power dressing

I grew up in the seventies in Beverly Hills, just barely on the right side of the gilded tracks. My father was a doctor so we were hardly poor, but we weren’t exactly rich either. Despite my impassioned entreaties, there wasn’t a brand-new white Camaro parked in the driveway on the morning of my sixteenth birthday, nor were there any skin-tight Jag jeans with real diamond studs in my closet. The first and only time I received a clothing allowance, I made a beeline for the Right Bank Clothing Company on Rodeo Drive and blew my entire budget on a $50 rhinestone tee-shirt, the least expensive item in the store. When I got home and showed off my purchase, my mother didn’t say a word. She went to the mirror, reapplied her Cherries in the Snow lipstick, smoothed down her Jaeger coatdress, and marched me straight back to Rodeo Drive, sensible Ferragamo heels clicking. After half an hour of arguing with the Jose Eber-coiffed saleswoman—who was to my teenaged mind impossibly sophisticated, in all white with a tiny gold faucet around her neck (in homage to Farrah Fawcett, the patron saint of seventies blondes)—my mother resigned herself to the fact that store credit was all we were getting. I watched mutely as she exchanged my tiny, sexy, pale-yellow, cap-sleeved tee-shirt—which made me look exactly like my favorite angel, Jaclyn Smith—for the actual cheapest item in the store: rainbow toe socks. Three pairs of them.

As they say, those toe socks hurt my mother more than they hurt me. Toe socks lacked dignity, propriety, elegance. Worse yet, they impeded the stride—how could a person conquer the world in toe socks? My mother had big dreams for her two daughters. But a person never got anywhere without dressing for success. There wasn’t a morning, for example, when she didn’t serve us breakfast in high heels, fresh lipstick, her trademark bouffant, and a smart Chanel suit or St. John knit. She looked like she was off to some fabulous corner office, like some of the moms who were real estate brokers, say. But that wasn’t in fact the case. Once we were gone, she’d meet with her interior decorator, whom she’d found creating the bedding displays at the May Company in our old, more downscale mid-Wilshire neighborhood, or hunker down to master the intricacies of our brand-new Cuisinart (tuna salad the consistency of pate was her specialty). Her attire, as she explained to my sister and me, was a function neither of domestic ennui nor narcissism. It was strategic. It was there to set an example for us. In addition, it was something my father could take away with him, an image of her as the equal of the glamorous career women he would encounter once he drove away from our ranch-style house on Canon Drive and headed downtown.

I went to college back East, my suitcase stuffed full of metallic mesh pumps with cone heels, angora halter tops, and painter’s pants in a panoply of pastel shades from Camp Beverly Hills (the latter being the late seventies’ version of the Juicy Couture sweatsuit). The Preppy Handbook had just come out, and topsiders were suddenly all the rage in Beverly Hills. But I was not one to capitulate. I didn’t buy a coat until senior year. This, too, was strategic. I had a California girl image to maintain. Plus, coats were thrillingly exotic. You had to take your time around such beasts, move cautiously, keep a clear head. I considered, then rejected, a Norma Kamali puff, which struck me as too much for a small town in northwestern Massachusetts. A classic camel’s hair, which my mother was advocating long-distance, lacked the requisite imagination. In the end, I bought a beautiful forties houndstooth coat from a vintage store, which I wore with a brand-new, three-inch wide Yves St. Laurent belt. When I made my way across the icy quad, I felt superior to the girls in their knit caps, L.L. Bean boots and puffy parkas. I also felt very, very cold.

I moved to New York City after college to pursue my own glamorous career; in what exactly, I had no idea. But I held onto my mother’s parting words like they were a life raft: look the part and the rest will follow. However, the prevailing uniform of A-line skirt and matching blazer with floppy bow tie didn’t exactly inspire me. Nor did the three Diane von Furstenburg wrap dresses I’d stolen from the vast reaches of my mother’s walk-in closet. They were amazing, hugging curves I was only starting to realize I possessed. But I was after something else. My New York City plans did not hinge on looking sexy, much less vulnerable, the way I did when I wore my exceedingly thin houndstooth coat. I wanted to look powerful. Because powerful was what I wanted to be.

So it was that a photograph of Paulina Porizkova wearing an outfit from Donna Karan’s first solo collection struck me as a bolt from the blue. In this picture, Paulina is not smiling. This is a woman who does not live to please. She is far too important. Others live to please her. She strides purposefully down a New York City street, her long hair spilling onto the broad shoulders of her all-black ensemble: bodysuit, clingy skirt, sleek boots, tiny briefcase. She is half-Catwoman, half-linebacker, and everything I ever wanted to be.



And so, I ask you, what choice did I have? I headed straight to Bergdorf’s. The bodysuit was all I could afford, so I improvised with a long, black look-alike skirt from a tiny storefront in the East Village. Here, finally, was my fantasy of myself come true, a wool crepe jersey suit of armor. Like a knight of old, I donned it for battle. It served me during countless demoralizing encounters with employment agencies on obscure subway lines. And cheered me through an endless round of typing classes recommended by said agencies. And protected me—literally—at my first real job, with an exceedingly strange Wall Street publisher whose quixotic, pre-Internet dream was to compile a photographic archive of the presidents, prime ministers and finance ministers of every single country in the world. As I snuck into various post-coup consulates and surreptitiously photographed the photographs of these leaders hanging on their waiting room walls, I knew it was only my Donna Karan bodysuit, my Robert Clergerie high heels (which I could actually run in), and a pair of oversized sunglasses that kept me from being identified and possibly arrested by the Burundi secret police, among others. More importantly, in my own, jury-rigged version of the eighties’ power suit, I maintained my dignity, precisely as my mother had instructed.

After quitting that job, I spent the next fifteen years in the field of art history, huddled over images of the exemplary clothing strategists of the past, from the cross-dressing Joan of Arc to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose teaspoon earrings and tomato can brassiere made her a living Dada objet. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of my Donna Karan bodysuit. I think I tried to remove the padded shoulders at some point, or perhaps the snaps fell off. Or maybe it disappeared the moment it was no longer needed, the moment I was ready to take off the armor.

I spent last fall in Paris. Though I write novels these days, I remain enamored of art. The Dada show at the Pompidou thrilled me to the bone. Smack in the center of it was a photograph of the marvelous Baroness Elsa, which I was at pains to point out to my two young daughters. Not that they needed any instruction in the art of power dressing. Climbing up the Eiffel Tower after dark, their long hair streaming behind them, they’d be oblivious to the cold winds whipping up the fallen leaves in the Champ de Mars, once the training ground for Napoleon’s troops. In their preferred Los Angeles wardrobe of swingy minis, cotton tees and flip-flops, they were ready to conquer the world. As my husband, a native of Buffalo, shuddered, I had to smile. At the tender ages of eight and eleven, what my daughters already know—without ever having met my mother, their grandmother—is that true invulnerability is a function of mind over matter.