In Other Words: The siren call of the little black dress
Published 5:55 am, Thursday, April 30, 2015
My mother had style. She had flair. My dad affectionately called her "The Siren" long before I understood what the word meant. That's because she dressed in black. To her, black was chic. Black was sensual. Black was correct.
"You can never go wrong with the little black dress," she had drummed into my head.
Little did she know that some of my "wrongest" moments happened during a few of my black dress phases. At age 20, I leaned over a table in a dim Manhattan bistro, and stared into the eyes of a handsome cad who plied me with wine and ordered dinner in perfect French. I looked alluring in my black dress -- the very one my mother made me buy at Saks because she had said: "It's very proper."
Proper my foot. The dress was to die for. That cad took one look at the plunging neckline with a hint of cleavage and spilled his burgundy all over his tie. Men couldn't contain themselves. I turned heads in that dress. I was perceived as mysterious and provocatively wicked. Like my mother, I, too was fast becoming a Siren.
Her wardrobe consisted of an array of black clothes, all respectively seductive. The only time she deviated from her "noir chic" was at my wedding when she wore emerald green and broke her ankle tripping over a pat of butter that had fallen from her roll. As she was carried off on a stretcher, champagne in one hand, her green gown trailing behind her, her words reverberated through the Grand Ballroom of the hotel.
"I should have worn my black Balenciaga."
After that, her fashion statement consisted of only black suits and dresses adorned simply and elegantly with a string of pearls or a diamond brooch to complete the look.
While other mothers wore flowered housedresses, mine served breakfasts in her black silk robe. When I arrived home from school, she was baking cookies in a black and white checkered apron. Dining out, she wore a black dinner dress and kissed me goodnight in her black nightgown. Her drawers spilled over with black lingerie and black nylon stockings. The woman had a monochromatic wardrobe that defied imagination.
In summers, she bathed in black swimsuits. On vacations to tropical islands, while other women wore dresses in muted pastels, she sat poolside, nibbling canapes and looking engaging in black linen. Her look -- dark though it was -- seemed more genteel than somber, and though I always felt that I had a mother who was strangely different, others considered her ahead of her time.
It wasn't unusual that my road to adulthood was paved with an array of black dresses: long-sleeved, short-sleeved, cap-sleeved, sleeveless and haltered. When Vogue and Bazaar introduced their spring fashions in bold prints exploding in color, mom and I walked away from shopping expeditions with yet another black dress. I was the only girl to wear black to my senior prom. My bridesmaids wore black.
My mother thought that black spoke volumes -- a backdrop from which the personality could emerge and not be overshadowed by clothes that screamed: "Look at me." In black I felt unique and seductive.
I came to understand that black looked good on everyone. Blondes were captivating. Brunettes, sultry. When my redheaded friend wore black, her hair cascading down her back, she nearly caused cardiac arrest to every man in the room.
"Show me a woman in black," my friend, Harold says, "and I'm hooked."
With that in mind, I regularly rummage through my closet deciding which of my black ensembles I should wear. My choices are endless. And, though my mother is gone, I can still hear her voice resounding as it did when we shopped together so many years ago.
"A black dress can change a woman's life," she told me, as I wiggled my adolescent body into a form-fitting sheath that made me feel both beguiling and naughty. It was a time when life was fraught with exciting possibilities at every turn, and black helped it along. Now, years later, the little black dress doesn't seem quite as magical as it did when I stood on the rim of adulthood ready to take on the world.
But, to my mother, black was always sensational, and in her understated, charismatic way, she was a Siren, and I try following in her footsteps.
"Wearing black makes me want to dance," she once said.
And so, I slip into a black silk dress, toss my hair over my shoulders and I'm out the door. My mother taught me well. Let the dance begin.
Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.judithmarks-white.com.