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

Every month a coffee-table-size Voguearrived at our house. Every month I devoured it. The models were starting to be known by name. My favorite was red-haired Suzy Parker: tall and lissome, with a face that was a perfect assemblage of curves (the lips, the eyebrows) and lines (the nose, the cheekbones). Whether wearing the designs of the grand Europeans—Dior, Givenchy, Madame Grès—or the Americans with the alliterative names—Norman Norell, Bill Blass—the models were muses and fetish objects, sumptuous offerings on the altar of feminine glamour.

And I worshipped offerings to feminine glamour, in magazines, movies and life. The clothes; the lingerie; the array of handkerchiefs, some lace trimmed, some initialed; pocketbooks of leather and alligator, bearing their own mirrors and coin purses; peau de soie clutch bags for evening or small beaded ones with handles that just slipped over your wrist.

I learned to accept the verbotens, too. One day I came down in a red blouse and a purple-and-white flowered skirt; I was sent right back upstairs to change. You don’t wear certain colors together, especially loud ones. Denim is for weekend play and summer camp. Little girls don’t wear nail polish. Little girls wear white socks with their Mary Janes.

I longed to be a perfect girl, and if a girl lacked perfect prettiness—which I did—then the verbotens were a route to compensatory perfection. I also accepted them because they came from my mother, whose appearance and manner I found both authoritative and deeply pleasing. Her crisp Claudette Colbert hairdo; her five-foot-three-inch frame, trim and shapely but not skinny; her smooth beige-brown skin. She was witty, lively and chic. So were her friends. I loved how they looked in their suits and silk shirtwaists, their furs and smart hats. I loved how they carried themselves at luncheons and parties and when they took us to plays or concerts. I loved the quick comments and judgments they flung out. They were in full command.

And yet they were almost entirely absent from the main stage of feminine glamour, from Vogue, from Harper’sBazaar, from Lifeand Look, from television, from movies. Race had decreed it so.

How did I register the fact that everyone who mattered in this vast beauty-and-fashion complex was white? Not until the 1960s did models of color start making their presence felt. Headline, 1962: Gordon Parks—a Negro!—shoots a Life spread titled “Swirl of Bright Hues: New Styles Shown by Negro Models, a Band of Beautiful Pioneers.” Headline, 1966: Donyale Luna, who describes herself as Irish, Mexican and Afro-Egyptian, becomes the first Negro model to make the cover of British Vogue.

The beauty-and-fashion complex has so many ways to enchant and to maim. It invents styles and standards that create impossible longings. You want something—some feature, some body part, some look or aura—you do not have and will not ever have.

Those cheekbones, which make the thought of a skull erotic.

Those tapering fingers, which gloves cling to.

That sleek neck, that long torso, those sculptured legs.

The delicate whimsy of Audrey Hepburn.

The sultry lushness of Elizabeth Taylor.

The country club sangfroid of Grace Kelly.           

Begin with those impossibilities of biology and affect. Then add the racial one: No! You cannot ever be white like these idols of feminine perfection. Let that final impossibility reproach and taunt you.           

Nevertheless, a separate world of Negro beauty and glamour did exist. Every month a coffee-table-size Ebonyarrived at our house. Every month I studied its cream, beige, tan, buff, brown, sepia and (rarely) ebony models. Every month I read its tales of people like us who achieved against all odds and carried the race forward.

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