Usually style icons are a bit like the late day sun—blinding and larger-than-life as they invade the horizon, casting impossibly long shadows which tangle with every step you take. Even if you’re the furthest thing from a fashionista, you can’t escape their influence, and if you’re the teensiest bit susceptible to trend-fever, you’ll risk melanoma to bask in their glow. They tend to be celebrities, with the minutae of their clothing, hair, and accessory choices obsessively tracked by the media, and with the contents of their wardrobes prone to showing up in museum exhibits and at elite auction houses. They organize the collective unconscious and fine-tune its menu of persona options as arbitrarily as Mr. Blackwell’s lists, and when, intentionally or not, you channel a style icon as you get dressed in the morning, chances are a sizeable number of people (not necessarily in your age, ethnicity, or gender bracket) are doing the very same thing.
Of course, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll be well-acquainted enough with a style icon to regularly enjoy Maxwell House-scripted seders, the world’s best Thanksgiving split pea soup, December 25th Broadway shows, and rambunctious annual multi-generational gatherings (like this weekend’s) with one—not because the events alluded to above were paparazzi-stalked, society column fare, but because you happened to have married said style icon’s son.
Yup, Mom, all this has been a staggeringly terse preamble to your official 80th birthday tribute, a celebration of your unfailing, one-in-a-million, impeccable-but-never-predictable sense of style, which I began taking copious notes on long before you stopped scaring the living daylights out of me. (Guess it’s high time I ‘fessed up: The reason you had so much trouble prying conversation out of me as a newlywed was that I’d never met someone as tall, elegant, and bold as you, and quite simply, every time we were alone together in the same room, I would panic and go mentally blank.)
It took me almost a decade to grasp the extent of your kindness, intelligence, and commitment to your family, and a couple more beyond that to recognize the incredible variety of ways in which you’ve been my role model, in matters ranging from how to choreograph a world-class simcha to how to approach aging with 1) an intrepid Bronx accent and 2) mind-boggling grace.
Your uncanny failure to age the way people are supposed to (which led a friend who met you during our New Mexico years to ask whether you were Jordan’s sister or his mother) is the natural starting point for this photo essay, since no one has figured out yet whether it’s the result of your hitting the ultimate genetic jackpot or your principled, lifelong opposition to exercise. Here you are with Dad in the early 90s, surrounded by your kids and their families at your surprise 40th anniversary party. Note that, while the rest of us are blotches of nondescript, shadowy color topped by a slightly more defined face, you are the indisputable focal point of the composition in your crisp black and white tunic and amazing frosted hairdo.
Just in case you—or anyone else—thinks your exuberant smile, your regal carriage, or your ability to inject a shot of drop-dead color into the drabbest snapshot has fluctuated over the years, here you are at 15 years old, in 1944:
Even this totally black-and-white photo from the following year shows your knack for high-impact color contrasts—a winter white jacket with dark box purse, shoes, and long gloves:
And here you are, four years later, the sophisticated shorter length to your hair a perfect complement to your glamorous attire (voluminous-sleeved fur chubby, hat the size of a holiday platter, trumpet hemmed skirt, and what appear to be ankle-strap shoes):
I love the way the train of your wedding dress is pooled around you and Dad, the ivory satin folds and frothy spills of lace lapping at your legs, which are hidden somewhere underneath all that lustrous fabric. (I know you gave me this dress to sell in my shop, but I’ve decided to hang onto it till your granddaughters are married, just in case, and admire the dozens of buttons climbing the sleeves and back in the meantime…):
Here you are on your honeymoon in Florida in ’51, in a crisp white shirt, wide trousers, and leather cummerbund with dramatic buckle that makes the “statement” belts of the 80s look like wannabes in comparison (and, BTW, Hepburn’s got nothin’ on ya):
Another shot from the honeymoon, showing how effortlessly you carried off the New Look silhouette, again setting off your white or cream-colored dress with sheer, dark wrist-length gloves (let me digress here to gape at Dad’s gorgeous tie, and wonder if you bought if for him…?):
What a terrific coiffure you whipped up (pun intended!) to work in Dr Ginsburg’s office:
And it’s hard for me to accept that this was shot not on the French Riviera but in Far Rockaway…
Another gravity-defying feat you somehow pulled off was managing to sail through pregnancy without much visible effect and then, after giving birth, immediately reverting to your former size:
This next photo, of a costume party on your first cruise, is great fun but a bit of a stumper–I recognize a die, a milkmaid, an African warrior and his safari-helmeted missus, and Dad in a bandido-style neckerchief (or maybe he’s a chef?). But I can’t for the life of me guess what you’re supposed to be, though the details are mighty intriguing (flapper-esque knotted necklace and bandeau, ring and bracelet over your opera length gloves, fishnet stockings, tiny black tee and hot pants with strategically placed question mark). It all adds up to… roaring 20s streetwalker? You’ll have to enlighten me…
Here’s one of my favorite photos of you, mid-60s, dazzling in bubblegum pink maillot, swim cap, and “winkle picker”-toed mules as you summered in the Catskills:
And Vintage Fashion Guild friend and colleague Lizzie B. just blogged about finding a “Scandal” swimsuit like the one you’re wearing here, posed in 1966 on the diving board at a Florida hotel:
This next photo is notable not just because it features my husband-to-be before his adolescent growth spurt, sporting the gold brocade bar mitzvah tux he’s alluded to from time to time, or because everything—from the jumbo bowties to your pastel lipstick to Stacy’s billowy-sleeved maxi and long, straight, center-parted hair—scream “1970!” at deafening levels, but because your shimmery, ice pink gown somehow manages to be a cool beacon of style on the brink of the decade that taste forgot:
Seeing this picture–of you and Dad on the tarmac in ’71 as you prepare to board your first flight to Israel—I find myself resolving never to go to the airport in rumpled jeans again. Turban and dark shades? Check! Tweed suit and pumps? Check! Posh leather carryon? Check!
You opted for a more carefree look when, having reached your destination, you took a glassbottom boat tour of the Red Sea in cableknit fringed poncho cardigan, chiffon kerchief, and HUGE round sunglasses:
When I met you, in the late 70s, I soon learned that your instinct for choosing the best styles of the moment as well as those that looked superb on you was nothing short of unerring. Here you are, with Dad and a cruise ship captain, in a gown with unforgettably vibrant—but still elegant– graphic print:
And here you are, escorting your son to the chuppa to marry me, wearing a sensational tie-dyed, cut-out-shouldered gown which practically scoffed at the notion that the mother of the groom needed to be a frump just because she’d been asked to wear powder blue:
You continued to cherrypick fashion’s offerings expertly into the next decade, managing to forego 80s missteps such as linebacker shoulders while rocking looks like this strapless sundress:
I don’t remember you ever looking anything less than polished, even wrapped in your robe to make breakfast in the morning, or in slacks and a sweater to go grocery shopping on a rainy day, and invariably adjectives like “chic” and “striking” were also applicable. Once, during my (thankfully brief) nail polish, killer heels, and pancake makeup phase, you complimented me while gently suggesting that I shouldn’t work so hard on my appearance. Your remark puzzled me totally at the time; I’ve since mulled it over and finally realized that it reflected your ethic—applied in every sphere of your life—which is to satisfy high standards, rigorously but efficiently. And wow, what high standards!
Happy Birthday, Mom, from one of your starstruck fans!