Let Me Clarify #4: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum

Trousers Of Trust

Even before our son was born, I’d pictured him toddling around on chubby, dimpled legs in classic, dark blue trousers with H-suspenders, like a posh French infant or the coddled progeny of the British royal family. In the days before online shopping, it was difficult for me to find appealing children’s attire. Our daughter’s pretty dresses were purchased on visits to other countries or the Italian- and French-speaking cantons, but rarely in German-speaking Central Switzerland where we lived—where no one reveled in dressing up babies like heirs apparent, or celebrating childhood in the exuberant Slavic fashion to which I was accustomed.

The egalitarian Swiss Germans are frugal, modest, and subdued. They draw as little attention to their offspring as they do to their wealth. At the playground, I overheard other mothers complain that nice clothes were wasted on “brats who ruin everything.” In the meantime, my two little ones dug in the sandbox and clambered over the jungle gym in ruffled and pleated finery—each stain or tear a self-teaching lesson in how to care for all things, not just apparel.

Our son was almost two, and we hadn’t traveled far afield since his birth. I still hadn’t found the fabled short trousers with buttoned, self-fabric suspenders. Visiting a friend whose architect husband imposed a higher aesthetic standard on his family than the average local, I was amazed to see their little boy wearing the elusive garment.

“The shorts! I’ve searched everywhere! Where did you find them?”

My friend didn’t remember. When we met the following week, she still couldn’t recall. She changed the subject almost too quickly, and something seemed off. On our next visit, I perused magazines on a side table in her living room and, among old issues of Domus and Architectural Digest, discovered a catalog with photos of adorable kids’ clothing and, on one page, an angelic child model in the coveted shorts, available for order. Like “The Purloined Letter,” it had lain hidden in plain sight the entire time she’d faked her amnesia. This forced me into my own lie: for a few more years our families would continue to meet, our children would still play together, but I’d never disclose that our friendship was broken—an issue of trust, not trousers.

Recently, my husband and I visited Berlin where our son, now in his early twenties, is a fine art photography student. Despite a childhood spent in Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits color-matched to his older sister’s attire, he’s turned into a modest young man with a scrupulous sense of style. In an outdoor café in Kreuzberg, I introduced him to writer and artist Colin Raff, who gave us several of his glossy art stickers and, in the course of our conversation, mentioned owning only one pair of trousers.

I launched into an anecdote about my first husband, a scholarship student at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School when we met. He’d subsisted on a minuscule monthly allowance, and possessed only one flannel shirt and a single pair of black, serge trousers. Dancers spend entire days in the studio in leotards and tights, and his street clothing received little to no wear. Saving on detergent, and conserving his wardrobe even further, he extended the intervals between laundering by stripping naked as soon as he was home in his room in a tenement behind Winnipeg’s Odeon Theatre.

Colin may have inferred I was advocating for domestic nudity, but that wasn’t the case. Nudism is quite popular in Germany, and the Swiss had to pass a law against nude hiking after hordes of naked German tourists began crossing their border to traverse the Alps. These enthusiasts of Freikörperkultur (FKK )—“Free Body Culture”—engage in many other strenuous group activities; though less photogenic, they often remind me of the nude athletics documented by Hitler’s favorite photographer, Leni Riefenstahl.

My father fled Ukraine after World War II with only the proverbial shirt on his back. He met my mother in an Austrian displaced persons camp. When his trousers tore, she found a scrap of cloth, took needle and thread, and sewed patches over the holes. Like many refugees, my parents prospered after emigrating to Canada. By the time I was a teenager, my father owned scores of fine cotton shirts, dozens of silk ties, and cut a dashing figure in custom-made apparel from an Italian immigrant tailor—but he refused to order his suits with a second pair of trousers:

“Two? You can’t wear more than one at a time!”

Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations. When not writing her memoir, Escape Artists, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website geniablum.com, and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.

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