(Photo courtesy of Gale Maly Photo Archives.)
It started when as a teenager she lied about her age to get a secretarial job at a meat packing plant (yes, a Chicago meat packing plant) so she could augment the family income. With no secretarial experience and no wardrobe, she learned on the fly and set aside a few dollars from every paycheck to put toward an Ann Fogarty dress she had bought on layaway at Marshall Field’s downtown. A wardrobe workhorse, it was a full-skirted shirtwaist with a ten-inch hem and a belt, either of which she could change for a completely different look.
Within a month she brought the dress home and proudly wore it until she was able to pay off her next conquest: a gray silk Adele Simpson suit from Saks Fifth Avenue. Next came a black Suzy Perette 2-piece dress and a blue floral Claire McCardell, all paid for with her own money.
(Images courtesy of Gale Maly Photo Archives (left) and Stacia Lugo Photography (right).)
By this time she was beginning to attract attention, not only from her much-older female co-workers but also from their sons, nephews and brothers who were keen to date such an elegant creature…especially one so unaware of her own beauty. A bookworm and the middle daughter of three children, my mother was used to being overlooked by boys and overshadowed by her siblings: a younger sister who resembled Mia Farrow and an older brother often mistaken for Dean Martin. Unaccustomed to attention from others, she learned to do what made her happy and developed a style all her own.
For example, few women in the 1950s would leave the house without a pair of bright red lips; however, my mother found it unflattering and chose nude lips instead, which made her look like a prophet when they burst on the fashion scene in 1963. Petite and short-waisted, she altered her jackets into boleros in the 1950s, long before Jacqueline Kennedy made them a fashion staple. When short jackets fell out of fashion in the boho 1970s she wore vests or empire waist dresses, which were less overwhelming to her small frame.
dressing to her assets with slim vests in the billowy 70s (right).
(Images courtesy of Gale Maly Photo Archives.)
When she left her secretarial job and began managing the family business in 1962, my mother’s clothes and carriage became the armor she used to protect herself from the same generation of men who had been eager to court her but unwilling to take her seriously. Dress suits became daily wear, with jackets covering skin to deflect unwelcome advances during business hours but removed when she met her fiancée for dinner afterward. Further proof: she wore white gloves every day until 1972. Extra armor.
By the time I was old enough to walk I began hiding in my mother’s closet to stand inside her clothes as they hung from the rod. In the dark I let my hands memorize the shapes of the dresses and learned to identify fabric by touch; even during my rebellious years when I bought my second-hand grunge at thrift stores I could spot a vintage piece crammed on a rack from twenty paces. Inevitably I bought it because it returned me to the comfort of my mother’s closet. I have been collecting, restoring and conserving vintage clothing ever since.
Fortunately for me my mother has kept nearly every shred of clothing she ever owned, because each one represents a memory, a lesson learned, or a hard-earned victory. Once the source of my greatest comfort, my mother’s closet is now also my laboratory, my ground zero and the inspiration for my business, Black Cat Vintage.
In thanks for her foresight, a few years ago on my mother’s birthday I rented a studio and hired a photographer to take photos of the two of us. I expected to bring tears to her eyes by wearing her vintage clothes, but she wore Alexander McQueen and brought tears to mine instead.
It proves you can’t copy an original, even by wearing her clothes.
(Photo courtesy of Puspa Lohmeyer Photography.)