I may be well-acquainted with the woman who saw in a once-sumptuous 25-year-old fur coat an industrial-strength parka waiting to be born, but I know far less about the elegant creature pictured here, who funneled every penny she earned (operating elevators in Littman’s department store, or ringing up sales on Macy’s 34th Street) into a steady stream of beyond-her-meager-means clothing splurges: I am amazed by this photo—taken in Prospect Park, Brooklyn on November 25, 1945–for several reasons: 1) The sophisticate posing for it, turned out in accessories I would kill to have for my store or myself (Those peep-toed shoes! That clutch! The fur clip on her coat collar!) is only seventeen years old; 2) she’s bare-legged and in peep toes in late November (never mind her gloves and scarf-tucked neck); and 3) that ruby-lipped pin-up gal is my MOTHER!
The photo reveals nothing of my mother’s terribly difficult childhood (toddlerhood through kindergarten in foster care, following her mother’s death from pneumonia, and Depression-era privations for years afterward, in her remarried father’s home). What it does show is the stubborn buoyance of her spirit, which if submerged from time to time has invariably resurfaced, more than a match for the seemingly chronic hardship in her life.
Here she is, back at Prospect Park the following September, just a few months after V-E day had ended the horrors of the Holocaust once and for all:
I doubt my mother, looking folkloric and summery in sandals and ruffly peasant blouse with lace-trimmed full skirt (quite the vogue at the time), knew the fad had been spawned by Nazi Germany, where the Third Reich’s half-farcical/half-sinister attempt to supplant Paris as the world’s fashion directrice included promoting the Bavarian milkmaid look to Germany’s frauen (who much preferred “decadent” Paris styles, thank you very much…) Irene Guenther’s fascinating “Nazi Chic: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich” has examples of propaganda photos featuring blonde-braided women dressed just like my mother in this slightly out-of-focus photo, with its eerie, almost painterly quality…
I love the exaggerated quality to my mother’s pale coat and trousers in this spring 1947 photo:
The lapels are huge, the buttons are huge, and the drape of the trouser bottoms suggests they’re not exactly cigarette pants! She was nineteen and a Hunter College freshman in the photo; in the next shot, taken the following May in Central Park, she looks quite a bit more collegiate in her wool skirt-and-sweater combo. (I haven’t verified my hunch with her, but something about her expression as she grips the swing and grins jubilantly suggests that the photographer was her first husband, who she’d be marrying in a few weeks’ time).