WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU’RE after your own unique fashion style, but have always preferred book stores to clothing stores, Levis to dresses, shorts to skirts, nudity to negligees? This was the situation of two women, Emily and Maria, who were tired of their mirror’s image, tired of being walking don’ts of fashion.
Both are in their aging twenties. Pug-nosed Emily is short and dark; Maria is tall and fair with a semi-Swedish nose. Emily wears a size 5 1/2 B shoe, Maria, a size 7, 7 1/2 or 8 (is actually not sure what size she wears and hence the problem). Emily is career-oriented with three solid years of government work in her dossier; Maria is disoriented, with a free-lance, part-time life.
In an effort to struggle out of their slob-prone image, they resolved to go on a shopping journey to gather wisdom from older, more experienced women and acquire a few clothes in the bargain. Optimistic and determined, these two friends set out for Dallas with a book of blank checks and a few platitudes: “Style does not necessarily take money; it takes a sense of individuality,” says Maria, chewing gum.
Once in Dallas, cowardliness overcame them, so they decided to go to the source, to return to the beginning of it all, to the mother who had first dressed Emily. The family’s pedigree was good. Emily’s great grandfather, a 19th-century department store magnate, had been the Merchant Prince of Waco. The family was comfortably rooted in Dallas now. At an early age she had been initiated into Elegance, “a book for the woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions.” Emily had read the book faithfully, like a Bible, till she was 18; from then on, she had been unlearning it.
That night there was the usual congregation of friends dropping by the family home. The girls nibbled almost perfect strawberries and listened to the rich remembrances of Mother:
“Once a year in September I was taken shopping by my own mother. We commandeered the bride’s fitting room at Titches and a career saleslady would fill the room with clothes.” It was an annual thing and they did it big.
She recalled that Dallas in the old days forgot what it was and who it was, taking its cues from New York: “Come the first of September, women stopped wearing summer clothes; they wore sweltering velvet dresses with fur trimming, even though the heat of summer was still on. In January when it finally became cold enough to support such clothing, they switched to the cruise clothes that the stores were beginning to harbor.” The advent of California as a fashion market saved the day.
Today Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring is dead. With heated cars in fall and air-conditioned ones in summer, the sharp edges of the seasons have been smoothed over. Mink coats are a throw back to the idea of firmly entrenched seasons. Emily’s mother said, “My generation might well be the last to have seasons.” She seemed to welcome the year round clothes, the new polyester freedom and timelessness. She laughed, “Why in Dallas you could tell the date by the color of clothes. Around the 15th of April, nearly everyone wore something navy with a touch of white and red.”
In past time etiquette had been integral to style. However, the fashion Vatican has loosened up; now, as social occasions dwindle and change, how many little tea dresses are slumped permanently in the closet, like damned souls in the Inferno? The schools, too, have softened their dress codes. Pants are in.
Emily’s mother while thinking about her environment said: “In a large city such as New York, you can wear one good dress and change your scene. In a small city you see the same people over and over again so you change your clothes.” A lot more then, than now, the Dallas of old was filled with foolishness and foppery. People had public and private clothes. Women would leave Highland Park, en route by train to the great cities of Chicago, Washington, New York, wearing a good suit, hat and gloves for embarkation. Once on the train, and having waved their gloved hands and smiled their red lips through the window, they would begin to dismantle themselves and change into something more comfortable. Comfort, then as now, is what travels well.
It seems that anything goes today. Clothes become costumes to fit life’s improvisations.
By your clothing you pledge allegiance to one group or another. The clothes Emily and Maria wore separated themselves from their parents’ generation, declared their independence from them, but not from each other. Maybe it was not their fault: there’s no “exclusiveness” left in clothes. Dresses are made in gross. Even designer originals filter down, their paper patterns sold in the market place—imitations and variations galore. The mother’s solution was to add accessories to find a difference, to create a unique style. The only accessory Maria could imagine was a strand of worry beads. The fashion terrain seemed so vast and foggy.
Emily’s mother retired about midnight, dropping some obsolete phrases on the up staircase. “You want to get up bright and early if you’re going to hit the stores. And don’t forget to fix yourselves up.” She added, “If you like, I’ll call some of my younger friends tomorrow and arrange for a little luncheon. No sense listening only to the words of your mother. You never have before.”
The next day the first store they headed for was Neiman’s—the store some once went to and no other.
With every good intention, they were on their way to the women’s department when a long slender dress, suspended on a glass mannequin without a head, stopped them. It was an exquisite print scattered with colors of the sea, clusters of anemonies, shells, shadows. (No navy, white or red for miles.) A word as bulky as fabric can not do it justice. It was 100 percent silk, incredibly fine. The girls stopped in their well-intentioned tracks.
It was a Missoni