My love affair with the little black dress began when I read Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. I was far too young to be reading that book, and I’m sure that my desire then to wear black as the ultimate in sophistication was a symptom of a deep corruption that I have been able to suppress until now, but which will erupt the moment I let down my guard. I know that I was too young because I had to wait years before my parents allowed me to wear the coveted black dress.
Wearing black was a rite de passage then, as was wearing nylon stockings instead of socks. Yes, stockings. Pantyhose had not yet been invented. And those nylons had seams up the back, seams which would grow crooked though the stockings were clasped in the grips of fasteners attached to stocking-belts, or, more conventionally, panty girdles. Three whispered warnings we dreaded hearing: “Your seams are crooked.” No need to specify; we knew which seams. “Your slip is showing,” is the second. The third is unmentionable, even now.
I’d bet that some writer has already made a case that the invention of seamless stockings led to women’s liberation and the moral decay of America by freeing women from the worry about whether their stockings’ seams were straight.
Of course during World War II, when stockings were so difficult to get, some women wore leg makeup, and they didn’t draw lines up the backs of their legs. When I was a young girl rummaging around in the stock of my grandmother’s drug store, I’d found leftover bottles of the stuff, and my mother explained its use to me. Because stockings were so expensive, she’d worn the makeup when she taught — but was reprimanded.
My wearing nylons came long before a black dress could hang in my closet. My first black dress was a sleeveless knit sheath, mid-calf length, with a tied belt of the same material. Sometimes I wore a blouse under it. And, as fashion demanded, I rejected the belt.
My college wardrobe included four black outfits, which my room-mate and I called Black #1 (the dress described above), Black #2 (a long-sleeved black dress with a bright red inset in the front), and Black #3 (a charcoal black knit suit with a boxy jacket that came down to my hips). The fourth, a black-satin cocktail dress, was worn so infrequently it was never given a number. Why so many?
The University of Pennsylvania dress code for women precluded our wearing slacks in any academic building, including the library. Skirts and dresses were mandatory for dinner in the dormitory every night but Saturday. I think that the administration took pity on any resident reduced to eating dinner in the dorm on the major date night.
Violating this dress code represents my single act of youthful rebellion, which was inspired, though not incited, by my professor of philosophy, Elizabeth Flower, who in a classroom aside noted that she’d been asked to leave the library because she had on slacks. She pointed out that the co-eds in short skirts were a far greater distraction to students than the one she presented. Then I had the temerity to try to return book while I wore slacks covered by boots and a coat that reached nearly to my boot-tops. “Out!” the librarian said. Out I went.
I went from being out raged to outlandish. I returned to study in the library on another evening, wearing a pink cotton blouse over a black half-slip. Successful in not being ousted, I returned another night wearing a red tricot and black lace nightgown. Again I was allowed to work at one of the tables — I kept my belted black trench coat on the entire time both evenings of rebellion.
In popular culture, the black turtleneck became emblematic of the Beat Generation, tamed in bourgeois language by the term “Beatnik.” The closest I ever got to a Beatnik was watching Maynard Krebs, the character in Dobie Gillis. That is, if you don’t count the day I spent with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky in their East Side apartment, which was (I’m embarrassed to say that I noticed) spotless. Even the windowsills were innocent of grime, a homemaking detail that I, ever vigilant against the city schmutz in my dorm room, admired. Neither man wore a black turtleneck that day, and I didn’t either.
But Hippies were in the ascendancy in the ’60s, and their fashion statements were a brilliant contrast to the jeans and Beatnik black turtlenecks: rainbow tie-dye, for instance. Flower power was a rally-cry. Besides being an anti-war slogan and a simplistic encapsulation of a philosophy of life, as expressed in fashion, flower prints became ubiquitous. Along with florals, fabrics were in color and pattern “psychedelic” — or, if you will, “psychedelic, man.” While I remember wearing a knit mini shift dress with fuchsia flowers splashed over a turquoise background, in photos from that time I wore Black #1.
I believe that the current trend of gender-neutral clothing had antecedents both in the black turtleneck sweaters and jeans of the Beatniks and the flowered shirts of the Hippies.
I was always conscious that my mother didn’t wear, nor would she buy for me, gray dresses or blouses—a color forbidden by my father who said it reminded him of coffin linings. I’ve never seen a gray satin coffin lining, but, doubtless, my father had, and who lay cradled within it I will never know. However, only now, as I examined my preoccupation with wearing black, did I realize that my mother never wore black clothing, a fact that did not register even when I went through her closet after she died.
When I thought about dressing for the 40th reunion of my college class (among whom, by the way, only my roommate had been aware of my library escapade), I yearned for Black #1. It would have been perfect with a string of pearls. I walked into the cocktail party and was stunned by what I saw: the women could have been gathered for an orchestra performance, about to go onstage. Only the missing musical instruments suggested otherwise. All but a few of us wore black. • 19 March 2010