On Fallen Idols and Fashion Icons

My mom idolizes Jackie Kennedy. I assumed this was because, as a journalist in the 60s and 70s, she wrote or edited innumerable stories about Jackie’s life, wardrobe, and shoe size (which is surprisingly large, my mama, Joanie, tells me). On our visits to New York she would point out the apartment near the Metropolitan Museum where Jackie lived, and the consignment store where she resold her clothes–often unworn, with the tags still attached.

But when Jackie passed away, while I was in college, I realized that it wasn’t just Joanie–EVERYONE’s mom loved Jackie. That day, in a tribute to her, a florist who occupied the ground floor of the funny, triangular, stuck-in-the-middle-of-a-forked-street building I had to pass on my way to class filled his windows with peonies (my favorite flower) and old Life magazine covers of Jackie (apparently, the florist’s favorite flower). Every time I walked past it, no matter how often I did, the friend I was with pointed at the window and said, “My mom loves her.”

Personally, I didn’t get it. It’s not that, as a curvy sort-of-blonde, I have anything against skinny brunettes. I love me an Audrey Hepburn, the actress and Unicef ambassador. But I knew too much about Jackie. Her breathy voice sounded so fakey-fake to me; it made her seem kind of annoying, not like a real person. And I read somewhere that she wanted to divorce Jack due to his repeated infidelities, but his father, Joe, paid her a handsome sum to stay married to him and not rock the boat and ruin Jack’s political career. That may be apocryphal, but I was a very judgmental teenager (aren’t we all?) and I just felt there was a word for women who got paid for their companionship–and it wasn’t First Lady. It seemed to me that the only things Jackie really had going for her were an excellent French accent and really good style.

Now that I’m older and mellower, I feel some sympathy for Jackie. She had a hard row to hoe and a lot of worries, and it doesn’t look like she had that many delicious meals, despite being wined and dined the world over. She was a single mom. And then there’s the thing about her style, which I now see in a new light. I know she had all the money in the world to spend on her wardrobe, but nonetheless, there is something admirable about a woman who works hard (she did become an editor later on), suffers adverse fortune, and still puts herself together nicely. Someone who puts on lipstick and gets the job done; it sort of shows  respect to the people who will be looking at you, and some self-respect as well. (And I write this as a person who hasn’t worn makeup in 7 days, so I don’t know what that says about me.)

Huma's wedding, in Vogue. She's wearing Oscar de la Renta, one of Jackie's favorite designers.

And now I find myself empathizing with another stylish, sad lady whom college students are probably writing off as one of many smart women who make foolish choices. Maybe you already saw where all this wronged wife chat was going, but I can’t stop thinking about Huma Abedin. I know, on one level, her husband overwaxing his chest and sending gross photos and cheesy puns to co-eds and strippers across the land is not as bad as having a husband who sleeps with movie stars and shares girlfriends with Castro. But Huma just seems to me like a woman who has always tried to do things right: she’s worked hard since the minute she graduated, she waited until she found the person she thought was the right man to marry–even though that took until her mid-30s and she probably could have married any number of Saudi billionaires or Wall Street bankers or Jon Cusack before that. And her choice wasn’t a steroided up porn star with a history of macho idiot behavior known to all across the land, like, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t even president. He was a smart, nebbishy looking guy who maybe spent too much time at the gym. And now look; after all her efforts he has humiliated and profoundly hurt her. As another pregnant woman of advanced maternal age, I really appreciate having my husband to rely on in this exhilerating but overwhelming time. And I don’t think I’d feel that way if he were tweeting strippers.

I wish there was something I could do for Huma, or some lesson we could all learn from her. But the best I can come up with is that the moral of the story is not to judge a book by its cover. Stylish women sometimes have to deal with ugly realities. And while I still admire someone who can look good while doing so, I realize that looking pulled together doesn’t mean you actually feel you have your act together.


Self-portrait, or, a boa having swallowed an elephant, from Antoine St. Exupery's "The Little Prince".

Still, I want a style icon I can look up to, especially now, during this last, large, muggy trimester of my pregnancy. When I lie on my back I am starting to look like the little prince’s drawing of the boa who swallowed an elephant. This morning I caught an image of myself walking past a store window, my stomach two feet ahead of the rest of me, and I remembered seeing the women in Juchitan, Mexico, on the isthmus of Tehuantepec, riding into the market on the back of three-wheeled carts, looking like massive mermaids on the prow of a ship, or like battleships themselves, sailing on proudly. In Tehuantepec, women make money by selling produce and handicrafts in the market while the men work in the field, and the the Zapotecs consider it a blessing for every family to have one gay son, who can contribute to the income by also working in the market, and take care of the parents as they age, much as a spinster daughter used to do back in the day. (I wrote about this culture for Travel+Leisure; click here to read more.)


Woman in Tehuantepec riding to market

The women I remembered were large and definitely in charge; they  knew they had economic independence, and any number of skills (including how to kill and cook an iguana, a local specialty), and no one was going to tell them what to do or with whom. I asked Joanie to dig up a picture of one of those women and she found this. Now, this lady is not wearing lipstick, but she clearly takes pride in her appearance–look at her embroidered blouse and her neat bun. As she arrives in the market, her stomach one foot ahead of the rest of her, you can just tell she knows who she is and she likes it. If anyone messed with her, he’d end up like so many iguanas before him. She may be just the role model we all need. I think I’ll fill my windows with peonies and photos of her.

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