Growing Up in Style is a series about the connection between fashion and local life in America, then and now.
To listen to Andrea Lee read this profile, click the play button below:
WHY do you have so many little floral prints that you never wear? my daughter asks, rummaging in a rarely visited corner of my closet. Upstairs in our family home in Turin, Italy, as usual, she trashes my wardrobe for vintage clothes – an Alaïa leather skirt, a Tom Ford velvet jacket for Gucci – which she’ll cuddle at. me for extended loans. “Stuff like that doesn’t look good on you,” she adds with girlish frankness, holding up a blouse from Italian company Frau Lau, with a tiny Liberty pattern of pale blue flowers. “Not at all your style.”
It is true, I admit, that it is not my style, which is monotonous, severe, but sometimes reckless, ideally with a twist. Yet it is also true that over the years I have made countless impulse purchases of clothes dotted with little flowers: Laura Ashley blouses, meadow skirts from street markets or French summer dresses dotted with little buttons. of rose. I rarely, if ever, wear them. They end up hanging behind my ‘real’ clothes, but when I occasionally catch a glimpse of these soft and close prints, I get a curious sense of contentment. Their significance dates back to the Philadelphia of my childhood, when my 11-year-old fantasies of identity and style intersected with the global vision of an extraordinary fashion entrepreneur and fellow Philadelphia compatriot. It was Max Raab (1926-2008), who The New York Times once called “The dean of the prep look,” and whose labels, The Villager and its junior line, Ladybug, in the 1960s and early 1970s wrapped American suburban girls in acres of floral cotton.
It was in seventh grade that I fell in love with Raab’s creations. The memory is alive: French lessons on a gray November morning at Baldwin School, a preparatory establishment for very well-off and very Waspy girls in Bryn Mawr, where, that fall, I had acquired a slight notoriety as as one of the first two black students. It was the half day before Thanksgiving vacation, when we were allowed to ditch our sad uniforms for street clothes, and the classroom was inundated with Girls suddenly in bloom– dressed in A-line skirts and pleated blouses in a dazzling mass of pastel tones, with tiny flower patterns covering anything but Shetland wool. I, dressed in an unforgettable skirt and cardigan that had passed my Quaker elementary school, was riveted. The sight of this multicolored plumage on my chattering comrades shone the spotlight on my alien status, illuminating what I suddenly recognized as a passionate desire to belong to their ranks. It was a heartbreaking moment: the first time I saw fashion as an elemental force, something that you had to learn to navigate or be carried away by, something that could reveal deep secrets about life, something that could break your heart. During my first months at Baldwin I had not known overt racism, but I had slowly acquired, day by day, the indisputable knowledge that all social doors were firmly closed to me. These flowery prints seemed to be part of an Arcadian garden enclosed behind these doors, but inside me a deceptive little voice whispered that if I had just bought the clothes I might be able to climb that wall.