There is a scene in Grey Gardens, the HBO movie about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric Beale cousins, in which Drew Barrymore, who is utterly fabulous as Little Edie, faces off the sanitation police, who’ve been sent to inspect the squalor of the Beale’s once-grand Hamptons pad.
“We have our warrant, Miss Beale. We’re coming in!” calls the law, intent on evicting if not the bonkers mother and daughter at least their resident menagerie of cats and racoons.
“Just you wait a minute!” calls Little Edie. “I’ll be down as soon as I put my lipstick on.”
Because in the face of a challenge you want to look your best. Like Edie Beale, Ginette Spanier knew that looking one’s best is directly related to feeling confident and strong.
Spanier, who was Directrice of the Paris couture house of Balmain in the 1950s, was on the run in Nazi occupied France during WWII. Jewish with false papers, her memoirs tell of a daily fear of being arrested, but keeping up appearances was never far from her mind.
To cycle from Limoges to liberated Paris in 1944, she packed two special outfits donated by a friend “so that I wouldn’t look a mess when I greeted my first Englishman, my first American. At the time [the outfits] seemed the summit of luxury – a black silk town suit, in case they came in daytime. A flowery nightdress, in case they came at night. For months I dreamt of myself in one or other of these garments welcoming the Allies.”
In her book The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant also writes of the importance in wartime of dressing up: “The famous poster of the ATS warden reapplying her lipstick in the blitz was one of the iconic images of the Second World War: it said that fashion and beauty transcended death and horror…Trying to put together a fashionable outfit and make up your face was part of the war effort.”
So I wonder why in easier times we so often let things slide on the fashion front, schlepping about in baggy track pants and old T-shirts. The obvious answer, the one I give when I show up to work in old black trousers that make me look like a Womble, is that there is not enough time to fritter it away on the pursuit of gorgeousness. And hello, I work in fashion!
The frenetic pace of life is such that by the time we’ve packed the kids’ lunches and taken the rubbish out there really aren’t enough minutes left to manicure our nails or hold up our stockings to the light to see if they are the exact right shade black to match our tulle skirt. I’m lucky if I can get out the door without cat hair all over my coat.
So what’s the obvious answer to that? It is of course the dreaded “D” word: discipline. We must make the time for style. There is no such thing as a free fashion lunch. As my ultra chic friend Sue Pritchard puts it: “I might not always feel like it, but I make the effort to look groomed – I always enjoy the results.”
As for me, I wear the Womble trousers because they are comfy and they are there on the shelf (or more often, the floor). And because they don’t look nice with anything I don’t have to think too much about the rest of my outfit, or at least only enough to accept that it will not be chic. How’s that for logic? Thus, the Womble trousers are easy. But since when was anything worth having easy to acquire? Looking stylish takes effort. But it comes with rewards. I think if I had to meet my first American, I’d pack my black silk suit, wouldn’t you?