Oscar de la Renta died this week at age 88. As I read his obituary this morning, it brought back a whole stream of memories. I knew about his designing evening gowns for every first lady since Jackie Kennedy, but what I remembered best about him was that he once dressed me, too.
In 1970, BC for me and AC for my sister, Jay (That translates to Before Children for me and After Children for her!) the two of us decided to do a two week European Adventure. I was in Tucson, Arizona, she was in Eugene, Oregon. I drove to Denver while she flew, after meeting up there, we drove cross country and spent two days in NYC before flying on to London.
We were girls from the American outback, but we traveled armed with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day, which happened to include a few helpful tips about visiting NYC. (In 1970 Rick Steves was not yet a blip on anybody’s travel radar.) We used our Frommer guide to book a hotel and a parking garage for my Chevrolet Vega and were utterly astonished to see it lifted skyward on a parking garage elevator. We also used the book to locate an upstairs consignment clothing store somewhere near Central Park. There, on a rack and for the princely sum of $40.00, was a full length, red silk Oscar de la Renta gown.
For me, it was love at first sight, and once I tried it on, it was even more so. As someone who was six feel tall in seventh grade, I had seldom experienced putting on a piece of floor length clothing that was actually floor length. (Ankle length was more the norm.) The dress had long sleeves that were long enough, even for me, and a somewhat daring slit up one side of the skirt that ended well above my knee. I loved the way the dress looked and the way it felt. Looking in the mirror I was astonished to see for the first time that red really was my color.
And so, even though we were ON our way to Europe rather than coming home, I bought the dress and stuffed it in my suitcase. Silk doesn’t weigh that much, right? On the trip, I only wore it only once. That was the night in London when we tossed out the Five Dollar a Day budget and splurged on a restaurant that specialized in lobster served eighteen different ways.
Back home on the reservation there wasn’t much call for a floor length gown, so the dress went into the back of my closet and stayed there. It moved with us from Tucson to Pe Ell, where there also wasn’t much cause to wear it. (People don’t show up in floor length gowns to sample the local vintages of white lightning at the Pe Ell Homecoming!) And, in 1975 when I moved back to Arizona, the Oscar de la Renta gown made the trip back there, too, loaded in a U-Haul truck.
I was selling insurance then. On a Thursday morning in early August, 1976, I went up to old Bisbee, to deliver a policy to a client who lived on Quality Hill in one of Bisbee’s steeper residential areas/ Leaving the house, I slipped on some newly applied street gravel, fell, and slid under the car. Once I crawled out, my stockings were torn and my ankle hurt like crazy, but I was on my way to a CLU class in Phoenix, so I stayed the course, got in the car, and kept on going.
I was in Phoenix all weekend long, and the ankle didn’t quit hurting. Finally, back home on Tuesday, I went to see another of my clients, an orthopedic surgeon who lived in Douglas. He looked at my ankle and ordered X-rays. When he got them back, he came into the exam room and announced, “Okie-dokie, time for a cast.” Naturally I tried to talk him out of it. “Isn’t it too swollen for a cast?” He looked me in the eye and shook his head. “I know you,” he said. “If I let you out of here without a cast, you won’t come back.” I suspect he was right about that. The cast went on post haste.
My parents were married on August 24,1936. That year they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the Elks Club in Bisbee. I attended the party, wearing my red dress and the cast. There’s a picture of me there along with everyone else. Because I’m standing in the back row, no one can see the cast at the bottom of floor length gown A few days later, another sister, my younger sister Jane, and I were the movers and shakers behind that year’s Brewery Gulch Days extravaganza. The program consisted of a series of sketches. My job was to sit on the stairs leading up to the stage in the high school auditorium and sing verses of Those Were the Days while scene changes were effected behind the curtain. I sat on the stairs in my bright red dress, with the long skirt draped in a way that covered the cast. And you know what? Even with the cast, when I wore Oscar de la Renta’s gown, I felt like a princess.
Writing these words, I’ve only now come to the realization that Oscar de la Renta’s creation, the one I bought at the consignment store in 1970, was most likely the unwitting inspiration for the bright red dress Anne Corley wore that fateful afternoon when J.P. Beaumont first laid eyes on her in Until Proven Guilty.
So RIP, Oscar de la Renta. It turns out you made a big difference in my life and in J.P. Beaumont’s, too.