Artist’s Date 15: Out of the Closet

I’m fingering through a book of paper dolls.

One is wearing a wired, strapless bra, waist cincher, and stretch nylon lace girdle.  Another, a corset clipped to thigh-high stockings.  There are six of them in total, waiting to be dressed in couture.  Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent.  Christian Dior, Bill Blass, Mary Quant.

I picked up the books – Great Fashion Designs of the Twenties, of the Fifties and of The Sixties – at the Chicago History Museum.  They were on a rack with other tools for the budding fashionista.  How-to books for drawing bodies and forms.  Stencils for creating ensembles.    

I think about my friend Slade.  As a child he wanted to draw Batman.  Today he is a working artist.  I wonder if he had books like these.

I think about my stunted trajectory.  How I always imagined I’d work in fashion – as a designer or a photographer.

I had forgotten about that until a couple of months ago.  I was talking with my friend Kristen about all the things I might do now that I was beholden to no one.  I mused about picking up the camera again.  I told her about photographing my friend Michelle, sitting on a roll of white paper in the art corridor at West Bloomfield High School.  That I knew then that I was good – that I had an eye.

I had forgotten about that conversation until last Thursday.  Artist Date 15.  “Ebony: 50 Years of Fashion Fair” at the Chicago History Museum.

I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit.  But we were not wealthy ourselves.  Rather than trying to keep up with the girls around me, I turned to thrifting– picking up one-of-a-kind gems and throwaways.  And I began using clothing as an outward expression of my internal landscape.

I vividly remember my first vintage piece – a Pendleton car coat in orange, green and blue plaid with faux mother-of-pearl buttons.  It held the smell of age and experience, a little bit of perfume, some cigarette smoke and moth balls.  A smell I would grow to know, to accommodate, but never love.  And that dry cleaning would never completely eradicate.

I matched the car coat with an orange wool skirt and a veiled pillbox hat.  My mother said it took guts to go to school looking the way that I did.  She feared I’d get my ass kicked.  I feared blending in.  Not being noticed.

My closet filled with a rag-tag collection of styles from different eras.  A pleated skirt from the 1950s, printed with black ovals and circles.  Brocade capri pants.  White go-go boots two sizes too big for my feet.  A plaid Catholic school-girl skirt I snagged for 89 cents in Toronto.  A short-sleeved paisley, button-down. 

At my 20-year reunion, more than one classmate reflected that I was “cool.”  A “trendsetter.”  It would have been helpful to know that then, because I didn’t feel cool.  Most of the time I felt jangly and awkward.  And yet, the look I cultivated, more Cyndi Lauper than punk rocker, seemed to belie my 16-year-old insecurity.

I learned to sew, and wore my one finished creation.  I took photography classes and bought a new camera.  But ultimately I did not pursue fashion.  My parents nudged me toward writing.  And the designers I knew dissuaded me with horror stories of the shmata trade. 

And yet, as I walked into the exhibit, it all rushed back to me.  Mr. McClew, the math teacher who moonlighted as a photographer, loaning me European fashion magazines.  Sketching ensembles and passing them them over to Rachel Plecas in sixth-hour Humanities class.

There were dresses from Bob Mackie, Halston and Bill Blass.  Paco Rabanne.  Givenchy.  Yves Saint-Laurent.  A waterfall of crystals cascading down the back of an evening gown.  Modest, high-necked floral brocade giving way to ass cleavage.  A handful of custom-ordered plus-size pieces.  A purple dyed rabbit jacket.  A spangled plaid suit.  A perfectly-cut grey car coat.

I knew the magazine, Ebony, but not Fashion Fair: The World’s Largest Traveling Fashion Show.  For 50 years it crisscrossed America, raising money for local charities, was the “it” place in the African American community to see and be seen, to see haute couture. 

Its founder, Eunice Johnson, set out to bring glamour, worldliness, and a sense of possibility to her community – inviting African American women to imagine who they might be, and bringing images of African American women as beauty ideals to the fore.

I sat on a red velvet couch that looked like a wave and watched a video loop of designers, models and patrons sharing their memories of the 50 years.  Fashion Fair being the first group of blacks to stay at the Peabody Hotel.  Its maids bursting with pride.  An audience member peering backstage, marveling to see that everyone –EVERYONE – working the show was black.

Grown women waxing nostalgic about “dressing” for the show when they were young girls, an annual date with their mothers.  One noting that while fashion may be fairly trivial, “but being comfortable in your skin, isn’t.”  That Fashion Fair offered her that possibility.

I was envious.  Like in sixth grade when my friends’ parents took them to the Fisher Theatre to see Annie.   Like when those same friends went to New York with their mothers on shopping trips.  I felt like I missed something special. 

I imagined my 10-year-old self seeing a Halston purple jumpsuit – designed for discoing all night and sharing breakfast in the morning – come down the catwalk.  Too young to understand the innuendo.  My 16-year-old self making mental notes of the fabric and construction of an Issey Miyaki outer-space inspired jumpsuit.

I can’t change my past.  I can’t take my “child artist” to Fashion Fair now.  The last show was in 2009.   

But I can take her to this museum show again.  I can buy her paper dolls, a tangible reminder of the show she did see.

I can express myself in wool, leather and cotton, perhaps a little more comfortably than I did when I was 16.

I’ve noticed that my closet has morphed into two discreet sides –Pre and post-divorce.

Pre-divorce holds a collection of mostly Calvin Klein dresses.  I lost weight during the divorce and they don’t fit me anymore.  Not just in size.

Post-divorce is filled with return-to-thrifting finds.  A Diane Van Fustenberg knock-off wrap dress.  A tangerine cashmere sweater from Barney’s.   A burgundy, leather trench coat that I like to wear when I ride my bike in cool weather, its seams splitting at the shoulder.  A cropped pink, plaid wool blazer I picked up in Milwaukee, along with a robin’s-egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag.  A long cotton dress – tan, gold and purple – that feels like India.  I grabbed it off the rack at Village Thrift while I was waiting in line to pay for something else.

They are classics, standing the test of time, both in make and design.  My marriage didn’t.  Perhaps without even knowing it, I wanted to wrap myself in things that do. 

And the embroidered, powder-blue polyester cowboy shirt I had to have…a reminder that there is always room for whimsy.  Always room for mistakes.  In fashion, and in all things.   

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