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Pretty in Plaid: A Life, A Witch, and a Wardrobe, or, the Wonder Years Before the Condescending,Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass Phase

Jen Lancaster

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  Part One - The Seventies

  Sock Lobster - (Navy Knee-Highs)

  You Say Extortion Like It’s a Bad Thing - (Green Dotted Swiss Dress)

  How About a Nice Hawaiian Punch? - (Girl Scout Uniform)

  The Green Badge of Courage - (Kelly Green Speedo Tank Suit)

  Miss New Jersey Has Everything - (Brown Tasseled Clogs)

  A Series of Unfortunate (Pant) Events - (Bloomingdale’s Underwear)

  Part Two - The Eighties

  Take a Picture, It Lasts Longer - (Jordache Jeans, Part One)

  Plan B - (Jordache Jeans, Part Two)

  Gay Paree - (Jordache Jeans, Part Three)

  Clipped Wings - (Pfft, Who Cares Because I May as Well Be in Prison Stripes)

  Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Singing a Billy Ocean Song - (White Satin Gown)

  They’re Quite Aware of What They’re Going Through - (Bass Weejun Penny Loafers)

  Dying to Belong - (Gucci Bag)

  Which Is an Entirely Different Chapter - (Not Even My Yellow Argyle Sweater)

  Absolute Power? Absolutely! - (Gold Lavaliere, Part One)

  First She Was a Seed and Then She Was Trouble - (Gold Lavaliere, Part Two)

  Dénouement - (Gold Lavaliere, Part Three)

  Part Three - The Nineties

  We Need a Montage - (A Variety of Stained Aprons)

  You Sank My Battleship - (Navy Suit, Part One)

  Just the Fax, Ma’am - (Navy Suit, Part Two)

  Brass Something, Anyway - (Navy Suit, Part Three)

  Worst Movie Ever - (Canvas Book Bag)

  Pretty (Average) Woman - (Utilitarian Snow Boots)

  My Kind of Town - (Cubs Bucket Hat)

  Carrie Bradshaw Made Me Do It - (Not Manolos—But Close)

  She Gets a Long Letter, Sends Back a Postcard (Times Are Hard) - (Silver ...

  The End of the Beginning - (Crocodile-Skin Pumps)




  Bitter Is the New Black

  Bright Lights, Big Ass

  Such a Pretty Fat

  New American Library

  Published by New American Library,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

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  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

  80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by New American Library,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  First Printing, May 2009

  Copyright © Jennifer Lancaster, 2009 All rights reserved


  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Lancaster, Jen, 1967-

  Pretty in plaid: a life, a witch, and a wardrobe, or the wonder years before the

  condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered smart-ass phase/Jen Lancaster.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-05071-2

  1. Lancaster, Jen, 1967—Childhood and youth. 2. Authors, American—

  21st century—Biography. 3. Girls—Humor. 4. Clothing and dress—Humor.

  I. Title.

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  For the readers, booksellers, and librarians—you make it all possible!

  A·U·T·H·O·R’S N·O·T·E

  Some characters have been combined for storytelling purposes. In addition, other names and identifying characteristics have been changed for privacy reasons.

  The soul of this man is in his clothes.


  Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.


  It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits

  to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

  But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and

  the emperor remains an emperor.


  November 6, 1974

  Dear Mattei,

  Your Bella Dancerella Barbie is junk!

  Just today the head fell off her. Yesterday, her body fell apart. I do not have any of the pieces to send you because they are junk now.

  May be you should send me a another one immediately before I tell all my friends what shoddy products you manufacture.

  Your friend,

  Jennifer Lancaster

  P.S. My dawn dolls fell apart in the tub when I tried to take them swimming. Please send two Dancerella Barbies to make up for this tragic loss.

  October 1, 1976

  Hi, Mrs. Cummings,

  You don’t know me but I am my brother Todd’s sister. My mom says Todd is failing your Spanish class. She yelled at him a bunch for getting an F on the test and he was mad. He kept saying “no bueno.”

  My mom is probably too emotional about Todd’s grades to discuss the situation rationally, so you should probably work through me. I am enclosing a blank piece of paper so you can give me a progress report on Todd.

  Okay, thank you,

  Jennifer Lancaster

  P.S. Hola!

