Tomorrow is a workday. Because I want an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning, I must select my professional attire tonight. I move to the closet and begin running my hand along the higher of the two clothing rods inside.
My narrow closet is arranged in a very particular way. From left to right, clothes are sorted by category. Formal dresses are on the left, followed by semi-formal dresses, career dresses, and sundresses. Next come blouses; button-down collared shirts are first, arranged by sleeve length. To the right of the work shirts come cardigans, which are sorted by sleeve length and color family. The cardigans are followed by dressier blouses – paisley, silky, lacy, ruffly – which are also arranged by sleeve length, but these move from sleeveless to long-sleeved. Last on the upper rod are heavy winter coats. On the bottom rod, lower to the ground, hang my dress pants, blazers, skirts, and spare hangers. These categories are all sorted by color, with the darkest on the left and the lightest on the right.
On the days when I teach, I gravitate toward the dress pants and button-down shirts. I am regularly mistaken for a student, so I strive for a certain formality in my teaching attire. I sweep my hair into a tight bun, choose blouses with stiff collars and cuffs, and try not to smile. However, I’m only tutoring tomorrow, so I can dress down a bit.
I select a plain black dress with short sleeves. Because the front of the dress has a dramatic V neckline, I choose a red camisole to wear underneath. (Camis are kept in a separate drawer, also arranged by color.) I will choose shoes and jewelry in the morning. I have to leave some decisions to the fancy of the moment. Picking out accessories will be a breeze, though, because my shoes and jewelry – even the flowers for my hair – are sorted by color and style.
I talk a lot about color, but I can’t actually identify it. I can distinguish many shades, so I’m sure I can see color. But I cannot spontaneously name it. If you hand me a red balloon, I will guess that it’s red – red has always been the easiest for me to see – but I don’t know for sure. Though I can’t identify colors by name, I continue to enjoy the same colors. I know I like reds, purples, and greens, and I especially like bold, bright colors. I detest pastels and what I call “sherbet colors” – those bright shades that emerge with summer fashions.
When I go shopping, my companion will draw my attention to an article of clothing. “Look at this,” Mom or a friend will say. “Isn’t it pretty?” I will take a look, decide whether I like the item, and ask, “What color is it?” Most of the time, my friends and family can agree on the color name for a particular object. When they disagree, I find myself in a fashion pickle. From friends and experience, I’ve learned which colors “go” together, so, when my informants disagree on the name of a particular shade of pink, I will have a hard time planning an outfit around it.
I’ve memorized the colors of most items in my closet. I know that the sleeveless silk blouse with the ruffles down the front is a pale yellow. I know that my favorite winter coat is deep purple. This memorization technique works especially well when I only have one of a particular item. When I have several shirts, dresses, or pants in the same style, remembering the color of each is challenging. It’s also challenging for me to remember the colors in multicolored items, which is why I tend to avoid multicolored jewelry. A few bright paisley blouses hang in my closet, so I learn whether these pair best with black or brown pants and wear silver jewelry with all of them.
For me, the most daunting feature of fashion is not choosing the attire – it’s asserting my preference. Often, people assume that my limited vision eliminates my ability to prefer and the validity of such preferences. Therefore, I should be treated like a life-size Barbie and dressed in the clothing that the sighted folks around me like best. Here, I have to gently and not-so-gently remind others that I don’t resemble Barbie in any way. Unless Barbie develops a love of cupcakes, loses a few inches in height, and changes her hair color, we aren’t going to be twins.
The fashion interference from others comes in the form of unsolicited advice and opinions. I’ll emerge, dressed and ready to go, and a friend or relative will say, “Hmm, I wouldn’t pair that cardigan with that skirt.” Strangers, and especially sales assistants, offer advice as well. On a summer’s day last year, I was trying on a new pair of boots – black leather boots with a 3-inch heel – and, as I walked around the small store to see how they fit, the saleswoman said, “They look great. But I wouldn’t pair them with that sundress.”
“Who would?” I immediately thought, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The dress was sleeveless, with three different shades of blue-green. To the woman, I said, “I wasn’t planning on it.” But of course, this didn’t sound like my insight. To her, I was simply parroting back the fashion wisdom she had chosen to impart.
Other times, people express their surprise that I can dress myself. A fellow student once exclaimed, “You’re blind? You dress so well!” inserting a foot in her mouth with the ease of an Olympic gymnast. The assumption here is that my blindness prohibits me from doing essential things: choosing clothing suitable for the occasion and actually putting it on. Because of my vision, I should not, in theory, be able to select clothing that matches. Clearly, someone had to dress me.
I make no false promises about my own abilities. I know that I cannot identify color and that stains are particularly hard for me to see. However, the line between the courteous assistance I need and the overbearing or patronizing advice I don’t need often blurs. People ignore this line when they start adjusting my crooked collar or brushing lint off my shirt without asking. Yes, it’s permissible for a mother to lick her finger and wipe something off your face, but it’s not acceptable for others to start adjusting me as though I’m a rumpled toddler ruining the holiday pictures.
Because I don’t like to introduce pet peeves without offering pleasing alternatives, I will say that some people help me through my wardrobe malfunctions with aplomb. Someone who says, “Um, you’ve got something on your right shoulder,” and then directs me to the spot is definitely doing the right thing in my book. Also acceptable are those who say, “Hey, your collar is crooked. Would you mind if I fixed it?” In most cases, I will happily let people assist me because they asked first. I am not an adult in denial, shouting, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” I know when I need the assistance. Neither am I a child who cannot say what I like and what I need. A person who verbalizes a request or offer of help – who asks before doing – is someone worth having around.
Simply put, I want credit for dressing myself. Perhaps it’s childish to demand this recognition, but, as I advance into my career, I want my competence to be acknowledged. I want others to know that I am well aware of the clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories I wear. Yes, I do my own hair and makeup. No, I don’t have a lady’s maid to fasten all my hooks and buttons. My limited vision is not an open invitation for others to criticize my fashion sense.
For those who don’t understand the irritation caused by unwanted and constant criticism, I will just have to find something of theirs to pick on.