Big Girl Time

Mary Efron was one of the first women I ever photographed for Advanced Style. I met her while walking around New York and then she came to visit me at my job at The New Museum a few days later. She has always had the chicest style and sharpest wit. I asked Mary to share some of her life and style advice for  my latest book . Check out her essay below:

Big Girl Time

My life is the story of a woman and her wardrobe. No doubt an x ray of my brain would primarily show closets and racks containing my current wardrobe. Yes, this is the confession of an obsessive clothes piggy, but it’s also my way of coping with the world as I age and shrink. To paraphrase Audrey Hepburn– enchanting universal icon– looking my best is my way of dealing with the world; I interpret this to mean the better one looks the more one is treated respectfully and taken seriously. We who begin with diminutive stature and are over 70 years old have a special problem in obtaining Presence in an ageist society, and by Presence I mean conveying a sophisticated intelligent adult persona. While not presuming “to give advice” I am happy to share my strategies and tactics for coping with the transformations of the aging process, and making a happier and easier time of it.

What follows are my personal formulae for makeup, shapewear and wardrobe for my petite antique state, along with brief sketches of some famous personalities.

So many surprisingly tiny women have achieved colossal Presence with their personalities, brains and modes of dress: for instance, Gloria Swanson‘s character Norma Desmond so aptly said in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Ms. Swanson was, in fact, 4’11”. In real life Hollywood’s exotic glamour queen of the 1920’s did not have a problem with her age: “I don’t let age bother me. Whenever I am a year older, everyone else is too.”

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. de Mille”, Norma Desmond announces in that classic heartbreaking moment in SUNSET BOULEVARD; I get ready for my close-up every time I leave my apartment. At 75 nature needs a lot of help, and I have no problem with artifice over nature. Developing the skill of makeup application has been close to a lifelong practice; I’ always tried to assess needed changes as time advances. Obviously, the cosmetics industry gives us more than enough options. I’ve found an effective way to discover appropriate products is to visit a multi brand cosmetics store like Sephora and ask one sales associate to show me the various brands. Of course, I buy a few items and subsequently make purchases at stores that give discounts or have a points system of cash rewards, like Bloomingdales.

I celebrate the freedom to improve my appearance with a variety of products. While I can’t look younger I can look better and fresher. Madame Helena Rubinstein used to say, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

Madame Rubenstein was another diminutive (4’10”) force of nature whose accomplishments are astonishing, especially considering her background: born in a small Jewish town near Krakow in 1872 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Madame created a huge cosmetics empire, amassed a magnificent eclectic art collection, had palatial homes in Paris, London and New York, and was remarkably progressive, culturally and politically. In spite of her small size she wore masses of large jewelry, which looked stunning. The recent exhibition, BEAUTY IS POWER (Helena Rubinstein’s slogan since 1904), organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, was a revelation of Madame’s extraordinary biography.   The frontispiece of the excellent catalogue for the exhibition, distributed by Yale University Press, has the image of Picasso’s tapestry CONFIDENCE, which was in Madame’s posthumously dispersed art collection.

Now let’s consider underpinnings. “Flatter-U corsets do what you wish Nature would do—that is , a scientific equalization of the flesh,” proclaims a girdle ad, ca. 1930.   Modern shapewear has even improved on the corsets that had formerly conquered Nature, but experience has taught me I need help to find the right garment. Bloomingdales has a large inventory and, wonder of wonders, still offers the free services of knowledgeable bra fit specialists, who can also help with compressors, formerly known as girdles. Uniqlo has serviceable low cost compressors for everyday wear. Modern shapewear, if properly fitted, is comfortable, confidence building and yes, rights the wrongs of nature.  

Wandering past various come-and-get-it-boys lingerie boutiques at Bloomingdales, I think of blond bombshell Mae West, who was Confidence personified. Her outrageous character seduces with her brains and humor, lusty smirk and rolling hips, never doubting the power of her beauty to rule the male human animal. Ms.West is so smart and sexy, her ample curves squeezed into embroidered and beaded satin gowns, happily slithering toward the camera or her male prey on six inch platform shoes, which are always hidden by a long dress. Five foot tall with a giant personality, she would say things like, “When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.” Way before the feminist movement, Mae West turned the tables on men, treating them the way they were mistreating women. In the early 1930’s Ms. West once spotted an extremely attractive young man on the Paramount lot and said, “If that boy can talk he’s in my next picture. “ The picture was I’M NO ANGEL, the “boy” was Cary Grant, and she told him to “Come up and see me some time. Any time.” Playwright, screen writer, actress (on the stage since age 7 and 40 years old in her first movie), aka The Statue of Libido, Mae West had—and still gives us—a wonderful time, always beautifully and fully dressed, and under all she no doubt wears the very best foundations to be had.

At last we come to the final stages of our “armor to face the world”, more flattering and confidence boosting with just the right clothing and, most important, accessories. Style is eternal and fashion is ephemeral: I look for pieces that will be wearable for many years and span multiple generations, since I have a lovely daughter-in-law and glamorous granddaughters. My wardrobe consists primarily of items devised during the 1920’s—skirts, sweaters and trousers—and the 1930’s—shirtdresses, fitted sheath dresses, fitted jackets and swing or straight skirts. In other words, what used to be called All American Sportswear that can go anywhere, depending upon accessories. By keeping lines simple and colors on the dark side, either monochrome or harmonious, a longer illusion is created. Baby Jane moments are to be avoided, so all hem lengths must at least cover my knees.  

From the bottom of my heart, as stated by a slogan contest winning window dresser I used to know, “Accessories are your Successories”. Not only are they that idiosyncratic touch which set one apart, there is also The Halo Effect, known in retail display as the charm exceptional pieces can have of enhancing the beauty of surrounding items.

Hollywood studio designers and stylists of the past seem to have known everything about making under-sized women look like normal mid-height adults. Apparel for Judy Garland (4’11) and Natalie Wood (5’) exemplify this skill: outfits designed for these megastars made the eye travel vertically; eye catching details such as jewelry or embellishments were up near their heads, proportions were never exaggerated and fit was always perfect. Practical, timeless and flattering, the styling devised for Judy Garland and Natalie Wood is the mode I’ve followed for many years.

How we put ourselves together sends a message about Presence in this ageist superficial world, so why not use some artifice to advantage? Of course, take it or leave it, it’s just personal– and we are in “Big Girl Time. – From the book Advanced Style: Older and Wiser available HERE.