Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Just another old dress ... or not

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2011 at 3:45 PM

“This was woman incarnate — unashamedly flirtatious in her nonchalant disregard of the stir she was causing, sensual, sensational, crazily chic and, above all, supremely sure of herself.” — Pochna, Christian Dior*

At 5:30 a.m. on the Ides of March, I pondered with distaste at what a better person I would be if my first thoughts of the day regarded world peace as opposed to my wardrobe. But the truth is that I wondered what to wear on my birthday, and I ran through the mental checklist of my closet, long ago abandoning the ridiculous phrase (according to my husband), “I have nothing to wear,” in favor of finding just the right thing, the fashion statement that complements my mood that day, reflecting not how I want to be seen by others, but how I see myself.

Still under the covers, I settled on a black silk and lace wrap-dress, not near as sexy as it sounds, but rather romantic, soft, and sentimental, the dress I wore in the last photograph I have with my mom.

Hours later, dressed for a birthday lunch at Galatoire’s, I stared in the mirror and observed that the Laundry by Shelli Segal design looked outdated. Glancing again at the photograph, I realized that the dress was perfect for a family dinner in 2004 and, even though I can’t pinpoint the exact reason, nothing but an old dress today.

I settled instead on a dress by Prada, so outrageous and unpopular that it hung crushed between discounted clothes on a sales rack in Las Vegas, where I purchased it for a fraction of its equally outrageous original price.

Spring 2008, Prada Runway
  • style.com
  • Spring 2008, Prada Runway

The three year-old dress suited my birthday mood just fine, especially when combined with a large felt flower ring and new platform sandals, adding my personal style and a seasonal trend. Just a guess, but that same dress probably will work as well for a birthday twenty years from now. When an elderly gentleman stopped me in the restaurant and said,

“That sure is a pretty dress, Dahlin’!,”

I thanked him with confidence, even though, this being New Orleans, he probably said the same thing to every woman passing his table.

The fashion world tries to convince us that hemlines and heel heights go up and down, and that this change is of critical importance. Yet we all recognize when full skirts are more flattering on our figures or if we feel like a lady in high heels. Unlike shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans, our body image, as the only one we’ve got, remains popular to us personally, no matter what the trends.

To my mind, both the outrageous and the classic endure the test of time. The key, in every case, is well-made clothes.

Norman Norell, 1968 Fall Runway
  • AP/Wide World Photos
  • Norman Norell, 1968 Fall Runway

A dear friend recently gave me a magnificent gift: nine couture suits and coats made in the 1960s by American fashion designer Norman Norell (1900-1972). She and her husband purchased the clothes from the New York Fashion shows and from Boston’s Bonwit Teller. She wore them on their honeymoon, for tea at the Ritz-Carlton, and on European vacations.

“People stopped her on the street,” her husband told me.

And I knew he was correct.

To my surprise, the wide collars, pearl buttons, and heavy fabric of these highly tailored clothes, suit my needs for the classic, the feminine and the unusual. They show hints of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, and most of all, of my generous and fashionable friend.

At the same time, I feel like I hit the fashion gold mine, discovering the clothes I’ve been looking for all of my life. The fact that they come from an American designer, one who emerged with success at the height of French fashion dominance, makes these pieces nothing short of fine works of art, vintage garments on par with the haute couture of Christian Dior.

First Lady Michelle Obama made fashion headlines when she wore a 1950s Norman Norell to Christmas in Washington, 2010
  • Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
  • First Lady Michelle Obama made fashion headlines when she wore a 1950s Norman Norell to "Christmas in Washington," 2010

Like many New Orleans ladies, my mother and grandmother wore hats and gloves and shopped along Canal Street in the 1950s and 1960s. Although I never paid attention to the labels on her clothes, I knew even as a child that my grandmother had style, wearing white silk blouses and long pleated skirts. Eventually I came to know her pale blue nightgowns as Christian Dior and her shoes and handbags as Ferragamo. When she became wheelchair bound later in life, she celebrated with a purchase of Manolo Blahnik stilettos.

My grandmother Helen McClanahan and my mother Mignon Wolfe at a rig christening; Harvey, LA, circa 1960
  • My grandmother Helen McClanahan and my mother Mignon Wolfe at a rig christening; Harvey, LA, circa 1960

My mother, without the money for designer clothes, created her own type of vintage, just as classic today, and just as priceless (certainly to me). This clothing defined her style, the ‘Mermaid Outfit,’ ‘The Marilyn Dress,’ and ‘The Renaissance Blouse.’ These personal fashion choices, as all fashion should, reflected her unique and beautiful persona. She attended business meetings and birthday parties alike with the grace and confidence reflected by her wardrobe, most of which hangs in my closet (and occasionally on my person) today.

With Mignon, wearing her Doctor Zhivago Coat, Ramstein Air Force Base 1972
  • With Mignon, wearing her 'Doctor Zhivago Coat,' Ramstein Air Force Base 1972

Dolores Pepper (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)

* Marie-France Pochna from Christian Dior, a Biography, Overlook Press, 2008

For a related post see "Looking Back" from Musings of an Artist's Wife

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