“When our first lady Jacqueline Kennedy brought her unique sense of style and personal fashion to the White House, a lot of her couture garments had this clever little feature…” my mother paused as she addressed the audience of PTA ladies.
“ … this model is my own little girl,” my mother confided cheerfully, her voice booming as it was amplified through the microphone, “… and I just want to show you how I used one of Jackie Kennedy’s ideas when I made this dress …”
Mama put the microphone down on the lectern with a surprisingly loud pop and instructed me to raise my left arm and turn toward the audience as she probed in the area of my armpit. I froze in horror.
A few weeks earlier, our first grade class at Alameda’s Paden Elementary School had been sent home with a dittoed announcement of the spring fashion show. I couldn’t wait to bring the announcement home to Mama, but, of course, she was a step ahead of me. As president of the PTA, the fashion show had been her idea plus she was serving as Mistress of Ceremonies.
In the early '60s, my mother made all of my clothes. At J.C. Penney, Capwell’s and Montgomery Ward, we bypassed the ready-made clothing and headed straight to the large fabric and notions section that was standard in department stores in those days.
I loved wandering through row upon row of upright bolts of fabric; myriad displays of buttons and rainbows of thread. We always started by leafing through the monumental pattern books — always Simplicity or McCall's. I liked how each pattern’s cover illustration showed the model stylishly elongated and elegant. Mom liked how the drawings depicted every dart and seam, so she knew how complicated the sewing job would be.
For my fashion show dress, we selected lavender gingham with white rickrack and a pattern for a straightforward dress with modest puff sleeves and a bow at the back. I was a bit disappointed. I’d have liked a proper Easter dress with a few ruffles, some lace and a crinoline, but we weren’t a churchgoing family. I knew it would become a school dress, so it didn’t need to be fancy.
The day before the show, I was excused from the classroom to participate in a rehearsal. A temporary stage was set up with a catwalk projecting into the seating area, just like a real fashion show. My mother was at the podium practicing her speech. With pride I told my classmates that the lady with the microphone was my mama.
Mama instructed all of us models how to walk onto the stage, when to turn and when to pause. I wanted to be the best. When it was my turn, I maintained good posture, slowed my pace and was conscious that I was probably showing off too much.
The next day, the models were lined up in our makeshift backstage area, which was the hallway outside the community room. I was almost beside myself with anticipation. Mama tugged my dress into its final adjustment then hurried out to the stage to warm up the audience and get the show started. I heard her introduction; her voice sounded so professional. The PTA ladies laughed at all the funny parts and applauded with enthusiasm.
As she called each child to the stage, my mother described the outfit and then supplied a special ad-libbed embellishment. “I think Charlotte looks just as cute as a button in her pinafore — don’t you?”
I heard her announce my name and before I knew it, I was standing on the stage — all eyes upon me — as Mama felt around for the zipper tab under my arm.
“It looks like an ordinary seam, but when you pull the tab …”
I was immobile with mortification. Is this really happening to me?
As Mama described the hidden zipper, she proceeded to unzip my dress, exposing me in my slip to all of the PTA ladies. I couldn’t be sure, but thought I heard several gasps coming from the audience. How could my own mother do this to me?
I was too stunned to move. All I knew was that my dress was still unzipped and my mother was back at the lectern, with a big nervous smile on her face. She gestured a grand “out and back” signal to me, rather like the judge at a dog show. I walked slowly to end of the runway, paused, turned, and came back, all with my left arm still in the air, and my dress hanging open, like an obedient zombie.
To this day, I still don’t know if being unceremoniously unzipped in public was as bad as my little 7-year-old mind thought it was at the time. The experience certainly put me off modeling as a career.
And to be fair, the perceived shame of that moment is far outweighed by the dozens of wonderful, unique dresses that were made just for me — red plaid dresses for the first day of school, dresses with one-of-a-kind buttons, pastel dresses for birthday parties, velvet dresses for the holidays, dresses with special appliquéd pockets, hand smocking and embroidery and even a few ruffled ones.