The “queen of personal shoppers,” Betty Halbreich from the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman’s, has been getting a lot of press recently. She was prominently featured in the documentary Scatter my Ashes at Bergdorf’s, and has been the subject of articles in the New York Times, the LA Times, and the British Telegraph, just to name a few news outlets. Not bad for an eighty-six year old.
What has gotten lost in her current fame is that Halbreich wrote a book in 1997 where she attempts to give women everywhere the benefits of her fashion wisdom. I bought Secrets of a Fashion Therapist: What You can Learn Behind the Dressing Room Door for a song used, and you can too. (It is about to be reissued, but given the classic nature of the advice I can’t imagine the content will change much.) Although surely not as informative as a private session, it offers a lot of food for thought.
I’ve read piles of fashion advice books, an old genre that is still going strong. What makes this one different from most is that it offers very few shortcuts. She doesn’t categorize women by size, body type, or style preferences, approaches in many other books. Instead she repeats over and over: don’t take anything for granted, try everything on, and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. In other words, this is not really a book that tells you how to look good in a hurry. Instead, she encourages readers to branch out and experiment.
Of course, the book would not be useful without some basic advice. Here are her bedrock principles. You should develop a wardrobe of core pieces, spending as much as you can afford on them. Do not buy anything, except maybe a wedding gown, that can only be worn once. Add to your basics with lower priced items, maybe in the “hot” color of the season, that are not meant to last as long. Take time to get clothes altered to fit you. Take care of your clothes and shoes. Learn to love accessories and discover how to mix and match. There is an entire chapter on how to wear black effectively, the only part of the book that I felt really screamed “nineties.” In a word, black can disguise figure flaws, poor construction, and even food stains. If you love it, though, find a way to accessorize so you don’t look like you’re going to a funeral every day.
Although Halbreich must have been in her late sixties when she wrote the book, she offers little specific advice for the older set. Two things that older women are often warned against, elastic waist bands and those special chains for reading glasses, are just fine by her. And while she notes the rage for hair dye, she doesn’t think it’s good for the hair.
Most of all, Betty Halbreich urges all of us to become better informed consumers. Educate yourself by taking a careful look at clothes, even those in the most expensive sections; never let anyone strong arm you into a sale; and if you need help making a decision, don’t listen to the sales person who tells you that you look fabulous in everything. Chances are you don’t.