A Pattern for Style
Generations of fashion
I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s under the influence of three style icons. No, I’m not alluding to Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie Kennedy, although these women were quintessential examples of timeless elegance. Rather, I’m referring to three women who were actually present during my childhood and whom I observed closely: my mother, my Aunt Marian, and my Aunt Helen. Three sisters. Three different ways of expressing personal identities through the clothes they wore.
First there was Doris, my mother, and the youngest of the sisters. Although she lived far from the pulse of fashion, Doris was the hippest farmer’s wife north of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Her primary style resource was the basement of the local J.C. Penney department store, where bolts of fabric and the latest McCall’s, Butterick, and Vogue pattern books were available for her perusal. From those volumes, my mother crafted fabulous 1960s shifts in acid colors complete with matching belts, as well as 1970s polyester shirt dresses with top-stitched epaulets.
For me, she made a purple velvet pantsuit, and a spaghetti-strapped prom dress of silky peach-colored Qiana. She also recycled her own mother’s various bouclé or Persian lamb items into cuffs or collars or whatever else she could concoct. The end result was ingenious, on trend, and always impeccably crafted.
My mother’s makeshift sewing nook was a former closet in my parents’ bedroom—command central for her creative energies. The space was barely able to contain all the fabric and notions she had amassed. From my bedroom, one floor above, long after midnight I often heard the stops and starts of her aqua-colored Viking sewing machine as she depressed the foot pedal.
My Aunt Marian (the oldest of the sisters) shopped for her clothing from two very different sources: the luxurious Marshall Field’s department store in downtown Chicago, and various dusty antiques stores in and around the city. Marian was equal parts new and used, high and low, an artful blend of contrasts. She was colorful and eclectic and totally original in her fashion choices. I loved her hybrid sensibility—half bohemian, half ‘lady who lunches.’ It was the perfect packaging for her gentle, creative soul, and she stood out in any room where she appeared.
And finally there was Aunt Helen, the middle sister, the one whose wardrobe came closest to constituting a personal uniform. Helen wore only skirts, as far as I could tell. Whether she was playing croquet with her nieces and nephews at the family’s lake cabin, or serving Thanksgiving dinner in her elegant Minneapolis dining room, she donned a skirt. There were wraparounds and A-lines, pleated and appliquéd. They were made of madras, denim, velvet, or corduroy. They were classic with a modern twist and often exhibited just a touch of whimsy.
Like Helen’s infectious sense of humor, her skirts seemed to sort of wink at you, as though acknowledging some inside joke. She paired her collection of skirts with simple Lacoste polos, or ruffled cotton shirts and matching sandals, pumps or mules, depending on the season. Very chic. And very suburban. Helen’s style was the closest thing to East Coast preppy I had ever seen, and I knew early on that this was a visual language I was eager to emulate somehow.
On any given day, all these years later, I find myself wearing something influenced by at least one of my three style mavens. These women were positive forces in my childhood for reasons far beyond clothing preferences. They were devoted mothers with high expectations; they had entrepreneurial spirits and worked hard to pursue their individual passions; they were active, respected members of their communities. Their influence lives on.
Today, as I stand in front of the mirror, I sense Doris, Marian, and Helen standing just behind me, looking over my shoulder and nodding their collective approval. My mother would admire my scarf, hand-sewn with care. Marian would approve of my vintage yellow coat, scored at a thrift shop years ago and still a springtime favorite. And Helen would certainly smile at my growing collection of skirts, especially the ones that call just a bit of attention to themselves.
The next time I see Aunt Helen, I might ask if I can borrow that little madras number I remember so fondly. At the age of 85, she might be ready to part with it, and croquet season is just a few months away.