By Lucy Corry for Canvas magazine
She is all legs as she strikes a pose in the mirror. She's wearing black leggings printed with green and white butterflies and a pink and grey striped T-shirt over a red and white striped singlet. Mismatched socks peep out from her mud-splattered black and green trainers. She sees me watching her and gives me two thumbs up. "I look pretty cool today, don't I Mum?"
I can only agree. My daughter Eve, has dressed herself ever since she was able. As long as it's weather appropriate, I've left her to it. The results can be surprising - matchy-matchy is not in her vocabulary and there are occasionally times when we disagree over the suitability of a dressing-up box outfit for public display - but I don't want anything to erode this confidence in how she looks.
Mostly, I envy her. Like most women, I have a complicated relationship with my wardrobe. It's a mixture of op-shop finds, precious relics from my mother's closet and high-street buys worn well past their best-by date, as well things I've bought because I thought they'd come in handy for a costume party. I'm not sure why because I rarely go to parties, let alone dress-up ones. Instead, I work three days a week in a government agency (dress code: sensible) and the rest from home as a freelance writer. The work I do at home includes recipe writing, along with household chores and the school run, so my usual look is what I call "depressed housewife" - ancient jeans, T-shirts and something warm. It's not inspiring or remotely stylish. One morning, after seeing me standing in front of my wardrobe waiting for inspiration to strike, Eve offers to help. In the absence of any other offers, I decide to make it a week-long gig.
Monday: She is so excited about dressing me that she wakes at 5.30am. An hour later, when I stagger out of the shower, she's standing in front of the wardrobe on a stack of pillows, clutching at hangers to keep her balance. After some deliberation, she chooses a silk shirt printed with pink flamingos and green palm trees and a pair of navy trousers, both bought last summer. This is totally acceptable for a day in the office, I think with relief. Then she adds a shawl-collared jacket printed with pale blue poodles (an ASOS number I found at the hospice shop for a fiver), a long gold pendant, green crystal earrings and pink fake snakeskin heels. Later in the day I go to an off-site meeting where I feel stupidly self-conscious. On the way back to work I bump into a former boss and I feel her eyes flick over the poodles curiously.
She has refined her technique and drags a chair to the wardrobe. Today's look is corporate showgirl: a blue-sequin dress ($20 from a shop in Westport, never worn), black tights, long black boots (11 years old, bought in London), a chunky gold necklace and green crystal earrings. It's 7C outside. I ask for a jacket and mercifully she pulls out a sensible navy shoulder-padded number I bought in Sydney a couple of years ago. I seldom wear it because my husband once said it was very "Jenny Shipley".
With the jacket on I feel reasonably normal, but I still get a shock when I see my razzle-dazzle reflection in the work bathroom mirror. One of my colleagues tells me I look "lovely" and I think she means it. At school pick-up, where all the other parents are sensibly rugged up in raincoats, another mother asks me what I've been doing "because you look very glamorous and sparkly". I smile and say, "oh, just a normal day at work". Later that evening, I'm sweeping up crumbs from under the dining table. This is my glamorous and sparkly life, I say to myself as the sequins spin light across the floor.
Yesterday I was a preening peacock; today I am a dull sparrow. She's more interested in eating her breakfast and reading Tintin than dressing me. When I get out of the shower she's wearing a bra on her head and the rest of my outfit is on the bed. It's bland: a cream silk shirt (partly stained with pink dye), a white singlet, black pants and scuffed Chelsea boots. The only concessions to glam are glittery silver socks and Monday's gold necklace. I throw my sensible navy trench coat on top and leave the house in a grump. On the bus I sit next to a woman with yellow and orange hair. She's wearing purple glasses, a striped tunic topped with a patterned cardigan and brightly coloured tights. I scrabble about for a lipstick in an effort to feel less drab.
Later, I nip out for lunch and walk past a shop where each dazzling garment costs more than a weekly mortgage payment. I don't think I will ever be able to buy clothes like this, even if I could afford them. They're things that happen to other people, like staying up all night or going stand-up paddle boarding. The shop assistant shoots me a look through the window that says "don't even think about it, you boring office drone". I long for yesterday's sequins.
"Mum, do you wear tights under a dress or do you wear trousers?"
