WHEN I WAS ABOUT TWELVE, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to Neiman Marcus. This was in the pre-Southwest Airlines days, so we must have driven the five or so hours to Dallas from San Antonio and stayed overnight in a downtown hotel. We ate pecan-studded ice-cream balls in the Zodiac Room, and my mother bought me a dress in what you might call the milkmaid style—a beige apron over puffed calico sleeves—that was so tight through the bodice I had trouble breathing. It itched. It cost $36, which in the mid-sixties was an exorbitant amount for a girl’s dress. In retrospect, a garment modeled after something a farm girl would wear seems an odd choice for a San Antonio preteen bent on proving her chicness, but, like the price and the discomfort, the actual style of the garment was beside the point. I now owned something from “Neiman’s,” and with that one word became instantly intimate with all that was fashionable, sophisticated, and tasteful in the world.
I thought of that dress the minute I heard, on January 22, that Stanley Marcus had died in Dallas at the age of 96. In his later years Marcus became something of a retailing Jeremiah, a white-haired, white-bearded sage forever kvetching about bad service to a public that didn’t care. Most people have embraced GapStyle; they don’t mind, as Marcus would have, that most of their clothes come in S, M, and L, and if they want Beluga caviar or espresso on Rome’s Via Condotti, as Marcus urged in his book Quest for the Best, they don’t connect these luxuries to any larger theme of gracious living, as