Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Family Fashion

In honor of my parents. Mom's birthday is today; Dad's is on Oct 6. They are both turning 89. This is a semi-true story in a category I call "family fiction."

Some time in the 1960s my parents turned into fashion icons . . . of a sort.

It started when my father abandoned his role as a debonair man-about-town (Tyrone Power was the actor he was said to resemble most) and grew a goatee. No one else in our Bronx neighborhood had one.

At first Dad's facial hair puzzled people. It even frightened some of them. "What is that?" they wondered. But Dad persevered, and soon his friends, and even a few relatives, were calling him Fidel, and not in an entirely disparaging way.

Yes, there were cigars involved. He had always smoked cigars — his father owned a tobacco shop, Dad started smoking when he was 11 — but now, with the goatee, and something resembling a swagger in his walk, my father was suddenly cool, hip, some people called him a "hep cat." He wasn't exactly a beatnik, but he was leaning toward being beatnik-y.

People were drawn to him. He was a large man, a loud man, he had a nice smile and a firm handshake. He was popular with men and women alike. When his young cousin, Arnie, grew a goatee, Dad was so proud. "I've started something bigger than me," he said. Before long a man in the apartment building next to ours was seen with a goatee. Then the mailman had one. Mr. Kilgallen, the father of six who lived down the hall, tried to grow one but he wasn't successful. He asked Dad for advice. My father was basking in glory. He loved this time in his life.

My mother was an exceptionally beautiful woman, and was often compared to Natalie Wood. Ava Gardner, too, and Loretta Young. Even Elizabeth Taylor. She was the first of her friends to wear caftans, but on Mom they did not look like lingerie or muumuus — she draped long gold chains loosely around her waist. People said she was exotic.

Then she began to crochet her own evening gowns, elevating the lowly granny square into something magnificent. She took busses and trains all over New York City, into every borough except Staten Island — because she was not about to get into a boat, for God's sake! — in search of the most beautiful yarns. She found them in tiny shops tucked behind (or above, or below) other tiny shops. She crocheted daring floor-length gowns. And yes, there were peek-a-boo holes. But that didn't trouble her and it didn't trouble anyone else, either. Mom was the hit of every bar mitzvah and wedding, and if I'm not mistaken, one or two funerals as well.

Everyone loved my mother. Women followed her around, counting stitches, asking where she went for her patterns, gasping in awe when she said she made them up herself. My mother was envied and admired. Her friends all wanted to be her. They told her this.

Then one day my mother discovered paisley, and she took to it in a big way. So her friends took to paisley too. That's how our neighborhood became a paisley mecca. Crochet hooks and fancy yarns were put aside. All eyes were on the new look, the paisley look.

What did my mother do in paisley? She did everything in paisley. Paisley sheets and pillow cases; curtains and table cloths. Paisley hair ribbons, bags, belts, and scarves. Paisley mini-skirts, paisley maxi-skirts. Paisley halter tops and paisley bell-bottoms. My mother decked herself out in paisley, head to toe, and her friends followed her lead.

Saturday night parties in our apartment were filled with paisley-clad women and cigar-chomping bearded men. It was all very "now" if your idea of now was an episode of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Before the parties got fully underway the women would gather in the bathroom, taking turns at the mirror, trying on each other's make-up and playing with one another's hair. The men, in the living room, with unfamiliar drinks in their hands, exchanged misinformation about where you could find genuine Cuban cigars.

But even with their liquor and their cigars, the men felt left out when it came to paisley. Yes, there were paisley ties, but how many of those could you own? And my father, who was becoming allergic to ties (metaphorically speaking), was growing petulant. "Wear a cravat," my mother suggested. Can you hear the snort of his reply? I can. My sister and I bought Dad a silk hanky in a paisley design, the kind of hanky some men fold very cleverly and wear in the breast pocket of their suit jacket. Dad was not that kind of man. He blew his nose on the hanky and then he threw it away.

The age of paisley was over.

Soon afterward my mother proclaimed a liking for all shades of "neutral." Who knew there were so many varieties of brown and grey? Beige, taupe, chestnut, khaki, cocoa, amber, ash, cloudy, sandy, pewter, slate, smoke. She wore them all.

And then — poof! — Dad shaved off his goatee.

No more Saturday night parties. No more constant gaiety.

Dad continued to smoke his cigars but no one called him Fidel anymore. His new idols were Phil Silvers, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason. Big men, but not quite leading men. And by now, neither was my father.

Mom took me shopping for college clothes. She tried hard to persuade me to adopt a love of neutral colors. But in this she did not succeed. I was only interested in one color. Blue. Denim blue to be precise. I filled my suitcase with denim jeans and work shirts from the Army & Navy Store. For variety, an embroidered "peasant blouse" that I bought on MacDougal Street.

At the last possible second before we loaded the car for the trip upstate, Mom tried to slip her one remaining paisley scarf into my bag. "In case you have a special occasion and need to dress up," she said.

The only time I needed to dress up, that first year away, was for a wedding in the woods, just outside of town. The bride wore cut-off jean shorts; the groom wore bathing trunks. I wore a flannel nightgown. The times they were most definitely a-changin'.