Like most genuinely stylish people, my mother could be quite strict. Elegance, as I believe Coco Chanel once said, is refusal. Here are some of the things my mother would not do:
Dye her hair.
Wear anything synthetic.
Leave the house without makeup. Never a garish or noticeable amount, but makeup made her feel respectable, attractive, and prepared to face the day.
Wear fur. She didn’t have any great moral objection to wearing fur, but an aesthetic one. Fur could easily become very Miami Beach. When my Aunt Lil once bought a white mink stole, my mother didn’t approve, but she was too afraid of Lil to voice any objections. Lil was an amazing woman, and rather than slouching the stole, she wore it hanging around her neck with the squared-off ends somewhere near her knees; the stole looked like a white mink prayer shawl. If Lil was going to buy a fur, she wanted the world to take a good long look at it.
My mother struggled with her weight her entire life; her own mother had put her on diet pills when she was twelve years old. My mother tried every possible diet, from Atkins to the grapefruit diet to something which involved only popcorn and Diet Coke. One of her dreams, and she kept a file on this, was to create a comprehensive encyclopedia of failed diets. But she’d almost never shop at plus-size stores like Lane Bryant or The Forgotten Woman, because that meant you’d given up, and entered a world of elastic waistbands and way too much black and navy blue stretch fabric.
My mother joined Weight Watchers with her best friend Ann, and they stuck with the program. They bought little metal scales to weigh their food, and they forced themselves to eat the Weight Watchers frozen dinners, which looked like, as my mother put it, “frozen diapers.” Once my mother had lost thirty pounds, she bought herself a wardrobe of beautiful and expensive new dresses. But when the weight came back, she finally gave this wardrobe away. Maintaining her weight loss had been too exhausting.
There was another woman in her Weight Watchers program whom my mother admired because, while she was larger than my Mom, she was always very well-dressed. In her later years, my mother discovered Marimekko dresses, which she loved. These dresses were all-cotton, and imported – the company was based in Finland. The signature Marimekko prints were bold and cheerful, and my mother accessorized them with silk scarves and silver Mexican jewelry, and she looked terrific.
My mother was a publicist, and one of the shows she worked on was an exuberant, anti-apartheid South African musical called Sarafina (and yes, for you musical theater geeks, the show was technically called Sarafina!) The show’s cast was almost entirely teenage South African girls, and these girls thought that my Mom was the best-dressed woman they’d ever seen. The girls were on a budget, so my Mom took them to the Gap and advised them on buying inexpensive but appealing items, and to show their appreciation, the girls gave my Mom one of their signature derbies.
My mother was the Nelson Mandela of retail.
It’s easy to spot a stylish person, at any price point, because they don’t look like anybody else. People like to talk about being comfortable in your own skin; my mother was comfortable in her Marimekkos.