The still point in the turning world
When I was in college we were required to dress for dinner. "Dress," that is, as in "wear a skirt or a dress," not as in "put clothes on." All meals had to be taken in our dorm, and anyone wearing pants to the dining room was turned away. It goes without saying that the dorm residents were all women; men were allowed only in the common rooms downstairs, (two feet on the floor at all times when sitting on the couches in those doorless rooms), and only till eleven PM, when they were rounded up, the entrance doors were locked, and we were signed in for the night.
It is difficult even for those of us who lived through it to remember that this was the way it was; it seems so very quaint that it might just as well have happened hundreds of years ago. But this was not the dark ages, it was the late 1960s.
But when things changed for us, they changed virtually overnight. One day all those rules were in place (including one that required that, for Sunday dinners, we wear heels and nylons); the next day they were gone. Oh, I know, it didn't happen quite like that; there was a slight transition period in which the rules were stretched before they were entirely eliminated. But that period was very short. My first two years of college were as described; by my senior year, one could wear any clothes at all to the dining room, and boys were living upstairs with their girlfriends, doors closed (de facto; not yet de jure).
For those who weren't there, it's hard to convey the dizzying pace of the change. And, once such change happens, there's no turning back--at least it seems that way.
But a recent article in the style section of NY Times (what used to, long ago, be called the women's pages)--about, of all people, Camilla Parker-Bowles--made me think of those days again.
Poor Camilla, doomed to be compared to the beauteous Diana, who remains forever lovely and forever young. It seems that Camilla's style is--well, not very stylish. She's a horsey, huntsy, tweedy sort, not much given to paying attention to her clothes, her face, her hair. But now that she's in the spotlight, the world is paying attention, and it doesn't like what it sees. Camilla's latest crime:
Just last weekend she created a mini-maelstrom by appearing in public while on vacation in the Scottish Highlands in - gasp - a pair of blue jeans... But the debate loudly conducted in the press wasn't about straight leg versus easy fit. Instead, Mrs. Parker Bowles' choice in trousers inspired conniptions over what may strike most Americans as a very antiquated question: Should women her age be wearing jeans? Definite answers came fast. "I THINK NOT, MA'AM" screamed the headline over a two-page spread on the subject in The Daily Mail on March 29. At 57, the paper snorted, Mrs. Parker Bowles should keep in mind that "jeans are a young person's garment." Even in her comfort zone, sometimes Mrs. Parker Bowles can't win. Among upper-class women, Ms. Andrews sniffed, "Wearing jeans past a certain age just isn't done."
So, perhaps one can go back, at least in the UK. Yes, it does strike Americans--at least, this American--as an antiquated question. But then it occurred to me that this question may indeed have tapped into the very essence of having a Royal Family.
Queen Elizabeth, an attractive woman, has always seemed to me to be so magnificently and classically dowdy in her dress and hair that it must be a conscious act. The pace of change in the lives of most of us has been so fast that it threatens us with vertigo, and the Royals must be meant to provide a steadying vision, the still point in the turning world. Camilla may represent change of a sort--after all, in years past, she would have been relegated to the status of Mistress for Life. The times they have a-changed, though, and the wedding will happen--Camilla will marry her Prince. But she is expected to cling to certain standards of the past in the matter of dress, to slow us all down in this dizzying, spinning world.