My Mom, Glam Icon

Fashion is not about design, it’s about emotion, said couturier Alber Elbaz, and that’s certainly been true in my personal experience. My emotional relationship with fashion began at about age one, the earliest I was able to trundle around our tiny Park Slope apartment and pull open the door of my mother’s closet. It was a place of enchantment to me, decidedly unfashionable in cotton diapers. Peeking in, at eye level with the bottom of the voluminous skirts that anchored the dresses of the late 1950s and early ’60s, the clothes possessed a pent-up magic, waiting to come to life when they were donned for adventure in the world.

Though she laughs now at the thought of being a style icon, my mother’s innate good taste and appreciation for great fabric and a classic cut made her that in my young eyes. More than anything, her fashion sense formed the aesthetic values that have been a central part of my life. Not only did she have great clothes, but she her mani-pedis always looked great (self-administered, a tradition I’ve mostly carried on, if not on as regular as my very organized, ultra-disciplined mom). And her accessories were always fun. There was much pleasure in playing with straw purses, veiled hats and evening gloves.

Her jewel box was a treasure chest — the little cat pin with the smiling face, the ring carved from melon-colored coral, a dainty white gold watch and engravings that seemed to add depth of mystery, since I had no idea what the scribblings meant.

But the clothes were talismans. The more opulent pieces, her fox stole and the fancy dresses with rustling skirts, were only fleetingly glimpsed in their living incarnations as she made her way out the door with my father for mysterious activities beyond my reach. It was an exotic treat, during those transitional moments, to run my fingers through the fox fur, or be invited to inspect the charms on her bracelet, including a cat with ruby eyes. And of course devastatingly sad to be left behind with the babysitter. But the transformational wonder of my twentysomething-parents in their evening clothes had its effect.

Baby Paula with mom, Patricia

Portrait of the artist as a young girl, with her much-admired mother.

That this everyday caretaker in jeans and moccasins, her hair wrapped in a kerchief, could metamorphose into an elegant creature in florals and heels boggled my impressionable young mind. It was as if the gods from on high, having had their fill of time among mortals, were off again to Olympus to gambol with their own kind.

Of course most of my impressions from the period are etched into my memory from repeated viewing of the photos. Discussing those times, my mother seemed dismissive of the dress-up, saying she didn’t really go out all that often. But photos being reserved for special occasions back then, those special evenings were deemed camera-worthy, and her fancy frocks live on. Many of the images in this gallery were captured in the years preceding my birth, but left their impression.

Even in her everyday wear, my mother had what I perceived to be effortless chic. She made some of her own casual outfits and Halloween costumes that delighted me with their whimsy. The Kennedys were in the White House and the First Lady was making a fashion statement that included clothes, but went beyond that. In addition to sleeveless shifts and multi-strand pearls, “confidence, independence, intelligence and wisdom” became part of the style statement, and these my mother taught me along with the value of a classic cut and the elegance of understatement.

Although I never actively sought to emulate her look, once past the flamboyance of youth my tastes have leaned to the timeless: Ann Taylor, Donna Karan,  Michael Kors. Thanks to her taste and generosity, the beautiful jewelry I so admired as a child lives on through new generations. Jewelry is the one area in which it’s unequivocally okay to be sentimental. I wish she saved the clothes, too! But times change. One thing that hasn’t changed, my mother looks just as beautiful, inside and out, at 80 as she did back then, through the eyes of a child.