The family had met up for lunch at a city farm restaurant. While the seating arrangements were being finalised, I found myself staring through a window at two scruffy goats. Suddenly my gaze was distracted by a flash of scarlet through the window to my right. The sun had caught the scarlet of a ribbon tied in a bow, and the scarlet bow was tied around a girl’s bright orange tresses. Together, I found the two colours compelling.
But this image presented me with a problem. While the scarlet and orange appeared to be a perfect pairing, conventionally the arrangement should never have worked. By rights, at least in my mind, the two should have clashed horribly. This notion will have been influenced by the old adage ‘redheads should never were red’ but, just as with the sartorial advice for men – ‘never wear brown shoes with a grey suit’, my beliefs have been informed by silly and unhelpful conventions.
Back on the terrace, the combined colours of the ribbon and the girl’s hair worked wonderfully and the midday light served to enrich the pairing. Indeed, it was difficult not to be struck by the beauty of the combination. With this in mind, I decided to go over to the girl to congratulate her. Whoever was wearing this ensemble would have to be original and brave. I approached her with a view to taking a photo; part of me thought that not to take a picture would have been negligent.
I excused myself from our table and went outside to negotiate. The girl was around eight years old, had the classical blue eyes of a redhead and was sitting at a table with her grandfather. Speaking directly to the girl, I explained my mission, telling her how I thought her choice of ribbon was courageous and asking if I may take a photo. She responded by saying she would need to talk with her granddad. The two calmly discussed my request then she turned to me and in a very self self-assured way said I could take a photo, but only from the back, adding, “‘and by the way, it’s not dyed, it’s my real colour.”
By the manner of her response I was reassured that she was of an age and character that meant she was perfectly capable of choosing the bow herself, and moreover that she was independent enough to have refused to wear it if it had been pressed on by her mother. It was also obvious that she was headstrong. Someone with her hair colour would almost certainly have been teased mercilessly at school, but clearly such attempts to undermine had had little effect on her comportment.
With the photo taken, I thanked her and returned to my table.
With this in mind, it was difficult not to think of Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning”:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter…
Whatever hope or encouragement the poem offers those of us who have already reached old age, it is perhaps a sad commentary on the lives of young people generally. It would appear to be a given that in our first decades we will submit to being constrained by conventions. Whether it’s is matter of clothing, of conduct, even of thinking, it is as though there are forces at work that stifle spontaneity, originality, and, with all this, the delights of independence and autonomy. My own father, even late on in life, would tell me that I should dress ‘properly’. After all, without ‘smart’ clothes, how could I be a credible professional?
It seems that the girl on the terrace outside the restaurant, who was much more interesting than the goats, was ignoring the conventional wisdom of fashion and saw no reason to wait for permission. By wearing a scarlet ribbon that was not supposed to ‘go’ with her red hair, she was defying the prejudices of people like me, and indeed making me rethink my values.
At the end of her poem, Joseph writes, “But maybe I ought to practice a little now?”
“Then why wait for old age?” – as the girl on the terrace seemed to be saying.