The day our corporate chef announced he was stepping down from his exalted position and relinquishing his title, his tricked out office and coveted parking space to me, I went home and stuffed my chef’s pants and skanky grease stained Chef coat into the trash. After 25 years of grinding my fallen arches on punishing cement kitchen floors and herding recalcitrant and semi-sober restaurant employees into submission, I was done cooking for ungrateful customers and falling into bed smelling of fried calamari.
I’ve spent my whole life in uniform: as an angelic tow-headed Catholic School student, a punk waitress and a goth cook. My “style” was exclusively black, functional and flameproof. A promotion out of the kitchen and into the warm, antiseptic, and serene c-suite felt like a galaxy of Michelin stars.
For once, I needed a wardrobe.
Restaurant folks are not normal people. While delicately weaving pea vines around diver scallops with our fancy tweezers, we serve the public and verbally eviscerate it from the dark corners of our cramped and odorous kitchens. Introverts, social pinheads, addicts, and artists are the nervous system of the dining industry. Kitchens are full of Napoleon Dynamites with sharp knives. It’s the perfect hideaway for someone who doesn’t like attention. Painfully shy and awkward for most of my life, I didn’t use my clothing as much to dress myself as to redact myself. I was perfectly suited for the back of the house.
An executive promotion for a monochromatic 57-year-old woman presented some fashion challenges. I decided to stick to the basic ELLE magazine guidelines for my new ensembles and selected classic pieces that would anchor the cheap shit I planned to buy at the thrift stores. Timeless Chanel inspired blazers and fitted “slacks” made me appreciate my petite five-foot frame, previously a severe hindrance when reaching for the saffron on the top shelf in dry storage. After years of wearing unisex Chef’s bottoms made of stiff, bulky fabric, slipping into linen trousers too snug for stashing away a porterhouse steak was a revelation.
With most of my new pieces in place, I set my sights on a coat, the decorative fondant of this masterpiece collection. Obsessed with the exhilarating monochromatic couture of Schitt’s Creek doyenne, Moira Rose, I mined the internet searching for “Moira Rose clothes” and “coats that Moira would wear.” After slipping down a Pinterest sink hole that yielded no information about the availability of Moira knock-offs, I googled several versions of “white and black geometric patterns” until a wool stunner jumped out of the cluster of images on my screen. It’s promise of “luxury and elegance” at thirty five bucks seemed preposterous. I’ve spent more than that for a beignet and espresso at the patisserie at the Sunday Market. But the model looked fabulous and returns were free so I decided to risk it.
Now, let’s talk about my new coat.
Try to imagine a plushy, wooly winter blanket transformed into a coat and tailored for you by Vera Wang herself and then wear that bitch everywhere. Your coatis a celebrity – Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky – with an entourage and paparazzi and its own IG. Consider, for a moment, walking down a bustling city street where people would willingly walk into a power pole rather than make eye contact but now, all the eyes are on your coat.
“Love your coat!”
“Wow, that’s a coat!”
“Your coat is amazing!”
As an introvert, I wasn’t sure how I felt about my coat’s whorish behavior. In Seattle, where I live, there are standards and practices for how to avoid human interaction and we all comply. I fully appreciate the guidelines and willingly uphold the status quo. But this coat, well, she has an agenda.
She’s teaching me. I must be in the right frame of mind before I slip her on; it simply cannot be a reflexive act. Someone will say something. She will get attention.
Women, confused by an article of clothing that can’t be worn to summit Mt. Rainer find themselves spontaneously squealing compliments. Men look twice, not sure exactly why, but compelled nonetheless. I must be ready for worship and that’s an uncomfortable space for me. Too much of that and I start to believe the admiration is deserved, that I did something to earn such adulation.
I was the young girl who wore peasant blouses to conceal a budding bosom during puberty. I was the pregnant girlfriend who went full muumuu in a futile attempt to look anything but pregnant. As I embarked on a career in restaurants, I understood the unsung brilliance and ease of a nondescript uniform and modified my personal wardrobe to mirror my work clothes. It’s kind of amazing what you can get away with when no one notices you.
In the beginning, with her, the attention was so shocking and disarming, that I found myself stammering such inane responses as “it only cost thirty five dollars!” or “I got really lucky with this one, right?!” I’d shake my head in self-recrimination and just feel her judging me for being such a nob. In time, and with practice, I was able to croak a “thank you” and furtively make eye contact.
When I take her out, I’m no longer five feet tall. I tower. When she’s wrapped around me, I’m immune to the chill of winter. I’m on fire. When I’m inside her, I am no longer an older woman. I am embryonic. She is magic.
I’ve patronized the same grocery store for years. I blend in. They know me as the woman who shops a few days a week, quickly, competently dispatching her groceries at the self-checkout, earphones blocking any possibility of conversation. The other day, as rushed customers swarmed the aisles, I waited in line and pretended I had urgent business with my phone. Through the store noise and chatter, I heard, “OMG I love your coat”.
I removed my earphones through which I was listening to nothing. The woman, a North Face clad, beanie-wearer beamed at me like I was a Kardashian.
“Thank you!” I shot back, sincerely.
“I think that every time you come in here!” added the store clerk, a woman so dour and perpetually irritated that I believed she may have seen me groping the tomatoes three years ago in the produce aisle and resented me ever since.
“You look so fabulous in that coat – like you were born to wear it!”
I wasn’t. But I’m growing into it.
Trisha is a freelance writer living in Seattle. Works can be found in The Independent, Seattle Magazine, and more.