I’ve had 5 major aesthetic influences in my life whose likenesses and differences commingled spilling over to me.
They’re the reason I’ve looked the same for 35 years. Wow, did I just admit that?
This post was inspired by my ex who I ran into on the train. There I was on my way to a cocktail party when I’m blinded by a pair of white Good Humor pants and an oversized canary yellow raglan sweater. (He’s Dutch.)
Now did I make any cracks concerning his attire? No, I did not, but he wasted no time.
“Oh, you’re wearing a little black dress, what a surprise. How many does that make Susannah, 1000?” (Huh, never noticed how green his teeth were when he smiled. Was that vintage parsley saluting between them?)
I decided to skirt the question by asking one of my own. “Have you gotten shorter? Hey, it’s my stop, take care.” (grrrrrrrrr)
I’m asked inane questions about my looks frequently. Why I’m so fascinating to others will forever remain a mystery.
“Do you always wear tights and those flat, little shoes Susannah? I bet your calves ache.”
“Don’t you get sick of that damned double strand of pearls? Do you ever just wanna hang yourself with it?”
“What’s with the turtleneck? Hiding wrinkles are ya?”
The ones that comment the most could usually use a little assistance themselves. You know the type, they are at every sample sale buying items that may be cheap but look hideous because nothing fits properly; and God forbid they invest in a decent tailor.
“I know he’s your shoemaker who’s branching out but a hem is not a heel.”
I try to be kinder than people are to me by exercising tact rather than ridicule.
“So didn’t a belt come with that muumuu?”
“Oh I don’t know, I got it from the sale bin. I guess I should snip off the loops huh?”
“That might be nice, unless of course you’re thinking of buying a trailer.”
I rarely buy anything on sale because I rarely buy anything – I invest. In other words, I choose one good item that looks great not 10 deals that end up going to Housing Works because I can’t bring myself to put them on.
Pink boots? I know they were Manolos but I wouldn’t get caught dead in them. I’d look like a baton twirler. What was I thinking?
Cheap is not a deal if you end up making planters out of them.
Instead I have staples that hold up my wardrobe like a black cashmere cardigan that can be worn all year round with pants in the winter and thrown over your shoulders in the spring, summer and fall. I have 3 pair of nice black trousers that fit and pack well. White blouses in various fabric hang in my closet next to the ubiquitous little black dress. If I never bought another item, what I just mentioned could be worn to anything, anywhere anytime of year. Add a tailored blazer to the mix and a smart looking trench and you’re all set.
“Who are you suddenly Susannah, Coco Chanel?”
“What a nice thing to say.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“Oh, you actually had one?”
I once read that in her later life Jackie Onassis traveled with only 3 pairs of pants, a blazer and an array of dark glasses. She never had to check a thing and did you ever see her appear anything but amazing? Understated, elegant, regal was the former first lady of Camelot.
I had the privilege of seeing her since she lived in my neighborhood and boy, did I love how she looked. I can only describe it as being comfortable in her own skin and not being afraid to show it. I’ll always be in perpetual awe making her one of my 5.
Even when I was a kid and watched her at her husband’s funeral in her simple black mourning dress did I already get less was so much more.
I was used to seeing old Italian women looking like large bugs in their black widow’s weeds weighed down by a deliberate dullness associating this great, rich color only with death. Jackie, bless her, gave grieving a whole new face.
My mother was actually my first role model, hard to believe since at some point when she was the same age I am now, she disappeared permanently into an elastic waistband. But when I was growing up she was chic and awe-inspiring. She wore only black accented with chunks of gold jewelry which is very Italian, even today. She never went out in anything but heels and black sheer stockings apparently to hide her veins, something I know now but didn’t then.
When she’d get mad she’d say, “it was you who ruined my legs Susannah,” and they were her best feature, a fact she let no one forget.
When I got older and gravitated toward the color black it was really due to those early years watching her dress. I’d sit on the floor of her room examining what she’d majestically lay across the bed. I do that too, deciding what I’m wearing then creating a collage out of it so I know exactly what I’m going to look like. Makes me laugh because I really did get that from her.
Then I was introduced to Miss Audrey Hepburn and that’s when all sartorial hell broke loose.
My mother took me to my first grown-up movie at The Radio City Music Hall in 1966. ‘How To Steal a Million’ with Audrey and Peter O’Toole changed my life or at least my closet. There she was galloping around Paris in those amazing pastel Givency get-ups. I suddenly wanted a little sleeveless sheath in every color, a reasonable request, after all I was almost 10. I even tried sewing one in my ‘Home Economics’ class.
I had to wait a little longer to look like Nicole, her name in the film, but then when I was old enough I came to New York and met Wilhelmina, fashion meteor number 4.
I remember that day with grace and clarity. She had on black slim trousers and a matching cashmere turtleneck. She wore no make-up, her hair caught in a shiny ebony pony tail along with long, perfectly manicured red nails. She was almost 6 feet, huge for her day, so she always wore ballet flats that made her resemble a king-size dancer. When she got up from behind her desk to take my hand I decided right then and there, Willie was perfect.
She was the only one I ever would have tossed out my red, fake leather pants for.
In my later life I met Jackie Vogelstein who snipped the remainder of my threads teaching me to go French. Brought up in Paris she knew everything about how to dress yet buy with ‘a practical eye,’ as she called it. She taught me to invest in a good suit and 3 nice blouses rather than faddish separates that had nothing to do with one other.
“A woman should have a good handbag, a belt and a decent pair of dark pumps Susannah, it’s the very least she owes herself.
Only use color to accent especially if you’re on a budget and instead of buying the cheaper item, save a little longer and get the one you really like that will last until the day you don’t want it anymore.”
How I loved her.
All this may sound like pompous piffle (love that word) but I owe these women, even the 2 I never met. There’s so little one can control in life but classic and clean style simplifies its parameters.
When I shimmy into one of my ‘how many does this make?’ little black dresses I feel like a million bucks. I think of my chic predecessors and can’t help myself.
I can hear their sighs of approval as I’m heading for the door on my way to that cocktail party.
“You look like a real Willie girl Susannah, I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you Ma’am.”
“Black is a wonderful color on you. You look splendid.”
“Oh Jackie, do you really think so?”
“Stand up straight Susannah and have a little snack before you go. You don’t want to get there and eat like a truck driver.”