The Housecoat

By Maida Korte

“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.” – William Shakespeare

     I understand.  I see it now.  All of my life has been spent reviling the housecoat in exchange for sweatpants and t-shirt and I have been wrong.  Sweatpants are only for those with the blush of youth still shining on their roundish faces where crumpled hair and slippers out in public still works. The middle aged woman who has to get ready for work and also answer the front door and clean and iron the linen skirt so that it has at least an hour without wrinkles, should never ever wear fleece. 

     Glance at the line at any Starbucks around the world and you will see a conglomerate of business men and women and artist types with stylized hair and punk rockers with palettes of bright colors tattooed to their arms and legs and faces, all interesting and an eyelash won’t be batted no matter how many piercings stand next to a large number of brief cases and suits.  Throw into this mix the eternal student.  The eternal young student.  Standing and texting and wearing furry slippers with tassels of round balls for ties, scuffed and heels worn down and saggy sweat pants low and wide with slouchy sweatshirt and ponytail clad hair that has been that way for days.  They order a triple shot latte with mocha and caramel and of course whipped cream and throw in a large cookie to add to their skin over bone lithe frame, and they fit right in.  No one will look up or take notice as they are forgiven any oddities because of the pink in their creaseless faces. 

     My father once pulled the station wagon over to the side of the road when I was in Junior High as he drove me and my girlfriends to a dance at school.  We were talking about something I don’t remember but I do remember my father’s reaction to our pre-teen gossip that must have been unkind to someone.  As he screeched the ‘seatbeltless’ car to a halt he turned around and looked at the six of us with piercing blue eyes.  He said this slowly pausing between each word:  “All young girls are pretty.”  He then turned around, put the ‘three on the tree’ into gear and pulled back onto the road.  We were stunned and rode the rest of the way in silence, thinking he had gone mad.  Everyone said, “Thank you Mr. Walker” as my father deposited us in front of the school.  I walked mutely into the dance, but never forgot his words, which now ring truer than I could admit at the time.  Indeed. 

     The middle aged woman in the same Starbucks line clad in sweatpants and slippers and it does not work.  Ever. Her entrance into the land of the frump is solid and irrevocable. No matter if she carefully washes and dries and even irons the sweatpants.  Sweatpants cannot be camouflaged. Even the crispest of sweatpants do not work on a woman or man over 40.  Oh no.  Absolutely not.  Go home right now and change.  My girlfriend Maria was once grocery shopping and caught a glimpse of herself in sweatpants reflected back at her from the mirrors at the meat counter.   She saw a middle aged woman with sweatpants on and her hair was disheveled.  She left her cart in the middle of the aisle full of groceries and walked straight to her car.  This is my same friend who when nine months pregnant with her third child, parked in the handicap spot at the entrance to a store arriving in the middle of a snow storm.  As Maria got out of her van, a lovely youthful thing glared at her and glanced with slit eyes at the handicap spot sign and then back at Maria.  Maria swung out of her seat with Johnny, her son still inside of her womb but just barely and said, “I dare you to tell me I’m not handicapped.”

     Enter the housecoat.  For decades in the middle of the twentieth century, the housecoat rescued middle aged women from frumpiness.  This shapeless but not long snap down the front cotton duster covered up the tendencies of middle aged bodies to descend into dough shapes and to do so in the nick of time when coffee had to be made and sandwiches had to be placed into lunch pails and husbands scooted out the door in the early mornings.   The 1950’s in America was a time of husbands going off to work with hat on head and briefcase in hand while children walked to school and back packs were not standard issue yet. Now I know what you are thinking – the yoga pant.  Really?  Do we actually want to continue seeing this on the middle aged body? 

  My mother got six kids ready for school and lined up the bread on the counter in a row, plopping cheese or meat down on mayonnaise or slapping peanut butter and jelly with ferocious swiftness and enough efficiency to produce awe in her children.  The attire of the moment that allowed Moms across America to rise and stand at street corners and make sure that their children got safely onto buses was the same attire that allowed them to vacuum with ease and clean under the beds.  Once the house work was done the curlers came out and the lipstick went on and out the door looking as crisp as a daisy in a jelly jar on the counter.

Upon returning home from school my Mom was the picture of prettiness with coifed hair and lipstick smear on cheeks for rouge and capri slacks or sheath dress and picked up my Dad at the 6:00 p.m. whistle every night from the train.  Our homework, returned and graded by our teachers, sat proudly on my Dad’s plate for his review during dinner, where he would ask us penetrating questions and it is here we rewrote Macbeth to beatnik form for fun and won a poetry award for the trouble.

And while these memories of the daily-ness of life crystalized in our young minds, mothers across the land wore housecoats of soft femininity to cloak not only their unshowered selves as they sacrificed their own personal time of primping for a family that needed them in the early morning hours, but also cloaked their own aspirations where brilliant minds wrote poetry or detailed spread sheets or balanced books or litigated successfully or launched new ideas or tore down walls and waited for the right time to blossom like a quick surprise  that shocks on a snowy walk and the crocus appears suddenly purple and full. 

My own mother died young at 54, with 25 grand babies and six married children, and I remember her sacrifice and so I resurrect the housecoat to its proper place in the hall of household fame.

One Response to “The Housecoat

  • Kathleen Elliott
    9 months ago

    Another masterpiece! Of course I thought of my own mother and thanked the Lord for her boundless love for all in our family. Thank you, Maida.

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