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.

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.

My favorite model was Dorothea Towles. She’d gone to college (as we were expected to do); she’d married a dentist (we were supposed to marry professionals); she’d decided to follow her sister (who was studying to be a concert pianist) to Paris. And there she’d fulfilled our wild secret fantasies of Josephine Baker crossed with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face: She’d become a model, first at the House of Dior, then at Schiaparelli and Balmain.

I admired her, I envied her, but I didn’t worship her as I worshipped Suzy Parker. Dorothea was in Ebony, not Vogue. My white friends didn’t know who she was. Diana Vreeland didn’t have to know or care.

Did Dorothea turn her back on her people? Certainly not! In 1954 she returned to the U.S. and barnstormed the country with a trunk of her own haute couture clothes, organizing all-black fashion shows for all-black sororities and charities. Jetloved to chronicle her flamboyant doings: “Model Dorothea Towles created a sensation when she strolled into a white fur shop in Birmingham and asked to rent $10,000 worth of furs for the Alpha Kappa Alpha fashion show.”

Please note that Dorothea Towles returned to America the year the Supreme Court decreed segregation illegal in public schools. Separate but equal was being challenged on all fronts. And four years later, my mother’s friend Eunice Johnson took up that challenge, expanding on what Dorothea had begun. Her husband, John H. Johnson, published Negro Digest, Ebonyand Jet, and it was Eunice who had given Ebonyits bold, pre–Black Power name. Now she launched the Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring fashion show inspired by Dorothea’s but grander. Eunice didn’t use her own clothes. She’d attend the top shows in Paris, Milan and New York, sit in the front row beside the white editors and buy clothes. She’d go in search of young black designers and buy clothes. Then, thanks to Eunice, cream, beige, tan, buff, brown, sepia and (eventually) ebony models would stride and sashay down hotel runways in city after city, wearing the designer clothes she’d supplied for their colored/Negro/black/African-American audiences. It was spectacular.

We were not wholly equal, of course; the white world was still dominant. It had made the rules that excluded us; now it altered those rules to include a few of us. Politics was changing the culture and the marketplace; the aesthetics of fashion and glamour were changing, too. But we had been there all along. Before they noticed or acknowledged us, we were there.

I often look through the clothes my mother has given me over the years. I cherish the Pauline Trigère brushed-wool, funnel-shaped coat, beige with thin stripes of pale mauve, white and lilac blue. I feel like a craft object when I enclose my body in this coat. And I feel vindicated, too, because Trigère was the first top American designer to use a black model regularly.

Brava, Madame Trigère! Still, the piece I most love is Mother’s gold brocade cocktail dress with matching jacket, designed by Malcolm Starr. The dress is sleeveless, with a nipped waist and a skirt just wide enough for a feminist to walk in without mincing her steps. The jacket is trimmed with gold braid; so is the skirt’s front panel.

It’s “flip and flirty,” as my mother prescribed. It’s crisp yet splendid. It makes me feel I’ve put on not just a dress but made-to-order armor.

My mother’s armor.

Armor that helped shield me from exclusion.

Armor that shielded me from -inferiority. 

MARGO JEFFERSON is a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and the author of On Michael Jackson. She teaches in the writing program at Columbia University.

From What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, published by Algonquin Books, Spring 2013.

Next: The Best-Dressed Women on TV

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First Published Wed, 2012-10-24 09:24

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