As a native California girl who has spent most of her adult life living within a mile or two of the beach, I flatter myself that I know from beachwear. The classic West Coast water uniform -- unchanged in the nearly 50 years since the Beach Boys had their first hit -- is simple. You need a swimsuit, board shorts, a tank top (to wear into shops and diners on the way to or from the beach), a pair of flip-flops, and maybe a sweatshirt just in case. Stuff a beach towel, some sunscreen, and the car keys into a backpack, tuck a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers into your sunstreaked hair (Vuarnet cat-eyes are also acceptable, and make the statement that you ski when you're not surfing -- mine were bright red), don't forget the tatami mat to keep the sand out of your towel, and you're good to go.
Marinated in a beach culture that defined the very notion of "casual chic," I've always been somewhat confused by the fashion catalogs that frequently arrive in my mailbox. The summer editions always include a swimsuit issue that displays a different kind of beachwear entirely.
In these catalogs, beautifully made-up women lounge by pools in perfectly coordinated outfits that include at least seven perfectly-matched items:
2. Cover-up of some sort
5. Jewelry -- chunky earrings with matching bracelet and/or necklace
6. Tote bag
7. Sunglasses -- designer sunglasses on one's head are the modern tiara that crowns women of America's upper classes
8. (for bonus points only) Towel
Who in the hell drops $500 (closer to $1000 if you go full-on designer with the tote and sunglasses) on this kind of get-up just to go lie on a beach? I've wondered about this for years. It took another California girl -- my best friend Vandy -- to solve the mystery.
The thing you need to understand about Vandy is that she's walking, talking Gidget -- a feisty five-foot-nothing surfer girl raised on the beaches of the OC. She's 50-mumble now (old enough to have two sons grown and gone), and still surfs (often, with her boys). God willing, when she's 80, she'll still surf (perhaps with her grandchildren). Board shorts and tank tops are still part of her everyday uniform, as is the toe-ring (another surfer-girl hallmark) that hasn't come off in so many decades that her toe has a permanent indent where the ring goes.
At one point in her long, strange career as a Major Retail Goddess, Vandy managed all the women's wear and tabletop buyers for about 150 Macy's stores throughout the southeast. The job required that she live in Atlanta -- which, as it turns out, is one of the places most to blame for the Great Seven-Piece Swimsuit Mystery.
Nobody on the West Coast may wear these get-ups -- but on the East Coast, they're required attire, as Vandy discovered when she became the newest member of one of Atlanta's oldest swim and racquet clubs. That first Saturday she showed up, little blond boys in tow, in California beachwear-as-she-knew it. And she was greeted by row after row of thickly made-up ladies languishing on chaises, sipping sweet tea, watching their children and perfecting their tans while dressed head-to-toe in ensembles so perfectly coordinated that their manicures matched.
Definitely not in California any more.
The swimsuits were only part of the style shift that came with moving South. After being invited to a local gala, Vandy decided to check out her formalwear choice -- a sleek, architecturally understated black Calvin Klein gown - with her second-in-command, a native Georgian who had a knack for the local fashion landscape. The woman recoiled at the plainness of the dress. "Honey," she said. "This is the South. You gotta hoosh it up a little."
Hooshing was a new verb in Vandy's vocabulary -- but taken under this woman's wing, she quickly figured out what it meant. Under the tutelage of her local guide, she made her entrance at the gala in a red gown with sequins, matching rhinestone jewelry, and a red velvet shrug. Big hair, big lips, big shoes -- the getup was all so over-the-top that she felt like a fine feathered refugee from La Cage Aux Folles. But damned if she didn't fit right in with all the other women there. It was her introduction to hooshing it up, Southern style.
Another place to find Southern-fried hooshing at its most flamboyantly flavorful is in the head-to-toe ensembles African-American women all over the country wear to church. The Church Suit is an odd little corner of American fashion that has its own history and rules, and thrives with almost no connection to anything else that's going on in the fashion world. Yet there are dozens of businesses that make a tidy profit selling brightly-colored, highly-stylized skirt-and-jacket suits, with matching hats, shoes, and handbags. A working-class black woman may have to wear a grungy old uniform on her day job; but come Sunday, she's stepping out in head-to-toe splendor, the whole crowned with a fabulous hat. (The hats, all on their own, have so much lore attached to them that entire books have been written about them.) Hooshed up from floor to ceiling in that suit, she's queen for a day.
After that job, Vandy moved to Boston, where they definitely do not hoosh anything up, ever; and thence to Vancouver, where the local style is a particularly Canadian understatement. Here, familiar West Coast casual meets pointed Scots Calvinist disdain for all attempts at hooshing of any kind. (Real Cascadians wear plaid, even to the beach.) Understated black Calvin Klein evening gowns are considered downright sporty here. Heels with a swimsuit make people think you're a rentgirl.
The business of hooshing it up came front and center for me last week, which I spent in Fort Lauderdale, FL, live-blogging the Unitarian Universalist Church's General Assembly. It was a surreal contrast, three thousand earnest make-up-free Unitarians in eco-tees and the world's largest collection of ugly comfort footwear tromping through the streets of a city of canals lined with $40 million yachts, filled with overly-groomed women who do their white-and-gilt hooshing at the local Neiman-Marcus. I've always wondered where the women in the January resort edition of Vogue wear that stuff -- because sure as hell, you do not see it on the West Coast (except, maybe, Palm Springs.) Turns out: they wear it in Florida.
Doughty Unitarian I may be, I remembered Vandy's warnings, and came accordingly prepared. When I finally stole an afternoon to lie under the royal palms by the pool at the Hyatt Regency to sip mojitos, and catch up on my reading, I also committed my first-ever act of swimsuit hooshing. Tropical blue/lime/black print tank swimsuit, check. Matching pareo, check. Big chunky turquoise-and-gold earrings and bracelets, check. Matching black heeled sandals, tote bag, and sunglasses, check. A light dusting of makeup -- complete with strong tropical-pink lipstick -- check and mate.
It felt odd. I longed for my plain black tank suit, flip-flops, and cheap Hawaiian sarong -- the stuff I wear lounging around Vandy's pool of a July afternoon. But damn, I looked fine as I took my place by the cabana among the ladies in glitz and leopard and Louis Vuitton, reclined as elegantly as my curvy frame will allow, and pulled the latest Atlantic Monthly out of my tote. Stretched out and ready for some sunny rest, I dropped my Swarovski-studded Chanel sunglasses onto my nose, flipped open my magazine, and called for my first mojito of the long Florida afternoon.
It's not so bad, really. When in Rome, and all that. But I did feel thoroughly hooshed - and a very long way from home.