Polyester double-knit burst onto the 70s fashion scene in the shape of men’s leisure suits, spongy backed trench coats, shirts and neckties. Inexpensive, beefy waffle-weaves and plaid designs in every imaginable color with large buttons and wide lapels costumed men across all social boundaries defying the term “fine-tailoring.” Polyester’s no-wrinkle feature, wash and wear and easy alterations popularized the synthetic fabric.
Shortly thereafter, pantsuits for women blossomed. Enthusiastically, I purchased a tailored, long-sleeve, red and white micro-checked pantsuit. My hip-length jacket hung neatly over cling-free slacks. As an art teacher, this fashionable alternative allowed me more modesty and freedom of motion in the classroom and also improved my finances. I no longer snagged my pantyhose daily on wooden desks.
Within two days, my pantsuit became the focal point of an emergency teacher’s meeting called by the high school principal, Mr. Carey, and the district superintendent, Mr. Bradshaw. “Pantsuits are considered inappropriate dress for high school teachers.”
Men faculty who ogled at miniskirts and legs voiced negative comments about the “unprofessional, casual attitudes” that would emerge from those who wore pantsuits in the workplace.
Next day, two more women teachers were cited as inappropriately dressed when they wore them to work. Voices laced with male dominance rattled in unreceptive ears. Women’s pantsuits grew unstoppable much to the chagrin of drill sergeants turned teachers.
Polyester pantsuits sold like wildfire. Suddenly, new fabrics arrived in stores to replace thick virgin polyester clothing. I think manufacturers realized long-wearing, indestructible polyester had caused a financial down-turn in the fashion industry.
I remember younger generations turned to the new natural fibers, those kids who stood smiling in puckered cotton while gnawing on trail mix and yogurt.
Designers transformed pantsuits into flowing rayon slacks and long-tailed co-ordinates worn over shells. This style held appeal for me. My old lady shape was disguised under deceptively slimming two-piece coordinates and loose fitting tank dresses reminiscent of Momma Cass’s caftans: those worn by old blues singers to cover-up aging’s disproportionate figure problems: thunder-buns, menopausal pot belly and bat wing upper arms.
Mrs. Haggard, my grade school music teacher had bat wing flaps. I watched the fascinating jiggles and ripples of her hanging flesh dance in tempo as she directed our orchestra. Skinny teachers paraded past with odd assortments of straps slipping out and binding their upper arm movements. As a kid, I never understood why the school fashion cops allowed matronly teachers to wear revealing sleeveless dresses and blouses. You could look right into the armholes and see their underwear. Sleevelessness distracted my education.
While seated at the high school emergency pantsuit meeting, I thought back to those times and wondered why my administration hadn’t blacklisted sleevelessness. The faculty fiasco didn’t rattle me much. I’d been pre-conditioned to dress codes as a teenager when my school’s student council handed out lists of appropriate clothing for kids. Finely constructed subcategories and defining points caused me adolescent nightmares based on showing up at school inappropriately dressed. And, I did just that.
The dip of my blue v-neck sweater was one inch too low. My naked collarbone was issued a warning notice along with a lecture from the vice principal, in his office, while his eyes seemed to drift from my v-neck.
Now, I enjoy observing the freedom of student’s and teacher’s dress, but I know polyester lives. I’ve seen wear-like-iron polyester leisure suits and pilled plaids basking in retirement communities across the United States. I know polyester lingers in basements and attics, Salvation Army warehouses and in the third-world countries where I sent my donations of disaster-relief clothing.
Hundreds of years from now, archaeologists will unearth pieces of my red and white checked pantsuit on an African plain. They’ll foolishly marvel at how well-preserved the fiber and color have survived. I can imagine the Discovery channel commentary: “Due to temperature and climate, this colorful ceremonial cloth, woven in symbolic geometric designs, remains intact.”