Attention, Petroleum Wives

IMG_4799Today I am supposed to be starting an experimental month with Project 333. This was something I stumbled across a few weeks ago and it seemed like a good idea — you create a capsule wardrobe containing 33 items and this, in a variety of ways, sets you free. I floated the idea to a few fashion-challenge-minded friends and so I hope that they are reading this in some clothes that they really love because the challenge is on.

As we firmed up the details—did the 33 items really have to include shoes and jewelry??—one friend backed out, texting from Zara that she was at the point in the winter, where she was thoroughly sick of her wardrobe and, one supposes, the idea of being stuck in the same rotation for even another month would be cruel. She has just moved from L.A. to the Midwest. Earlier in the conversation, she said, despite whatever may be in her closet, she lives in the same 20 items, which I think is true of most of us. It’s the idea of limits and rules which makes the 33 seems austere.

So what about the Petroleum Wives? Where are they?

Now, while we (women), all have moments, however brief, of imagining a simple, stylish, easy wardrobe, the versatile sheath plus stunning and transformative accessories, we don’t believe it’s achievable. (Do men ever think about this kind of thing? A black dress is not nearly as versatile as khaki trousers and a look at the outfits of the audience at last week’s State of the Union address should tell you all you need to know about some inherent fashion inequality between the sexes; thick royal blue dress and jacket sets speak volumes.)

The capsule wardrobe is a nice idea but for most of us it remains a lofty ideal that follows you through the shops: is this your essential white shirt? Are these your indispensable black flats? Catalogs and fashion magazines tap this with their copy, their lists of 10 must-haves, the all-you-needs, but as we experiment with and refresh our wardrobes, and even assuming our weight remains steady, the items accrue and the volume of our closets  and drawers increases our hunger for simplicity.

One is seldom forced to be limited to a capsule wardrobe. The first time I did was backpacking in Italy, the second, when we moved from NYC to London. We had whatever we’d brought over on the plane and the rest was in a container. Talk about packing for the unknown. While the plan was that I would take the first month or so off and get settled before I looked for work, I wanted to have work or interview clothes to hand, just in case. Also, it was during this time that I would be trying to present myself as respectable and grown-up, meeting the husband’s work mates, looking for a flat, being interviewed at the lawn tennis club where I would play county league squash, presenting forms to civil servants, registering as an alien with the police, opening a bank account.

When filling out my alien registration booklet, under occupation, they would not let me put writer. I had to choose between unemployed and housewife, and I was advised to put the latter, as it sounded more respectable. Grudgingly, I opted for respectable. Though I insisted, throughout my state of being a trailing spouse, on keeping my name, and making sure I kept our wedding license to hand. It was still in its mailing envelope with the name and phone number of our NYC super scrawled on the front, Tito, who had checked us out of the Tribeca apartment we would never, ever again be able to afford.

It was the 90s and minimalism was the thing. I had three DKNY black wool separates, a gray Banana Republic T-shirt I would wear until it was a rag, two pairs of black shoes, and so forth. Most of the clothes I still own, 20 years later. I arranged my small wardrobe in several tiny closets over the course of the next two months. It was April. I had only brought two sweaters and these I wore, layered together, for much of the month. I hadn’t counted on the cold.

I landed a job at an international school and it was there that I encountered the Petroleum Wives. At this point, I had absorbed enough of the indignities of expatriation, the various laments, the taking of a taxi to the one newsagent in West London that carried the Sunday New York Times, the pilgrimage to the deli that carried American food (things I hadn’t bothered to eat in America), the quest for a decent cup of coffee or a bagel. One spends part of the time trying to replicate one’s former life and maintain one’s identity as, for example, a New Yorker, and another percentage trying to acculturate, all the time being easily identifiable as a foreigner and trying to at least stake the middle ground of being not a tourist.

In the admissions office of the school where I worked, there was a table of literature from local organizations catering to expatriate families. Women’s clubs abounded. The men, when they finally organized their own club, would call it STUDS (spouses trailing under duress successfully) (really). In one newsletter, the headline, “Attention, Petroleum Wives” caught my eye. The Petroluem Wives/Women have since gone online and their website notes, “Membership is not limited to those associated with the petroleum and energy sectors. ALL women are welcome.” Their newsletter, in 1995, contained an article about how hard it was to find domestic employees who did not destroy your Persian rugs, purchased when you lived in Iran, with ignorance or bad technique.

If my experience as an expatriate housewife had taught me anything, it was that we now existed in a slight throwback era. No longer were both parents working. There were very few single parents. Now, the wives were fulfilling duties to family and children, providing stability, comforting and costly snacks of hard-to-obtain, American junk food, 10 PM dinners for late-working husbands, planning mini-breaks to European cities or the Isle of Wight, reading the Evening Standard to keep up with the gossip. Most of the women in the school’s parent organization had advanced degrees. They planned class parties with excel spreadsheets. A few would apply their knowledge of history or art plus MBA to offering gallery talks or leading book groups.

Another feature of the women’s club newsletters was a gray market of cars, electrical appliances and voltage transformers. I located an address in my A-to-Z in search of each thing we might need, puzzling over the bus routes and tube map to figure out how to get to each place. Everyone had a level of satisfaction and cultural competency, which they shared, whether they meant to or not. I tried to maintain the same minimalist principles in our flat even once our shipment arrived, to not acquire more than we absolutely needed. Most of our belongings were socked away in a storage warehouse. It was a relief to be free of them, but a comfort to know they still existed.

My next capsule wardrobe was when I was pregnant. Again, the limited choice you have once you have retired your regular wardrobe is freeing. I bought the four-piece black stretchy cotton kit that contained dress, trapeze top, trousers and skirt and some days didn’t even bother with accessories. I even had pregnancy shoes, clogs and Converse slides, I wish they still made those. Slip-on shoes and a restricted wardrobe were ideal for the lifestyle of someone who needed to be able to mobilize swiftly to stay on feeding and sleeping schedules, who hung out sitting in circles on the floor or drinking tea at One O’clock Clubs.

I am not sure what makes me want to go capsule at this point in my life. I am not at any particular turning point that I am aware of. In January, a few weekends away, living out of a suitcase of judiciously chosen clothing, almost put me off. And the extreme cold we’ve been having forces you into the same warm things again and again. I am not including my wool baselayer in the 33 items, because I am counting it as underwear. Last weekend, I cleared most of the clothes out of my closet and tidied the shoes and shoe boxes and vacuumed the closet carpet. I think I exceed 33 items. Do I need the red skirt to cheer me up or to wear on Valentine’s Day?

I guess the empty closet represents possibility. I think of coming for the first time to Little Venice, to a street of massive white colonnaded houses, flowering trees, the surprise of a canal, so many women in their kitchens selling off blenders and televisions. They were sad to be leaving, or happy. They were returning to their real life or leaving it. They had complicated espresso machines that they were selling at close to cost, because it was unused and they wouldn’t have bought it if they knew that their husband was serious about accepting the new position, or for ten quid, because the movers were coming tomorrow and they’d just be giving everything to the cleaner who had, frankly, ruined the rug, but they didn’t like to say anything.

Photo by Older Daughter, Summer 2011.

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