I write about the romantic in life because that is what uplifts me. If that is what uplifts you as well then take a trip to the de Young Museum and see the Balenciaga exhibit. It will be well worth your while as there are many visions to dream on. I think I will go back a second time as I didn’t have the time to look at all the details of the gowns nor the names of the women who had worn them.
I am particularly fond of reading the names of the owners of the gowns. It allows one to imagine the life of Mrs. Eleanor deGuigne and to wonder how she ever squeezed herself into that tiny, wasp waisted gown. Did she never eat at all or perhaps not one bite for a period before having herself zipped up into this creation? And what did she think when she went out in the evening? Did she look into the mirror and say to herself how absolutely fabulous she looked? I wonder.
I wonder about that generation of exquisitely groomed ladies who spent a fortune on their wardrobe and lived such apparently glamorous lives. Were they conscious of how they were living or did they just live?
In the attic in our house in Connecticut there was a walk through closet which lead to my brother’s train room. My brother had polio when he was 7 or 8 and my parents bought him a full train set and put it all together on top of a specially made table in the attic. There were two bright red stools which sat at the head of the table where the controls were. I don’t really remember being able to get the trains to work often as by the time I could access the stools on my own, my brother was out of the house. The room was not on our permitted places list but we didn’t really care about that. I do remember sitting on one of the stools lost in my own train town world believing the train was taking all these families to interesting places and the families were laughing and enjoying the ride. The train always stopped obediently at the crossings marked with large black X’s and proceeded with caution when directed. The train world was a secret I kept from the rest of the household. Everyone seemed to have forgotten the train room just as the walk through closet was not a place often visited by other family members.
The walk through closet held the only remnants of our mother’s past life: a life we could only imagine as our world focused on my father’s family morning, noon and night. My mother appeared to have been born to parents who simply disappeared and reappeared only once or twice a year. In the walk through closet there were several dresses I loved to pull out and examine looking for clues as to who my mother was. My favorite of these dresses was an incredibly heavy and complicated Mexican wedding dress my mother had bought on her honeymoon in Acapulco. The dress was long and red and had many many tiny hooks in back which had to be hooked up one by one. God Forbid that you started incorrectly or you would have to begin all over again. From the age of 7 I would drag the wedding dress into the hallway and try it on. Initially I couldn’t button one hook but I shrugged into the puffy sleeves with their ridges of hard lace and held the skirt in my hands twirling it back and forth always slightly terrified someone would catch me dressing in a sacrament.
There was one more dress in the walk through closet that appeared in 1961 and it was a very lovely silk dress with an embroidered flower pattern and a small shrug made to be worn over the dress. This dress was history in the eyes of my mother. She had worn it to the White House and had danced with President Kennedy while wearing it. I tried this dress on as well. I tried it on and moved around within it feeling clumsy and bulky and that I wasn’t worthy of a dress that had gone to the White House.
Years later when I was organizing a coming out party for my daughter a large box arrived in the mail from Connecticut. When I opened it I found the White House dress with a note from my mother stating she hoped I would wear the dress to my daughter’s party. I was almost speechless and reverently removed the dress from the box exclaiming over the beauty of it. Later when I was trying it on I realized it would have to be altered in order for it to work for me as the dress was a little too short and a little too tight. Luckily I had a wonderful dressmaker who redesigned the dress and added a bit more color making it appropriate for 1988. I wore the dress to the party and danced all night and my parents were there to see my daughter become an elegant debutante.
Years passed and just before my parents sold the old house in Connecticut I went back to visit and climbed the stairs to the walk through closet now empty except for a few bent old wire coat hangers on the floor and some rick rack ribbon falling off the side of the shelf. I knelt on the floor and felt all the old feelings of awe and sadness and wonder and depression that fluctuated around my family in our childhood. I remembered the magic the closet had brought me and I remembered my mother’s comment years later about my redesign of her White House dress I was so proud of. “You ruined the dress! Just ruined it!
So back to Balenciaga…it’s worth a visit for those of us who lurked in closets as children as these clothes will never be made again. The skills and talents and materials do not exist. Gone like a puff of smoke from my train town village or the soft click of a closet door closing.
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