Fashion Passion, Part 2: Mother in Ersatz Dior

Baltimore backyard, 1948

 It was spring, and my mother was just home from work, or shopping, or an appointment. Here, she holds a blossom from the flowering bush behind her. The Kodacolor  in the picture faded long ago, and now the image is infused with yellow. Her blouse was mint-green, and the floppy bow gives her that schoolteacher look—fitting, for she was a teacher. The skirt is classic post-World War II, with the flowing lines of the  Dior New Look. At 5’9”, Marcella had a model’s figure, and here, even the mid-calf skirt length isn’t too long to prevent her from showing a little leg. Underneath, she’s wearing a girdle not to hold in her tummy, but for modesty, and to keep her nylon stockings up.

 The skirt has a peplum, a  ruffle overskirt  that descend from the waist. Only the slender can wear these well. Her shoes, classic black pumps, were likely sinking into the soggy spring lawn.

My fashion-conscious mother  never read Vogue, but shopped in the Better Dresses department in Hutzler’s or Hochschild Kohn, the finest downtown Baltimore department stores. “What’s cheap is cheap,” she would say. She had  this skirt for years, wearing it well into the 1950’s when she returned to teach at Fullerton School. I could really use a skirt like that today.

Fashion Passion

This is not about Prada bags and Jimmy Choos,  little black dresses and pearls, about red lace-up Olaf Daughter boots from the ‘Seventies or what to wear to a job interview at a social networking start-up .

This is about the heart of  fashion.

 Fashion is not reacting to trends, not jumping at every new look, whether it’s belly shirts or babydoll blouses—which to me  look like old fashioned maternity clothes. No, fashion is  a way to control  the way we present ourselves to the world  and the way we are perceived  by  the faces that we meet, to borrow from T.S. Eliot.  We absorb our sense of fashion from many sources, some creative and liberating, others constricting or pedestrian. 

Part I:

Martha, Liza and Flo: Fur collars, bobs, pumps and ghillies

Cumberland, Maryland in the ‘Twenties

It really began with my grandmother. Extremely nearsighted, auburn haired, short and stout, she had four husbands—not all at once, but in succession beginning when she was nineteen, when she married my grandfather, a man nearly forty who’d alrady  left the detritus of one broken marriage behind him. My grandmother’s first marriage lasted three years—this coat lasted a great deal longer, and gave her more happiness, I think.

Florine, known as Flo— but let’s call her Mimi, as my sister and I  did—loved shoes and took particular pride in her small feet—size 4½. In this photograph of her with her sisters, Liza and Martha, she wears pumps, her favorite style that she continued to wear into her eighties. Mimi believed in investment pieces in her wardrobe, in taking up hems if you needed to, and in cutting the labels out of the back of blouses and sweaters—that way they would never stick up or scratch you. She preferred to have only a few classic, expensive pieces and she avoided fashion trends. Her clothes never seemed to wear out. Underneath, and she would not like it if she knew I were revealing this, she wore top-quality foundation garments—an underwire bra to support her ample bosom, and a pink corset to keep her looking fit and trim. Her stockings were held up by garters, even as pantyhose made their appearance in the 1970’s.

The photograph seems poised, almost professional in its composition. Mimi wears her usual expression in photographs—never smiling, always stern, looking straight at the camera. The sisters wear leather gloves and white silk scarves, probably to protect the fur from the body’s natural oils and the makeup they had only begun to wear a few years earlier. Maybe these fur-trimmed coats were an investment they made in the Roaring Twenties, in the years before the stock market crash of  ’29, but that’s doubtful, because of the coat lengths. In the 1970’s we would call these  Midis, something the fashion world tried to foist on American women. The Midi went the way of the Ford Edsel. Almost no one, short, tall, thin, zaftig, could carry it off.

It would be many years—fifty or sixty at least, before fur would become politically incorrect. Before a woman would come up to me on the Orange Line MBTA platform at State Street when I was seven months pregnant, and wearing a ratty raccoon coat my law school pal Susan had given me when she moved to Dallas. The woman approached me smiling, then spat the words at me—“ Warm fur, cold heart!” That was the day I stopped wearing the fur coat. After the baby was born, I folded the bulky coat into a black garbage bag with my maternity clothes and dropped it off at Goodwill.