Changing Clothes, Changing Souls

By Heather Atwood
Issue 105 – March/April 2001

Little girl in bunny ears and tutuOne day my daughter, Isabelle, then three years old, gazed out the kitchen window, let out a long breath, and said, “I wonder what I’m going to wear tomorrow.” She said it just the way a child would say, “I wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up.” To her, and probably to many of us, they are the same question.

Virginia Woolf wrote, “Every time a woman changes her clothes she puts on a new soul.” Isabelle is now five, and a five year old is like a bunch of souls in a blender turned up to high. I can guess the number of souls my daughter has tried on in a day by counting the number of outfits that lie on her bedroom floor by 6:00 p.m. (usually, it’s in the teens).

Getting dressed can be one of the most creative projects of the day. It defines our mood, and limits or frees us for certain activities. My daughter has a bike-riding outfit and a large collection of “Laura and Mary” outfits for playing Little House on the Prairie. She has a going-to-the-grocery-store outfit, which is different from the playing-around-at-home outfit. At home she has inside and outside outfits, and a special outfit for the basement. She has different outfits for different friends. When we play music, each song requires a new outfit.

Just think about the emotional power music has, particularly on so blank a slate as a five year old. Music should make us want to change our clothes. At a party, doesn’t the lawyer wearing a suit and dancing to reggae look ridiculous? Would you want to waltz in sweatpants and a T-shirt? Even nightgowns require three try-ons for Isabelle to know exactly who she will be when she goes to sleep.

Now, instead of saying, “You can’t have a new dress when there are ten in your closet you never wear,” I regard Isabelle’s clothes as art supplies. If she does not immediately wear something I’ve bought, something she had begged for in the store, I don’t get mad; I wait. It will appear eventually. Someday I will look up from the computer or from washing dishes and see the dress with little roses on it, purchased six months ago, running by in some combination of undershirt, slip, and another skirt over it. (Isabelle likes to layer.) Fortunately, dresses easily accommodate ages three to five, evolving from maxis to minis over the years.

As Isabelle’s 40-year-old mother, I have become a little more sure of who I am, and so I average only two changes each morning before I know who I will be that day. In my 20s, however, I topped Isabelle in try-ons. I hope that by the time I reach 70 I will know precisely what I am going to wear in the morning. I’ll be able to pack exactly the right clothes when I go on a trip, because I will not worry about being someone other than the one I packed for when I arrive.

Heather Atwood writes and paints in Rockport, Massachusetts. She is the mother of Isabelle (5) and Georgia (2).