The very word ‘style,’ when applied to the world of fashion, seems to have acquired a new definition. Style once meant the elaborately beautiful creations worn in classic movies
The very word ‘style,’ when applied to the world of fashion, seems to have acquired a new definition. Style once meant the elaborately beautiful creations worn in classic movies. You still can see Leslie Caron and Marlene Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn “puttin’ on the glitz,” as they once said, on late night TV or streaming video at any time. Their garments were confections. Their hair was perfection, designed something like frosting on the cake of the marvelous creations they wore. Taken together they were works of art.
Ordinary people, like my mother, labored over their sewing machines using patterns by Vogue and Sinclaire and Simplicity to produce something similar. They shopped in fabric stores where rows of woolens in tartan plaids, nubby blues or baby-soft whites marched along facing cottons, brocades, silks and synthetics. There were the exotics like sharkskin and leathers plus all the extras— the silk linings, the facings, the zippers, and threads — not to mention the tiers of buttons that seemed like tiny works of art in and of themselves.
Church services on Sunday morning were something like mini-fashion parades as women entered on the arms of their husbands or sons or their friends. The aisles of the department stores, likewise, provided eye candy for the connoisseur of fashion, for no self-respecting woman would go shopping in anything less than a suit, hat and gloves. Dinner at the Elks or Eagles provided excuses to bring out dresses in velvets or brocades trimmed with fur or lace. The figures under these beautiful dresses might not be that of a Greta Garbo, but who cared. The dress spoke for itself, saying, “This woman is stylish. She is in fashion. She’s “puttin’ on the glitz.”
I’ve been watching a couple of reality TV series on “fashion” designers judged by arbiters of “style.” The fabrics are the same as the ones my mother used but with more variety. Most of the contestants have good sewing skills. Most of them seem to know their way around a cutting table and someone does a good job of creating patterns. Too, most of them have mastered the same techniques as the designers of yore from running a sewing machine to pinning hems, but otherwise?
Of course, like all designers now, they’re aimed at winning on a runway where outrage and pageantry attracts press coverage attracts sales. But ... If the watcher is expecting beauty or artistry in anything other than the model’s makeup, best to turn to another program.
When was the last time any of us really dressed up? Really felt stylish in a classic sense? For a senior prom? For a dance competition?
A few long dresses, leftover from my years in the Foreign Service, still live in the far back corner of a seldom-opened closet, still in dust covers from their last return from the cleaners — who can remember how long ago that was. Even the beautifully styled lounging clothes that once seemed important and were worn around the house have been folded away for several decades. “I’ll want them someday,” I tell myself. Worse, though, I know that no one would want them. No one wears long house dresses, silk robes or even Djellabas (long, loose-fitting clothing).
Once, years back, the idea of attending a concert or play or any public non-sporting event meant “dressing up.” At the very least, a fancy scarf and a pair of higher heels transformed a business suit to make a presentable appearance. But last winter, after scoring last-minute tickets to a performance at the Kennedy Center, I wore what I had with me — slacks, sweater, flats, a car coat and wool scarf. Not only was I comfortable through the performance but I felt right at home among similarly attired women.
Shakespeare said it best: “Aye, there’s the rub.” In this case, it’s the word “comfortable.” The clothing that most of us wear as happily to the grocery store as to a concert is comfortable. And, while you can say what you want about the beauty of “style” as we once knew it, it was distinctly not comfortable.
My mother said that best: “Remember, Patty. It’s painful to be beautiful.” For her generation it was.
In a way I mourn the loss of that special sense that comes with the feel of expensive fabrics and beautiful styling, of knowing I looked my best. But ... . “Puttin’ on the glitz,” is out. Jeans are in, and, a little regret and nostalgia aside, I’m not giving up my loose-fitting, elastic, supple, and above all comfortable clothes. They’re my “style.”