Archive for August, 2009

Vogue Submission

August 15, 2009

Author’s note: As an avid Vogue reader, I enjoy their periodic Nostalgia section which usually involves a lot of name dropping and is somewhat over the top in terms of its descriptions. So, when I drafted this piece about my aunt (all of it true), I tried to mimic this approach. When the main Culture Editor wrote back and told me that the piece lacked the “immediacy and emotional weight” Vogue readers seek, I was puzzled, What sort of immediacy  or emotional weight does a piece by Anjelica Huston’s sister about hanging around the movie set with Anjelica and Jack posess? At any rate, it was fun to research and write the piece and I have a great photo of my aunt taken at the time. Hope you enjoy it!

In the early summer of 1953, my aunt Judith Lanier Waldrop stepped off a train from hometown Washington, D.C., into the legendary hubbub of Grand Central Station—and a dazzling new life. She had just won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris contest and its grand prize of an internship at the world’s most influential magazine.  At five feet, ten inches, the 21- year-old, sporting a slim navy-blue wool suit—complete with the still-controversial short skirt of the day—and fashionable poodle-cut hair, was a striking figure as she strode away to her new working life at Vogue magazine. (Her father, Frank Waldrop—the famous editor of the Washington Times-Herald newspaper—had already arranged for her to speak with one of his employees, Inquiring Camera Girl and former Prix de Paris winner Jacqueline Bouvier, about the prestigious internship.) From that June in 1953 through December 1955, my aunt worked in Vogue’s offices, reveling in discussions of the toreador pants so hot in 1953, inspired no doubt by Papa Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; of Coco Chanel’s reopening of her fashion house in 1954, and of the exotic jewel-toned tunic coats that starred with Rosalind Russell when she played Mame on Broadway several years later.  

Barely a decade after World War II, America was settling into its role as a global power, deeply suspicious of the Soviets, who had detonated their first hydrogen bomb and rejected proposals to reunify Germany. Despite unsettled international relations, New York was vibrant with a renewed sense of possibility and ambition, and 1954 saw stock exchange prices break records set in 1929. For the statuesque beauty working in one of the world’s most glamorous settings, the sky was the limit. Every day, Judy would stroll down New York’s avenues, scanning the crowds for the fashions displayed in the pages of Vogue. Examples of the all-black, slim-silhouetted sheath dress with scandalously high hemline that hit just below the knee, large gold hoop earrings, and sable hats were everywhere. Nights at Broadway performances of Guys & Dolls glowed with a pageant of richly colored cocktail dresses designed with petticoat ruffles and transparent hems. Despite having grown up amid the whirl of post-war Washington, attending balls at the Stanford White-designed Patterson Mansion at 15 DuPont Circle, where my grandparents were a mainstay, Judy found New York City in the early ’50s another experience altogether. As glamorous as post-war Washington was, despite the entertainments offered by media mogul Cissy Patterson, life as a Prix de Paris winner presented an even more exhilarating world. 

Whether researching columns, accompanying senior editors to shows and fittings, or gossiping with other staff members, the opportunity to observe a resurgence of creativity after the Spartan war years was a life-changing experience that touched me years later. Judy took me to fabric houses in Washington, teaching me about the quality of the silks, taffetas, wool jerseys, and satin that she handled with such affection. The bolts of fabrics towered over me as Aunt Judy reached up and deftly eased one of them down to show me just how carefully the pattern was woven into the material.

Brought up on stories of my aunt’s years at Vogue and my maternal grandmother’s career as a dress and swimsuit designer in Hawaii in the ’20s, I have been entranced by fashion my entire life. Now 3,000 miles away from the East Coast, few things make me happier than sitting in the Southern California sunshine, inhaling the faint scent of eucalyptus here in Santa Barbara and poring through the pages of Vogue. When I study and admire the latest designs by designers such as Carolina Herrera, Prada, and Narcisco Rodriguez, I see channeled the same elegance of design and cutting-edge expression of what it means to be a woman today that my aunt must have felt in 1954 New York. Fifty-five years later, fashion is as exciting today as it was for the young girls back then. The only difference is that we as women are encouraged to be even bolder, even stronger, to shine more brilliantly as we come to terms with accepting our talents as our own, depending on no one but ourselves. With the inspiration of those women who came before and the designers whose vision helped them express who they were, we can take courage, plunging forward into the 21st Century—fearless. My aunt would applaud.

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