  P.P.S. Look at me! I’m already bi-lingual!

  December 12, 1980

  Hello, Brooke Shields!

  I’m a big fan even though I’m not allowed to see The
Blue Lagoon. Plus you’re from New Jersey and I used to live in New Jersey and we have the same eyebrows, so it’s like we’re already kindred spirits.

  Anyway, I saw your commercial and I like the Calvin Klein jeans you advertise. I figure you probably have some extra since Mr. Klein likely gave them to you for free.

  You’re in luck - I happen to need some Calvin Klein jeans and no one will buy them for me so why not solve both our problems and send me some? Seriously, no one in this stupid cow town has Calvins and I’d be the first if you sent me some and I’m pretty sure that would catapult me to instant celebrity.

  Your friend,

  Jennifer Lancaster

  P.S. My auntie says your ads are kitty porn, but that makes no sense because you’re totally wearing pants!

  Also? There are no cats!

  February 14, 1981


  I am not saying “dear” because you are not dear to me. I ask you for extra pants and you send me back a frigging postcard?

  You are NOT COOL.

  And I totally pluck my eyebrows now. You should, too.

  NOT your friend,

  Jennifer Lancaster

  P.S. All is forgiven if the pants are in the mail.

  January 28, 1984

  Principal Stern,

  I’m sorry you had to take time out of your busy day of principal-ing to deal with such a trivial matter.

  Honestly, I have no idea how or why Justine Moore got the idea that I hated her and that I specifically carried nail scissors around to simulate snip-snip sounds whenever I was behind her in the hallway. And I couldn’t begin to tell you who started the rumor about people wanting to hack off a chunk of her ridiculous red hair to punish her for being such a bit, well, you know, female dog.

  These allegations against me are hurtful and untrue even though she TOTALLY tried to get with my date by grinding on him when I hit the bathroom at the last school dance. As you can see, she’d have it coming if someone were to give her an unexpected haircut, but it wouldn’t be me.

  Your student,

  Jeni Lancaster

  P.S. She has NO proof.

  December 15, 2008

  Dear Self,

  Someday in a fit of nostalgia, or perhaps after matching Gross pointe Blank again, you will be tempted to attend a high school reunion.

  Before you load up the CD player with eighties tunes and create a triptych, please read this book and refamiliarize yourself with all the smack you talked about your classmates and hometown.

  And then take yourself on a spa weekend instead so you don’t accidentally, you know, get lynched.

  You can’t go home again.

  At least not after mocking the prom quenn.




  When I was a kid, my mother’s mantra was You are what you eat.

  Considering that I broke the long silence from birth until my thirteenth month of life by uttering the word “cookie,” it was safe to say even then that it would not become mine. I knew I wasn’t a bruised banana pulled from her handbag while waiting on line at the post office, nor was I an unsweetened bowl of Cheerios topped with wheat germ from the foul-smelling hippie health food store. Sure, I’d have happily been a Hershey bar1 or a bowl of mouth-shredding Crunch Berries, but a poorly boned bowl of homemade chicken soup or a salt-free lentil casserole? No.

  Right about the time I was able to cut my own meat and make my own sartorial choices, my Auntie Fanny gave me some of my cousin Stephanie’s old clothes. I was instantly enamored; there were colors and styles I’d never seen before.2

  Instead of the ducky-and-moo-cow tops my mother bought or made by hand, I took first grade by storm in Steph’s old purple suede fringe vests and rainbow-striped corduroy bell-bottoms and peace symbol T-shirts. I mean, why would I dress like a baby when I could look like an extra from Sonny and Cher Show reruns?

  I may not have been able to tie my shoes or spell my last name, but I knew one thing for sure—I was not what I ate.

  I was what I wore.

  You never can tell when nostalgia might strike. For many people, it’s triggered by a long-forgotten scent, say, the nose on a glass of wine that evokes the aroma of ripe grapes hanging from the arbor in their great-grandmother’s backyard. For others, memories come flooding in when a fancy small-plates restaurant conjures up an ironic bread pudding that happens to taste just like the one Mrs. Maguire brought to that block party the day Nixon resigned. For some, it’s a snippet of a song: Three bars from Toto’s “Africa” broadcast from a passing car and they’re no longer swinging a Halliburton briefcase down Michigan Avenue to get to a branding meeting. Instead, they’re huddled in their high school commons at lunch, cramming for a fifth-period chemistry test.

