Getting into the spirit at Theatreworks Silicon Valley’s New York — themed fundraiser, we took our seats in the auditorium for the auction. Theater trips to New York and London, and a visit to Washington, D.C., with lunch in the private Capitol Hill dining room, were tempting. I held up my paddle a couple of times, only to be outbid.
But when the auctioneer touted a Couture Fashion Week package for two, including front-row seats at three fashion shows, a two-night stay at a Times Square hotel, red carpet photo ops with designers and models, and a gift bag, my paddle sat in my lap.
“I used to get paid to do that,” I said to the woman on my right, recalling memories of crowded showrooms followed by late-night writing.
My career as a fashion editor is not something I talk about with pride. However, my entrée into full-time journalism was through the clothesline. Never mind that I knew next to nothing about fashion. After all, I graduated from Oberlin in the ’60s. But one day the editor of the Contra Costa Times called me to come in for an interview. I wore a skirt and a jaunty cap, and I was hired. I wrote about fashion for seven years, first at the Contra Costa paper, later at the Oakland Tribune, but I always introduced myself as a journalist, never as a fashion editor.
Yet there is another side to my background. My immigrant great-grandfathers were tailors. My grandmother owned two dress shops. Her brother and two brothers-in-law were in the rag trade. And through genealogical research, I just discovered that Dorothy Stern Kraus, a recently deceased San Francisco fashion maven, was a second cousin on my father’s side. We probably met, but I had no idea we were related.
I’m sure Dorothy and my other relatives weren’t defensive about their fashion connections, so why should I be? After all, I enjoyed the perks: skirts from Cousin Morrie and Florida sportswear from Uncle Morton. But the rag trade side of the family was not something I talked about. Certainly not at Oberlin.
Instead, I talked about my father’s legacy; he was in the book business. His dinner-table conversation was filled with anecdotes about authors and celebrities — when he wasn’t mouthing off about Sen. Joseph McCarthy. My lifelong liberalism and decision to become a journalist are a result of his influence.
I never thought becoming a fashion editor was connected to my upbringing, but maybe it was. My mother taught me how to shop and how to bargain-hunt. Wealthy non-Jewish women, she said, purchased clothing at high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Smart Jewish women wore clothing that looked like it came from Saks, but at one-third the price.
I never lived up to her fashion standards. Even on her deathbed, she commented on a hat of mine that she didn’t like. Shaking her head, she said, “I wish I could take you shopping.” A day or so later, she said, “I love your scarf.”
“It was a gift from you,” I said.
Her terse reply: “That’s why.”
Despite the push-pull in our relationship, we enjoyed time together while I was in New York to report on the fashion collections. When Bill Blass showed his designs at the Pierre hotel, I reserved an extra seat for her, and she took notice of the women who peopled the society columns.
She occasionally enjoyed pretending she was one of them. Dressed to kill after we shopped for my first-time-around wedding trousseau, she suggested stopping at a fancy-shmancy tearoom.
“To look at us now,” she commented, “nobody would guess that we live in Queens Gardens,” the humble red-brick New York City complex where I was raised.
My mother — who didn’t see pride as one of the Seven Deadly Sins — taught me to take pride in my appearance. Taking pride, to her, meant boosting one’s self-esteem by looking one’s best. That was the message I tried to transmit during my seven not-so-deadly years as a fashion editor. I see that kind of pride as a Jewish value.
So yes, sometimes I take pride in my appearance. I even learned something during my years as a fashion editor. But to look at me now in my spattered gardening clothes or ratty red bathrobe, you’d never know.