From the Founder: Of Parties and Plumage
Photograph: Bob Capazzo
“Fine feathers make fine birds,” my mother used to tell me, along with insisting I always dress nicely, even on planes and trains, because I “might meet my destiny.” (I actually met Jack in somebody’s basement.) In fact, Mother had an ostrich feather cape that she let me try on sometimes. By age six I totally understood how birds managed to stay so warm and dry. That thing was hot!
Nobody ever loved clothes like my mother did. When I was a child, we would sit side by side for what seemed like hours pouring over scrapbooks of photographs from her youth. There she was, a little girl in 1910, astride a donkey in the Grand Canyon. Never mind the scenery: Just look at those cute boots and leather-trimmed jacket! And as a teenager, holding a lace parasol, in a gossamer lawn linen dress with the most delicate tucks in the bodice. Oh, it was the softest peach color.
Mother was the only person I ever knew who had everything fitted, even her nightgowns. I can attest to the fact, since I spent many a boring afternoon hanging out in the bedroom of the Ostermeyer sisters, a pair of old-maid seamstresses, watching the action, my mother standing on a box in front of a giant mirror. I could never figure out how they held those pins between their teeth without swallowing them.
Mother was also the only person I ever knew who had her hats made first, then bought dresses to match. I still have many of them, all the creations of a French milliner named Yvonne at the Mary Louise Shop—little pillboxes covered with sequins, velvet roses and even miniature bananas. Most had alluring veils.
Hard to believe, but I used to send my laundry home to Cleveland from Wellesley, and it would be returned neatly folded along with an occasional surprise—like a red satin cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and tiers of four-inch fringe.
My friend Sandy Ross (now Sandy Herman of Greenwich) and I were the same size and coloring, and one time we bought a party dress together. It was aqua blue crepe with a band of matching marabou feathers at the hemline. Since she was at another college (called Smith), who would ever know we were sharing it? We even had a pair of shoes dyed to match, but that’s where Mother drew the line. Sharing shoes was just too gauche.
Then came Jack’s proposal and our July wedding, so it was back to Mary Louise. I was fixated on a green chiffon cocktail dress, with floating panels weaving in and out of the satin cummerbund. “You have enough of that kind of thing in your trousseau,” Mother noted. Then, ever creative, she added, “I bet that New York designer could make it long and in white, with a train.” So he did. After the wedding I cut it off and dyed the cummerbund emerald green (with shoes to match). Then when I tired of that, I dyed the dress cocoa brown and the cummerbund black (with black shoes). Finally I outgrew it and took it to the Rummage Room. Oh, well, we still have Grandmother’s prayer book that I carried.
I couldn’t wear many of Mother’s dresses because she had me by a few inches, but I did wear one to the preview party of a Junior League Show House when Jack and I first moved to Greenwich. It was a lovely periwinkle crepe with three-quarter sleeves trimmed in sable, which my mother had added. I thought it was wonderfully glamorous, that is, until a friend came up to me and commented: “Oh, my mother had a dress just like that, but without the fur.” I answered, “So did mine.” And never wore it again.
On a trip south of the border, I bought an exquisite Mexican muumuu of heavily embroidered white cotton and wore it to Jim Linen’s birthday party at the Round Hill Club on the hottest night of the year. I was the coolest woman there.
In Munich I bought a gray-blue silk dirndl—floor-length with laced bodice, navy apron and white scooped-necked blouse—perfect for Oktoberfest at the Riverside Yacht Club. Otto Nelson, the German manager, couldn’t get over it.
And at the Greenwich Hospital Thrift Shop, I found an evening gown with black velvet top and gold brocade shirt—for ten bucks. Then I flew to Cleveland and wore it with the family necklace to my niece’s debut at the Assembly Ball. Even my mother didn’t catch on.
Party clothes. I have an attic full of them, even the ones I can’t get into anymore. But guess where our two young granddaughters like best to play? Yup. And I’m right up there with them. Last time they had a sleepover, Riley went home wearing one of my mother’s half-slips—gray lace with pink gussets and tiny pink roses. Sasha preferred a white rabbit collar from an old sweater. Next visit the girls plan to put on an Attic Fashion Show. I promised to get a full-length mirror from Bed Bath & Beyond for the occasion.
Guess the apples don’t fall far from the trees.