Look, Ma, I’m nearly finished! John Robert Powers School, 1975.

Once, long ago, I was finished.

It’s not as final as it sounds.

Finish, the verb*, means:

  1. Terminate
  2. To use or dispose of entirely
  3. To bring to completion: accomplish; also: perfect
  4. To put a final coat or surface on
  5. To come to the end of a course or undertaking

My experience of being finished involves definitions 3 through 5. At age 16, skinny coltish me was sent to finishing school, specifically, the John Robert Powers School of Finishing and Modeling. This was a parent-proposed idea, something that was supposed to be helpful in my quest to become an actress. Though skeptical, I accepted the party line.

For months, every Saturday, me and two other girls from my hometown were dropped at the (then) Winslow ferry by one of our moms. We crossed Elliott Bay to the Seattle waterfront and slogged up to Sixth Avenue. The school occupied a floor in a building across Sixth from Frederick & Nelson’s department store. It was a warren of classrooms, the largest of which had a runway where we learned how to walk; specifically, the “Powers Glide.” The key to the Glide was in the pelvis, tucked under with a tilt, combined with the “Powers Stride,” an elongated form of walking-plus-attitude.

There were about ten of us in the Saturday class, most girls from the Seattle area but one drove from Aberdeen to get there. On the runway we practiced how to stand with our feet in the “12 and 2” position or the “10 and 12” position (think of the hands on a clock), how to gracefully shift from one to the other and how to turn. There were six approved hand positions to be used when standing still. Did you know there’s a correct way to come down stairs? For women, if you shoe size is six or under your feet may point forward; over size six, turn your feet at a slight diagonal to the steps.

True to notions of proper carriage, we spent one session coming down the runway with books on (but mostly slipping off) our heads. Our heads were also subjected to hair and makeup instruction, understanding how clothing line and design could flatter or detract from one’s figure and how to assemble a basic wardrobe (starting with making a budget). We learned about table settings, the appropriate stationery to use for different types of correspondence and how to plan a party, well-armed for a world that was mostly gone before we got there.

Saturdays rolled by. We completed projects (clothing line and design notebook, wardrobe budget, party plan) and signed up for an extra session with a fashion photographer shortly before graduation (see sample, above).

What do I remember most? Being told on the first day that my hair was too long and my dress was too short. Learning that New York fashions were two years behind Paris, and Seattle was five years behind New York (no one mentioned how far Port Townsend was behind Seattle). Dashing over to Frederick & Nelson’s during our fifteen-minute break in search of sale-priced accessories (scarves and bangle bracelets were particularly “in”). Getting my waist-length hair cut short. Carefully selecting more stylish clothes with an eye to price and quality. Years later, when I was interviewing for my first post-college job, the personnel partner of the accounting firm I eventually worked for was favorably impressed by the John Robert Powers credential. His wife, too, was a “Powers Girl.” What was supposed to have helped me pursue an acting career had re-purposed itself to the corporate world.

And now? In most ways, I consider myself unfinished. I no longer wear makeup; dress mostly in Levi’s 501s, tanktops and fleece; haven’t planned a party since 2004. But there are traces of those long-ago Saturday teachings under the surface. When I buy clothes I’m super-picky about quality and price. I long for an old-style “stationery wardrobe” with plain, coordinated sheets, envelopes and card stock. I turn my feet at a slight diagonal when going down stairs. If I need to look powerful, graceful and composed I can still conjure up the Powers Glide, the 10 and 12/12 and 2 feet, the six ways to position my hands.

Is there really such thing as “finished”? We learn. We practice. We hold some ideas, interests and skills while others fade. If I were truly finished, I’d still be 16.


*Merriam-Webster Dictionary © 1974

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