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The World According to Weber: How the Crazy Summer Dress Code Saved my Psyche

Nancy Weber . Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

Nancy Weber. Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

Memorial Day: In the spring of 1954, when I was twelve, I shuddered every time I heard the words or saw them in the Hartford Courant.

Memorial Day parade!  Memorial Day cookouts! Memorial Day appliance sales! How could there be a holiday with Death in its very name?  Shouldn’t we be hiding under the bed?

I had no bandwidth to spare for long-gone heroes. I’d been conscripted for the Cold War, an unarmed child soldier who expected to die before the end of sixth grade. A Soviet hydrogen bomb would smoosh me as I cowered beneath my school desk. Or my blood and bones, poisoned by fallout, would dissolve with excruciating slowness.

If you think of terrorism as a post-Millennium invention, you’re too young to remember the Frightened Fifties. The terrorists weren’t just the Reds who pointed their missiles at us. Our own politicians paralyzed our hearts with their patently bogus preparedness plans. “Shh!” and closed eyes during air raid drills would save Beach Park School? Sardines in thin tin in the home cellar hidey hole would keep my little brother alive for a year? Pu-lease.

I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, a serene and secure hamlet—except that in the still of night, I heard the thrum of fighter engines being tested at Pratt & Whitney. On Avon Mountain, where we liked to picnic, an ICBM pointed its lethal load at the USSR, making us a target. I was sick with fear. I often couldn’t go to school. 

My parents were tearing their hair out. They sent me to a shrink. He ritually offered five candy bars and asked me to choose one (an edible Rorschach test?) He hooked me on Fifth Avenue, salty-sweet ahead of its time.  He didn’t fix my psyche.

And then my mother had an apercu. She made Memorial Day all about clothes. I can imagine her excitedly telling my father her plan. She would swap out my dread of the Russians for knee-knocking fear of the fashion police. The phrase wasn’t yet in currency, but the concept was huge in West Hartford.

On a mid-May Monday when I couldn’t go to school (Mondays were the worst), my clever Caroline told me to comb my hair—we were going shopping.  We drove to the sprawling white Lord & Taylor at Bishops Corner, a prototypical mall, exotic back in the day. Who knew it would help to ruin downtown Hartford, downtowns everywhere?

First we had lunch in the Birdcage. Don’t ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday morning, but I perfectly remember what we ate that day sixty-some years ago.  Wee crustless sandwich triangles, no two alike in bread or filling, were served atop a bright chopped salad in a wooden bowl. Sublime!

Then on to the shoe department—be still, my faithless heart, about to abandon Keds—where I fell besottedly in love with Capezio ballet flats.

They were supple on the feet and almost edible-looking, summer colors beguiling as the confectioner’s glaze on the petit fours at Lorainne’s pastry shop. The flats had a skinny bow at the top and a hint of elastic, like real dancers’ shoes!  I was an OK shortstop, but I’d flunked modern dance, let’s not even dream about ballet.

You need to know that when my mother was twelve, a girl named Frieda Lubachevsky, who lived across the street, was locally famous for compulsively wearing just-bought clothing. A winter coat her mother found for half-price in August?  Frieda wore it home from the shop, no matter the torrid sun. On that first Capezio-buying trip I found my inner Frieda. I wanted to put my sneakers in a bag and wear the glorious sky blue flats right then and forever more, at least until my mother brought me back to buy the pink. Or maybe next time the green?  Frieda, help!

“Oh, no, honey,” my mother said.  “You can’t wear pastels before Memorial Day.”

“What do you mean, I can’t?”

“It’s just not done,” she said—my rebellious ex-commie mother the painter, whose oils and sketches of nudes hung between her landscapes and flowers in our home. (1954!) She looked to our patient shoe salesman for corroboration.

“That’s right,” he said heartily. “The way a man can’t wear a seersucker jacket before Memorial Day. Or a straw hat. Before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.” He looked shocked at the idea. “Your lovely new shoes are for summer. Shouldn’t you be in school, young lady?”

“We’re on a field trip,” Caroline said. “That’s a charge, please.”

“But why can’t I wear them now?” I asked desperately, as the salesman peeled the flats off my feet and eased them into their tissue-lined box.

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  • Amy Hughes June 1, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Terrific, enjoyable essay!

    Reply
  • Andrea May 27, 2016 at 8:25 am

    I have the fondest memories of the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule- and also how pretty my Mom looked in her seersucker outfits – officially signaling the start of summer. Thanks Nancy for the lovely stroll down memory lane.

    Reply