thigh. Boy boobs. Big butts banished (and stayed that way until Black women, bless them, brought them back.) No one talked about the ethnocentrism of it all, as our Eastern-European genes struggled into boots that we couldn’t get over our calves, let alone walk across the room in.
And the dieting began.
During the decades that followed, skinny glamour, gym-toned shoulders, and enhanced body parts all contributed to the exile of the shmatte. Even middle-aged housewives wouldn’t be caught dead in them. The body — whether by virtue of DNA or free weights or liposuction or Jenny Craig — was to be flaunted, while those of us whose waistlines were gradually, naturally disappearing (a post-menopausal body-transformation that one is never prepared for) hunted without success for clothes that made us feel at least somewhat still in the game.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, unusual names began to invade Instagram, Facebook, and email: Buykud, Rotita, Popzora, Mostata, Noracora. All of them selling “generously” cut tops and tent-like dresses, slightly avant-garde, and — be still, my heart! — looking as though anyone, of any body-shape, could fit in any of them and swing through town, stylish and cheeky once again. And — amazingly inexpensive! And by that I don’t mean Target; I mean Dollar-Store. True, the models were all skinny. But the dresses billowed out, flowed so expansively, it was easy to imagine one’s own less-than-svelte body becoming effortlessly glamorous in them too. The sexy shmatte was back!!
So of course, an orgy of ordering commenced.
Usually, they took awhile to arrive. Most had to travel from China.
When the first package arrived, I dove at it with scissors like a six-year-old on Christmas morning, ignoring instructions to tear on the (always-impossible-to-tear) dotted line — and was almost knocked to the ground by the smell. I can’t really describe it. One part incense, one part moldy sneakers, one part something not-of-this-planet.
OK, so a little airing out was necessary. Like, perhaps a week on the back porch. It was worth it, surely, if I could look like a sexy hippy again.
Finally, when I was able to do so without holding my breath, I tried the dress on. It was, indeed, generously cut, if somewhat scratchy. OK, let’s be blunt: two steps away from a hair shirt. Good for doing penance, which I was already beginning to feel was happening. I was about to pull it over my head and out of contact with my skin when I see that it comes with an under slip, decidedly silkier — and actually, necessary, as the dress managed to be both itchy and transparent at the same time. The under slip, however, was apparently made for a body at least three sizes smaller than the dress.
Each package that followed in the mail held new surprises. Sometimes, everything would be fine — except the upper arms appeared to be sewn with a small Chinese child in mind. Other times, something that looked in the picture as though you could fit a small elephant in it wouldn’t go over my (large, but not elephantine) butt. I was introduced to the many different ways that fabric can annoy skin. And, here’s a major warning for those of you contemplating trying one of these: They are not designed for breasts any larger than a B. It’s not that they won’t fit larger breasts. It’s the way they hang straight out from larger breasts, creating the illusion of pregnancy.
The fact is, these clothes were made for exactly the woman the advertisements pictured them in: tall, skinny, small-breasted, and oblivious to comfort-level. After all, they were models, not middle-aged housewives discussing Luke and Laura’s wedding and whether the marriage would last. Not to mention the fact that the middle-aged housewives themselves were now at the gym, wanting to show off their toned bodies, not luxuriate in tents.
And then the inevitable happened: Once it was discovered that tall, skinny women really did look amazingly fashionable, incredibly cool, and effortlessly glamourous in loose clothing, the clothing stopped being smelly, stopped being scratchy, and stopped being affordable. You could get them delivered overnight. Appropriated by toney designers and marketed in expensive catalogues, “loose clothing” has now become the thing. Google the phrase and you’ll bring up hundreds of versions of over-priced, billowy dresses and floppy tee-shirts. Everything hangs, and so very stylishly. And you’ll have to hunt a little longer for those $20 versions, even on the sites whose names sound like pasta.
Is there a moral to this little fashion history? I could rail against consumer capitalism or the tyranny of slenderness or the plundering and exploiting of ethnic cultures and underpaid workers. But I’ve done enough of that in my life. So I resign myself to gazing at the “Sundance” catalogue while on the toilet, dog-earring pages with items that I will never actually buy, regretting having given away my old Laura Ashley hippy dresses and peasant skirts.
And I know the truth:
Although they are made by trendy artistes from deliciously luxe fabrics, although they are pictured and posed to make us salivate with longing to be so cool and willowy, they are still shmattes.