  And me? Well, more often than not a piece of clothing will spark my memory.

  I clearly remember what I had on when I learned the Challenger exploded,3 and I know what I was wearing when President Reagan was shot.4 I saw my husband, Fletch, for the first time when I was waitressing in a pink polo and low-waisted men’s green chinos, and a year later when we had our first kiss, I was in a red Ralph Lauren turtleneck, loose sand-colored 501s, and had a red and blue grosgrain band around my watch. I can even tell you the exact gauge of the sweater set I wore the day I made the mistake of carrying a Prada bag to the unemployment office . . . no matter how much I’d like to forget.

  The sizes on the tags of my clothing may have changed over the years, but the memories are a constant.

  In Pretty in Plaid, I recall the outfits (and events) that ultimately made me the kind of condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered smart-ass who would bark orders at waitresses and make assistants cry. My road to hell wasn’t paved with good intentions—it was cobbled with gold lavalieres and Gucci purses.

  As I examine my life through this book, I can’t help but wonder if my mother was right. Maybe I really was what I ate. And maybe if she’d let me eat a little more sugar, I’d have come out sweeter.

  My parents (and a prom queen or two) might disagree with my recollections and may have entirely different opinions on where and why things got off track.

  So maybe it wasn’t the sugar. Maybe I’m just naturally an ass.

  But, really, who knows? All I can say for sure is that my story begins with kneesocks and a lobster bib. . . .

  Part One

  The Seventies

  Sock Lobster

  (Navy Knee-Highs)

  “I don’t need to see a menu; just bring me the lobster, please.” I smile beatifically as I return the large plastic multipaged menu to the waitress. I gesture over to the tank by the front door. “Get me the one with the green rubber bands around his claws. He seems like a bully and I don’t care for bullies.”

  Before writing anything on her little spiral pad, the be-smocked waitress gives her golden beehive a quick scratch with the cap of her pen as she seeks my mother’s approval. “Is she sure?”

  I exhale with angry frustration. “Of course I’m sure; I just told you. And please double-check that I get the Green Meanie. His time has come.”

  My mom reaches for my clenched hand and in her most soothing tone says, “Jennifer, be reasonable. You don’t really want lobster, do you? It costs more than ten dollars a pound. How about a juicy steak or a nice cheeseburger with French fries? You can have ice cream afterward.”

  “Thanks but no. The lobster will be fine.” I always get a cheeseburger and fries when we go out to dinner. Steak is acceptable, but only if it’s practically burnt and bone-dry. The idea of meat juice touching any other food items, particularly absorbent ones like bread or mashed potatoes, makes me want to hurl.

  Besides, today is special and I demand the kind of meal that’s commensurate with the occasion. And if what I want is ten dollars a pound, then maybe someone should have taken that into consideration when extending the invitation in the first place.

  “How about spaghetti or some veal parmesan?” my fa
ther suggests. He rubs the bridge of his nose where his aviator frames hit. His new glasses normally make him look like Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man, but at the moment he appears more tired and aggravated than anything else. I suspect the idea for today’s two-hour road trip was not his. “Or how about the hot dog?”

  My brother, Todd, makes a face at me from behind his napkin. “You can’t have the lobster because you’re a baby.”

  I point an accusatory finger at him. “When you stop being afraid of mayonnaise and tomatoes, you let me know, Toad.” I shift out of striking distance—my brother is famous for his stealthy punches—and my bare legs squeak against the vinyl. My mother wanted me to wear a ridiculous pair of maroon tights today but I balked because my sweater is red and I refuse to clash, particularly on such an auspicious occasion. I compromised by wearing a thick pair of ribbed navy kneesocks, which look far better with my plaid pleated shirt, anyway. Granted, my thighs are freezing, but one must occasionally make sacrifices for fashion.

  After I wave off my brother’s opinion, I turn my attention to my parents. “You guys didn’t drive me all the way to Connecticut for a hot dog. No. I want a lobster. You promised me a lobster. It’s my birthday and you said I could have a birthday lobster. I mean, when am I going to turn eight again?”