Fashion Faux Pas: Boots
Henry David Thoreau and my grandmother Mildred would have gotten along. “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes,” he warned. My grandmother would have said, “Pride goeth before a fall.” If only my grandmother had lived to remind me in time to save me from the fall.
In the Fall of 1971 I was invited to testify before Congress on the status of technology use in education in the U.S. One thing led to another, and a month or two later I was invited to represent the U.S in Paris, France, at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Representatives from twenty countries were there for a symposium on using computers in the classroom. Even then, I was still one of the few people in the United States who understood personal computers, and who trained teachers to use them in classrooms. Real personal computers would not be introduced for several more years, but I used Teletypes connected to time-shared mainframes, and taught kids and teachers to program in BASIC. Or I simulated a personal computer on a mainframe, so they could experience the real language computers used—machine language.
Having grown up in tiny coastal Warrenton, Oregon, I was impressed with the OECD, an organization about which I knew nothing, and even more impressed with a trip to Paris. I had always wanted to visit Europe, and Paris was my first-choice destination.
The day before the meeting I made a reconnoitering visit to the OECD to check out the meeting room for the symposium. The massive double doors had the size and weight and ominous grandiosity of the carved Gates of Hell I had seen the day before at the Rodin Museum. Inside, the room was dominated by a large oval mahogany table, and twenty chairs with high carved backs. It looked like a United Nations hearing room. High on one wall was a horizontal window, behind which was a translator booth. Each attendee had a microphone, earphones for the translations, and a nameplate. Mine was in place below the translator booth, inscribed in brass on a walnut base: Judith Edwards, United States of America. I checked out the other nameplates. I was the only U.S. delegate. And the only woman.
Clearly, this enterprise required new clothes. I headed to the Paris boutiques I had discovered the day before, where 70’s fashion was on full display: midi-skirts (mid-calf length), tight ribbed turtleneck tops, knee-high boots—Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” had hit the top of the charts a year or so before.
I found a fetching outfit for the first day of the meeting: a leather midi-skirt with gripper snaps up the front, orange ribbed turtleneck, leather vest which laced up tightly, and a pair of leather boots which also laced up tightly—the kind of boots that make a woman step out smart and proud. Walk with a kind of sashay, even. You know what I mean.
The next morning the snapping and lacing took me a little longer than I had anticipated. I arrived at the meeting one minute before it was to start. The double doors were closed. I hauled them open and saw that the oval table was fully populated with the dark suits and ties and solemn faces of the male representatives from other countries. The French moderator at the end of the table was ready to begin.
I clearly heard Nancy Sinatra’s voice: “Are you ready boots? Start walkin’!”
I sashayed to my seat, fully aware that every eye in the room was on my entrance—thank God I had scouted the location of my nameplate the day before, though it was the only empty chair in the room. To get to it I had to scoot sideways behind the chair next to mine. That was when the heavy brass brads on the back of that chair caught the top gripper snap of my skirt and—this is easier to demonstrate than to describe—instantly ripped open the snaps all the way to the hem. The skirt, being leather, dropped heavily to the floor. I was left in my snazzy, fashionable lace-up vest and sweater, panty hose, and knee-high lace-up boots.
After I gathered up my skirt and wrapped it around me, slunk into my chair and clapped on my earphones, I finally looked up. Every man in the room was looking at the ceiling or studying his notebook.
For the rest of that day’s symposium, I scarcely looked up from my own notebook. Nor did I get to know any of the other participants–not that day.
I came early the second day but still everyone was already in place. When I pulled open the Gates of Hell, wearing a pantsuit with a belt, the moderator looked up and spoke in French into his microphone. The room erupted with laughter. When I got to my seat I asked the gentleman next to me what the moderator had said. With a perfectly British straight face, the gentleman translated: “We were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the U.S. delegate.”
That second day, I began to participate in the back and forth, the reason I was there–to share expertise and ideas. By the third day, we could be friends. No one ever mentioned my clothing again, directly or subtly.