"Tights," I call from the shower. She's chosen a clingy 2-year-old printed Zara dress, black fishnet tights, heeled black ankle boots, a black bra and spotted knickers. Oh, and the jewels: pink and diamante earrings (bought to wear as part of a princess costume), plus a necklace that she loves because it has a huge pink stone that looks like a boiled sweet. The piece de resistance is a white faux fur coat that I wore as part of a bridesmaid's outfit two years ago. My husband raises an eyebrow: "I'm beginning to wonder what you do when you 'work from home'," he says. I may look somewhat overdressed for the school run but the fur coat is cosy. I step out the door and a flash of panic crosses Eve's face. "Mum, I don't think you should wear that coat. I'll choose you a new one." I tell her we will be late for school, but she is adamant. "No, I don't think that one is very good." I switch coats.
When we get to her class I give her a hug goodbye. "Do you think this outfit is okay," I whisper. "Yes," she says. "The white coat was just too fashion-y. I don't think you should wear it when you come to pick me up."
At home, I spend the morning writing and the afternoon testing recipes. I stand well back when lighting the gas, anxious about being so near a naked flame in such flammable clothing. I go to bed early, luxuriating in the looseness of my cotton pyjamas.
Today's look is aspiring Mafia widow: tight black dress, a vintage black lace jacket with fur-trimmed sleeves, black tights, heeled black ankle boots. Great Aunt Shirley's diamante earrings are a fitting accompaniment. We're both pleased with my outfit, but she made me get changed about four times before she was satisfied. We only just make it to school in time. I hang out some washing and decide I'm overdressed for vacuuming. After a few half-hearted attempts to work I decide it may be better if I try to work in town. I never, ever do this and it turns out to be a complete disaster. I have a great time mooching about Cuba St however and catch up with a friend over lunch. I do the school pickup, take Eve to ballet and then spontaneously decide we should go out to eat. I may work best dressed like a depressed housewife but I am way more fun when all tarted up.
She's laid out a tangerine silk-look jumpsuit (bought at the school fair last November) with my long boots, a white singlet and a pink bead necklace. The last time I wore the jumpsuit (on New Year's Eve), she told me it looked like I was in fancy dress. The colour is arresting, to say the least, but I am very comfortable and no one turns an eye at the library or when I'm buying vegetables. We have dinner with our neighbours, Duncan and Lucy. They've seen me in a lot worse, but I still feel a flash of panic when Duncan asks to take my coat. I reveal the jumpsuit and they roar with laughter. "It looks fabulous," Lucy says encouragingly. "You look like a superhero." After several glasses of wine, she looks at me more closely. "You could add some white fur to the cuffs and dress up as Santa at Christmas time."
She steps back and appraises me from head to toe. "I think this my favourite outfit," she says. Her father looks up from the paper. "Yes, it's a good look," he says, "if you want your clothes to say, 'I'm Amish and I still like to party!'"
I'm wearing a Pucci-inspired pale pink, white and black silk dress, a calf-length black circular skirt with pale pink trim, a giant crystal necklace and the pink diamante earrings. I bought the dress to wear to a friend's wedding seven years ago, and my sister bought me the skirt after our mother died in 2012. Eve drags a 1970s ankle-length black wool coat (by New Zealand designer Jane Bezar, found at the Kilbirnie Red Cross) out of the wardrobe when we go into the city in the afternoon. I sweep down Lambton Quay, feeling like an avenging black angel among a sea of Lions fans in cheerful red raincoats. People definitely stare at me on the street but there is worse to come. When we're in a bookshop, a shop assistant materialises beside us. To my horror, I realise she's wearing Harry Potter robes to mark the 20th anniversary of the boy wizard books. I'm mortified at being thought of as a Potter-head and can't get home fast enough.
That night, as I tuck Eve into bed, I ask her what it's been like to choose my clothes for the week. She sits up and nods emphatically. "It's been fun because it's like dressing my Barbies but with a real person." She pauses for a moment to think. "But it's harder than doing it to the Barbies because they don't have any opinions."
The next morning, I get dressed by myself. It's liberating to pick my own underwear, though I choose the rest of the outfit with more care (and with slightly more glamour) than I would have before. Eve tells me I look "very nice" but admits she's disappointed that she hasn't been involved. I go off to make breakfast and she watches as her father opens his side of the wardrobe. "Daddy," she says persuasively. "I think you might need me to help you get dressed."