Archive for January, 2007

Make Do and Mend: Part II

Friday, January 12th, 2007

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:prospect park november 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: folkloric

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: white coat & trousersswing

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).

Make Do & Mend (that Matara Alaskan Seal Coat…)

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

My 78-year old mother (yup, that’s her in 1955) leaves in five days for her second round-the-world cruise, and my feelings about her imminent departure are an equal mix of admiration for her wanderlust, unquenchable in spite of her many health issues, and a sadness bordering on dread of the unknown (the earth could still be flat, you know…), which equates to her being out of touch for three and a half months. And yes, Mom, I know you’ll send postcards from the exotic yonder, which may even reach me before your ship gets home, but being unable to email you daily political spam or phone you for a quick cooking tip is going to be very tough on me!

After she’d read my little profile of my father as stylish gent, I raised the prospect of doing one about her—her inimitable, paradoxical fashion personality and its influence on me. At first, she balked a little, but once I reassured her that my objective was to write not Mommie Dearest but a tribute to her, she warmed enough to the idea to send me some great photos of her in her teens and 20s, captioned, dated, and ready for my nostalgia-drenched, probing and wildly unscientific analysis.

In the interest of time, I’m going to pull off what for me will be a first: I’m going to wrap up this photo essay by tomorrow! (But I reserve the right to tinker with it—and even broadly revisit the topic–while she’s off sailing the seven seas…)

Our tale begins with this fur coat: seal coat collar openMahogany velvet, it bears up nobly under the burden of its elasticized cuffs and taupe metal zipper, which runs from mid-thigh to nose-tip, meshing teeth ominous and clunky as the track of a giant roller coaster. Whittled in the early 80s from the mid-50s “Matara” (or dyed brown) Alaskan seal swing coat pictured at the start of this post, all it preserves of the elegant original is the high neck and impossibly silken fur, panne-blinding in strong light, erstwhile insulation for seals swimming the Eames-era Bering Sea.

Its rather fusty, car-coat sensibility reflects the fact that, by then, my mother’s days as a fashion plate were pretty much behind her. But it also happens to embody her central style tenets: Aim high (but be sensible!), get your money’s worth, and outclass rather than submit to trends.