Style / Asparagus dressing and hangovers

Maya Negri striped cotton dress, remaining pieces by Alice & Olivia

Photos provided by vendors


“The phrase ‘style guide,’” the voice began, “was first used to describe a writing manual, a book like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Then advertisers began to create style guides for their clients. The Coca-Cola brand, for example, would have a portfolio full of instructions on what font to use for that special cursive lettering, or for other identifiers, like color. Coca-Cola’s red is famous. It’s not ruby. It’s more like what we see in the American flag, only lighter and, well, more red. Today, software developers use style guides to help keep track of a program’s UI components. ‘UI’ means ‘user interface,’ the interactive buttons and such on websites like Facebook and your favorite phone app.”


My question had been about what to wear in July. I meant that kind of style guide. What should you wear on that summer day when your only assignment is to run away from home until bedtime—that was my query. Trend-spotters were wowing over Wizard of Oz demure and Ginger Rogers’ movie star slink, as well as denim catastrophes that never survived the fifties or the seventies. There was leopard and big pinks and wallpaper prints, too, but this was supposed to be about day trip couture. I mean, sure, I can look at an off-the-shoulder, ruffled, patchwork, gingham, and pinstripe shirt with bowed ties and butterfly appliques for fifteen hours at a stretch, but can everyone? I wanted to find pieces that would help the whole road-trip gang laugh and relax and feel wonderful in an unfamiliar, faraway place, with no suitcase allowed. I wanted that perfect thing that would work for everyone under any circumstance, and do it for one whole day. 


“It’s not possible,” I admit to my posse of first responders.


Zadig & Voltaire jacket with Steve Madden sandals


“You know the drill. Start with shoes,” my daughter says. “You can change them in the car, and they can quick ramp up or down any look.” “Haley’s right,” my mom joins in. “Extra shoes. Actually, why stress? July is easy. July is one good dress. You can go with red and white and what’s that word ...” “Glitter,” my daughter finishes. “Like fireworks, yes,” my mom continues. “You know what else explodes? Gardens. Asparagus and the tops of ears of corn, that soft stuff. Find things like that. Did I mention a dress? Pretend you are going to a birthday party. It is so easy in the summer, but pay attention to the fabrics. They don’t all breathe. Make sure they breathe.” 


I could not breathe. All I had in my head was the image of a big asparagus dress. “And I want one,” I finally confide to my daughter. “I am actually now on the hunt for red, white, glitter, and asparagus. What about pants? Mom didn’t mention pants. I love pants!” “Your blood sugar is dropping,” she says. “Get something to eat, and don’t forget blue. Red, white, blue, something bright, and some food—to eat, not to wear.” Yes, find food to eat, I repeated to myself, and then I remember. 


We were hungover for the fourth day in a row. It was our first trip to Europe, and my two friends and I were being educated by the French in the art of mixing business with pleasure. We were failing. “Road trip,” one of us suggested. “For air,” another added, and that is how our day out began. How big can France be, we wondered. Maybe the size of Connecticut? Ohio tops. But we did not get as far as we had hoped. France, it seems, is about the size of Texas, and, after several hours, we had made it to only one big city, Dijon. Did I mention that we were hungover? We were. We were “bring me a carcass and a bottle of ketchup” hungover, the kind of day after when potato chips and mayonnaise qualify as health foods. There had to be restorative powers in a city named after one of the three greatest condiments ever, I hoped, as we parked the car and walked. We peeked in through restaurant windows. Most were closed. It was that in-between lunch and dinner time, the “Get out of the kitchen because Mom is busy” period when customers are supposed to be at work or taking a nap and the restaurant staff is getting ready for the next seating. I bent down to peer at a pub menu (pubs use a different clock), and, right then, on that spot, I sold my soul. I was looking at entrées of offal, dishes made from brains and stomachs and glands, but I did not care. “Sounds great,” I said, lying, and stood up to find the pub entrance. It was then that I noticed one of our group walk away. One of us, I learned that day, could not eat mustard. “It’s mustard. Who doesn’t like mustard?” I blurted out. “Isn’t mustard the only way to get surprise-inside foods like brains and hot dogs down the throat?” Nobody answered. 



Diane Von Furstenberg dresses with Marni backpack, Eileen Fisher cardigan with Steve Madden footwear


We got back in the car and gave up our plan to circumnavigate the globe. A thousand questions popped into my head, and most of them sounded like, “If mustard is a deal breaker, then why did we stop in Dijon?” But I no longer had the energy to be annoying. None of us had the energy to be friends. I promised myself I would never drink again, and sat staring out the dusty car window of the rear passenger seat and into a descending afternoon sun. The glare against the glass hurt my eyes. It diffused and refracted, and washed out everything visible on the other side of the pane. I saw only beige rock and brush, the back seat scene of every family vacation trip through Oklahoma. Somebody in the front said, “I swore I’d never eat fast food in France, but if you see a McDonald’s, stop.” No one replied. Of course we would have stopped. 


Then there it was. A sign with a fork on it. We slowed down and followed directions. As the hills blocked the glare from the sun, my eyes adjusted enough to see that the brush was actually grapevine, and the beige, a blend of sand and stone, was a wall that encircled the village. We drove the windy road in, and said nothing. Nobody mentioned the obvious, that we were driving through a ghost town and should probably make sure our doors were locked. “Don’t you guys think it is strange that the place is…” I began to say, staring out the back window to double check for a pulse. “Restaurant,” someone in the front of the car cut me off. “Looks like a restaurant.” “Probably closed,” the other responded. “Or fully booked,” the discussion continued. “Fully booked?” I wanted to say, but I held my tongue. My guess was that it was haunted, or worse, full of condiments. 


Below: Blotter-type bronzer, foundation, and highlighter sheets from Mai Couture


“Table for three?” the woman said, looking at her reservations book. “Good, you are early. We can accommodate you.” She led us into a room of tablecloths and waitstaff. People were seated in front of multiple courses of food, and bottles of wine. I took this as a sign that I should start drinking again. We had somehow stumbled across a Guide Michelin-rated restaurant, an altogether different guide system that sent one message: “You are lucky if they let you in the door.” But I do not remember the food, nor the wine. I remember the colors, the yellow of the meringue pie, and the browns of the sauces. The rind around the cheese offered variations of indigo, midnight, cadet blues, and grays. The table cloths were a brilliant white, that television commercial level of bright. The candles somehow matched. “The silverware is made of real silver,” somebody whispered, as we three melted into friends again. I will never forget how the food made us friends again, and how happy I was that we had spotted the sign, an unintended pun. A fork in the road. 


I return my thoughts to my assignment and my posse’s style guide. I do not have an asparagus dress, but I can still see those grape vines. I don’t have the perfect Stars and Stripes outfit, but I remember the red, white, and blue of the French flag. I don’t have the glitter and red glare from rockets bursting in air as they do on the Fourth of July, and in Paris on Bastille Day, but I remember that late afternoon sun blinding me through a dirty car window, forcing me to squint, and that what followed the glare was pure magic. I still needed shoes, yes. I knew the drill. But at least now if anyone asks me what to take on a daylong trip, I have an answer: an appetite                 


Catherine Berlin is Spree’s longtime style essayist.


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