The Hidden Message of Style

Her chic mother taught her that fashion mattered. What went unspoken: For a woman of color in 1950s America, dressing well told the world, “I’m here” 

by Margo Jefferson
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Margo Jefferson

“Look back, Mama. What were your favorite clothes?” I asked her this year. She’s 95, and we had come back from a luncheon with her birthday club. She’d finally decided on wine-colored wool pants instead of gray ones—“I don’t want monotony”—a gray sweater with a touch of sparkle, pearls and a black cape. I’d fussed a bit because our ride was waiting while she chose her handkerchief. “Are you ready?” I’d asked when she finally slipped a white lace-trimmed one into her purse. “Have you put on cologne?” she answered. I had not and so I did. Then we were both ready.

And now we were home again, lounging in the living room.

“What were your favorite clothes?” I asked.

“My evening dresses,” was her answer. This surprised me a bit. She’d loved hats: I’d anticipated total recall of millinery triumphs in sisal or felt. (I’d been in awe of a cream-colored Tastee Freez swirl of a hat with a black veil.)

“Short or long evening dresses?”

“Both.”

“What was the difference?”

“The short ones were flip and flirty.”

“And the long ones?”

She laughed and put one hand to her forehead, fingers arranged in a classic heroine-about-to-swoon pose. “Beware my foolish heart,” she drawled.

The night is like a lovely tune / Beware, my foolish heart . . .

That ballad appeared in 1949, when my mother was 33 and I was three; I like to imagine my parents moving onto the dance floor as the orchestra took a sumptuous lyric plunge into its opening notes.

“My Foolish Heart”; “Lush Life”; “Stardust”; “Misty”; “Sophisticated Lady”
 . . . I heard these songs over and over on our record player. And of course that urbane salty blues that hailed our city:

Goin’ to Chicago / Sorry but I can’t take you.

Those proud Chicago department stores we shopped in! Marshall Field and Chas. A. Stevens, both designed by D.H. Burnham & Co., whose lead architect ruled the 1893 World’s Fair. Carson, Pirie, Scott, designed by Louis H. Sullivan, master builder of the skyscraper. Mighty structures of granite and terra-cotta, arrogantly eclectic with their modernist lines and Renaissance flourishes. Sitting in the city’s commercial center, the downtown Loop, those late 19th- and early 20th-century department stores were the first to turn sensory bombardment into an art. Self-contained ancestors of the mall, they put forth counter after counter of lipsticks, powders, perfumes; candies; cases filled with gloves (wrist length, midarm, lined, unlined, cotton, suede, kid, white, cream, black, tan)—and we haven’t even reached the ground-floor escalators.

For my sister and me, bourgeois girls of the 1950s and early ’60s, “shopping” was an intricately plotted expedition with our mother as leader and guide. She showed us what to look for and what to pass by. She directed the gaze.

Marshall Field, whereour mother took us to sit on Santa’s knee at Christmas.

Marshall Field’s 28 Shop, where Mother told her mother, “You really shouldn’t smoke here,” and her mother answered, “As much as I pay for these clothes, I’ll do what I want.”

Marshall Field, wheremy father’s Aunt Nancy passed for white to work as a saleswoman in the 1920s.

Saks and Bonwit Teller, smaller stores, were more exclusive and less accessible, located as they were on the posh Near North Side rather than the “O come, all ye consumers” Loop. Mother didn’t take us there before 1960. As Negroes, we had to secure our place downtown before we ventured north.

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