The quiet power of my wife

“What am I allowed to wear today?” I used to ask my wife Peggy that silly half-serious question. She died on Aug. 7, 2007. Nowadays I have slippery feelings as I look in the closet.

Peggy bought or persuaded me to buy all the clothes I now possess. I have not bought a shirt, coat, sweater, suit or pair of pants since 2007.

And I feel a vague sense of loss about her blouses, dresses and pantsuits, which have mostly been taken away for reuse and recycling.

I’m uneasy about the disappearance of her clothes. As long as they remained in their old place, I had a dim feeling the essence of Peggy was still there. Now some of the after sense has disappeared.

Peggy’s influence goes back to the deep 20th-century phase of the male-chauvinist era, when men wore sober grays and dark blues to signal their dominance, and men’s imagined separation from the supposedly rainbow-artsy nature of females — delusions as deeply rooted then as superior Liberal-or-Conservative political money-management skill is now.

Remembering the colour-keyed gender stereotypes, I used to credit myself for breaking through the barrier and wearing, on different days, a red tie and a red sweater.

I realize now that Peggy quietly engineered my colour breakaway by her suggestions, approvals and silences when I went with her to the men’s clothing store. The breakaway may not seem like much in this age of male earrings, female tattoos, tongue-studs, and unisex brilliance, but back then it was a big deal.

Neckties already marked a hotspot of early colour-revolt, though conventionally expressed in plaids and paisleys.

The whole package of jacket, shirt, buttoned collar and tie was a compulsory middle-class uniform. I must have been eager to obey the code, because I recall one occasion when, fumbling around half-asleep, I unknowingly put on two ties and went to the office wearing both of them.

I never lived that down. At a reunion a while ago, I ran into a guy who told the story. While I subconsciously followed the bourgeois male dress code to the extreme — wearing two ties was overkill by anybody’s standards — Peggy kept gently rewriting and re-colouring the rule book.

She edited my whole collection of wearables, not just the colour-slanted items. I doubt that I will find another Harris tweed jacket to succeed the two sturdy specimens she captured for me in a thrift store, if they ever wear out.

Peggy occasionally reversed the gender-blending. In my travels I inherited a warm outer jacket that fastened in what used to be the female style, buttons on the left.

“Where’s that coat?” I asked from time to time. She didn’t answer.

Years later, after I lost Peggy, I realized she had secretly given the coat away, along with my early plastic shirts that lasted for years with no signs of wear, and her father’s thick black Civil Defence greatcoat, which she was horrified to see me wearing on a winter day when I welcomed her back from a visit to England.

It wasn’t just about gender symbols. Soft, non-threatening control was the point. I’m sure millions of women nudge their partners around just as Peggy did.

So I doubt the male political-dominance claim put forward by Robin Fox, one of the most famous names in the social sciences. Fox declared that in societies around the world, men usually make the political decisions.

I think his statement was wrong in the 1970s, and it’s doubly wrong now that women have gained a greater measure — though not a full measure — of open political/economic power in the West.

There is a lot more to say about this subject, as everybody knows, but I must gather courage before I tackle it some other day.

—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It runs every second week in the Gazette.


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