A few years ago, I applied as an "intern" at a glossy fashion magazine to get some on-the-job publishing experience. My "day job" as a professor afforded me time and money during the summer to pursue my dream and it was good to step down from the ivory tower and get back into the mix so I submitted my resume. To my surprise, I was promptly called for an interview.
The only problem was that I was born in 1961 not 1991. Thankfully, I wasn't compelled to list my date of birth on my resume but in person there would be no way of getting around my biological age. While adjectives such as "seasoned" and "vintage" are ideal when applied to steak or clothing, I was worried the same words were not as flattering in a workplace dominated by lithe twenty-somethings.
Frantic, I called my 23- year-old daughter, Eliza. She had graduated college with honors, had landed an extraordinary job, and possessed great fashion savvy. I asked her advice on how to be cool. "What should I wear?"
"It's easy, Mom. Just be hip."
"What do you mean by 'hip?' Can you elaborate on that?"
"Wear great boots and buy yourself a mini skirt. Something that goes above your knees."
"That's it? Anything special I should say?"
"No and put on lots of blush," she added before hanging up.
At a loss, I was forced to raid my closet. It was not pretty.
During my years in academia, I never needed a fashion wardrobe especially not while reading Proust in dusty libraries or correcting stacks of essays as I nibbled blue berry muffins wiping stray crumbs with the ends of my sleeves. Although I had garnered an outstanding collection of Old Navy sweatpants and an extensive array of frayed jeans, I didn't know if anything I owned was trendy anymore except to Good Will. I was in dire straits. The interview was in a few hours. Not even Zappos could deliver "hip" boots to my doorstep at lightning speed.
I debated if I should go through Eliza's things but I had no choice.
Slipping into my daughter's old room, I began to rifle through her closet. It was a guilty pleasure; an archeological, nostalgic dig through our collective past and I remembered the day my daughter graduated from high school. We were posing for a class picture when Eliza whispered gently, "Mom, why don't you ever wear Prada like the other mothers?"
At the time, I had had trouble explaining to her -- without clenching my teeth -- that, as a single Mom, I had often wistfully passed by the Prada store in Soho and had allowed myself to catch a glimpse of the glittering windows. I cherished those moments of private fantasy and imaging the mythical "care-free" life that Madison Avenue boutiques and over-priced flag-ship stores seemed to offer others. But when Eliza's tuition bill for private school came due each year and I was faced with the choice of buying blue suede Jimmy Choos or paying for Eliza's education, I had always chosen the former. Instead of a secluded house in the Hamptons and an expensive German car, I had boarded the F train to Coney Island.
But karma is ironic. To my delight, I discovered that my fashionista daughter's out-of-date "cool" clothes were intact, "retro-hip" and luckily, we were the same size. I found a Marc Jacobs dress that Eliza had worn to an eleventh grade semi-formal and a pair of discarded designer boots. Squeezing into both, I headed to my interview.
A lovely twenty-something-year-old stared at my resume. "You're a professor and you want to work here? As an intern? Unpaid? For just the summer?"
I looked around. I was easily the oldest person in the office. I hoped my blush was working. "I want to learn more about publishing."
She nodded. "Thanks for thinking of us, we'll get back to you."
I went back to Brooklyn without a skip in my step, regretting my foray into the real world. After hanging my daughter's things back up in her closet, I checked my email. The editor had written. "We think you have so much experience, you'd be great as a copy editor. Are you interested in working with us?"
"It's all in the boots," I told myself. I had become the essence of "retro-fashion."