At the age of 45, having survived the early stages of stay-at-home-mom life and transitioned to a writing career, humorist Wendi Aarons sobbed in a department store in the Hill Country Galleria. She was searching for a cocktail dress to wear to Listen to Your Mother, the stage show she produced and directed in Austin. On one hand, she was ascending as a writer. On the other, she couldn’t figure out what to wear as a middle-aged woman. It’s a story she tells in hilarious and relatable detail in “I’m Wearing Bad Decisions From the Juniors Department Now,” a chapter of her forthcoming book, I’m Wearing Tunics Now: On Growing Older, Better, and a Hell of a Lot Louder (November 15, Andrews McMeel).
“I had a midlife crisis in a Dillard’s,” Aarons writes.“I would have preferred my public breakdown to have taken place somewhere a little more upscale, like a Nordstrom or maybe even a Neiman Marcus, but a mid-priced Texas department store with bad lighting and a teenage shoplifting problem was probably more fitting. Plus, now I know to never sob in the Reba section because they get a little touchy if you wipe your tears on one of Reba’s kicky faux-suede fringe jackets.”
On an early-October afternoon, I meet Aarons at the site of her style crisis. Roaming the second floor of that same Dillard’s, the author, now 54, wears a turquoise embroidered Johnny Was tunic, skinny jeans, a pair of Birkenstock Mayari Birko-Flor sandals in a shimmery pearl hue, and a brown leather cross-body bag. The look is practical, stylish, artsy, and approachable, which tracks: in the memoir, Aarons jokes that she looks like a therapist.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to include fashion in the book,” Aarons tells me. “But it’s hard to tell the story of ages thirty to fifty as a woman and not include something about fashion. You think of all the various things you’ve worn over the years, of all the attempts to look attractive or fit in, like you’re wearing Spanx, or you’re wearing jeans you can barely zip up. And eventually you—or at least I—get to the point where I was like, ‘I don’t care anymore. The least interesting thing about me is [my] style.’ ”
In I’m Wearing Tunics Now, the tunic—a relaxed-fitting and thus forgiving top that ends somewhere between the hips and the knees—is a metaphor for accepting one’s age and even discovering a bit of gratitude for a life well lived. While her breakthroughs regarding the aging process may sound sappy, Aarons balances them with situational humor, as with her fish-out-of-water interactions with other PTO moms. Her satire digs at the ways our culture views women, especially her specific type of white, middle-class women: women who reenter the workplace after staying home to care for young children, women who become politically active late in life, women who are unabashedly aging. Aarons writes, “It’s weird to be in your mid-forties. Let me rephrase that. It’s f—ing weird to be in your mid-forties.”
A memoir in humorous essays, I’m Wearing Tunics Now is Aarons’s second book release this year. Her first was the middle-grade novel Ginger Mancino, Kid Comedian (June 2022, BookBar Press), in which twelve-year-old protagonist Ginger Mancino is a professional comedian facing her toughest audience (middle schoolers) when she’s forced to “retire” from comedy and live a regular life for the first time. Aarons’s publication double whammy comes after fifteen years of building an audience online. She’s contributed to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, Us Weekly’s Fashion Police, and several other outlets (including Texas Monthly). Next year, she’ll release Socks, a meditation on our most-lost item of clothing.
Each of the memoir’s laugh-out-loud funny seventeen chapters is titled “I’m Wearing ____ Now,” signaling shifts in Aarons’s life between the ages of thirty and fifty. In “I’m Wearing Maternity Pants Now,” Aarons writes about her transition from advertising writer to stay-at-home parent struggling to make mom friends. Chapter three, “I’m Wearing Twinset Sweaters Now,” finds Aarons volunteering to be the PTO’s communications officer at her sons’ elementary school (“I’m finally writing!”), before she begins writing online, starting with a blog and then a viral faux open letter calling out the Always feminine-pad brand for condescending to women. Inspiration arrived when Aarons looked at a sticker on a maxi pad in an airport bathroom during a Christmas-season flight to Nevada to visit her parents, a journey “complete with weather delays, two antsy kids, and painful menstrual cramps.” Aarons read the words “Have a Happy Period” on the maxi-pad sticker and knew she had struck writing gold. “I didn’t know that gold would change my life’s direction,” she writes. The letter was reprinted in newspapers, and it has since been performed in Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage show Letters Live, by comedian and showrunner Sharon Horgan in London, and by Emmy-winning actress Uzo Aduba in New York.
As we walk through the second floor of Dillard’s, Aarons and I discuss the fashion puzzle that is shopping for clothes to wear as a middle-aged woman. She intermittently drops Fashion Police–esque comments about the garments around us. “Sergeant Pepper,” Aarons says when we see a black jacket with military styling, a stand-up collar, and bedazzled rhinestone buttons. “Now this, this is Grandmas on a Cruise,” she says, holding up a long, breezy, sheer patchwork animal-print tunic, or animals print, as more than one species is represented in the busy garment.
We spot an Eileen Fisher clearance rack, a gift to any woman over forty trying to find age-appropriate, well-constructed clothing while also saving for retirement. There are many moments in I’m Wearing Tunics Now when Aarons tries to find her Goldilocks “just right” fit: the right mom friends in the suburbs, the right clothing, the right job.
Many of Aarons’s readers will find the same kinship that I do with her themes: motherhood, writing, finding one’s style again and again, and the absolute luck of finding quality friends to sustain us during these transitional years. As I read I’m Wearing Tunics Now, the focus on fashion—though it’s not the high fashion of the Met Gala, say, or New York Fashion Week—called to mind recent dilemmas in my own life. What we wear is, after all, a costume, signaling to the world who we are; if we have kids, we’re representing our families in these costumes too. There’s tension between our obligations and who we really are, as in the choice to wear a twinset to fit in with PTO moms for the sake of your kids when you’d rather be wearing a “Snitches Get Stitches” Alcatraz tour souvenir tee.
At the end of our Hill Country outing, I ask if there’s any good writing material in Aarons’s current phase: the empty nest. The younger of her two sons graduated from high school in May, and she took him to college only weeks ago. She and her husband don’t quite know what to buy during grocery runs to H-E-B anymore; the boys had been home all summer, but now it’s just Aarons and her husband, Chris. My son is eight, and already I dread his transition to adulthood—but I realize that just like wearing tunics, life is coming for me in the short and fast-moving decade ahead. When I ask Aarons if there’s a humorous book for parents of young adults coming up, she will only say, “I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on next, but I will say that the parents’ Facebook group for my son’s college is a treasure trove of material, and I do have a lot of empty-nest time on my hands now.”
Readers can pick up early copies of I’m Wearing Tunics Now and catch Aarons in conversation with Kathy Valentine on October 22 at BookPeople in Austin.