What was it like to be a glamorous society woman in New York from the thirties to the fifties? Lois Gould’s memoir Mommy Dressing: A Love Story after a Fashion gives us a taste of that world. The book is about her mother, designer Jo Copeland, who made clothes for well off women with lives filled with luncheons, meetings, and dinners on the town. Although Copeland worked all day as the sole designer for the firm Pattullo, she spent her evenings out wearing her own beautiful designs.
Although not well known today, Jo Copeland was a major figure in American fashion. Her initial inspiration came from Paris, where she traveled twice a year for shows, taking her entire wardrobe with her in several big trunks. “The rational was simple: she never knew what sudden event might demand the one pink chiffon scarf she’d left behind.”(98-99) But during World War Two, when the US was cut off from European fashion, Copeland came into her own. Her designs were meant to fit the lives of busy women who went right from daytime engagements to evenings out. She was best known for a dress and jacket combination, a “two piece suit,” that could “turn into a sparkling dinner dress with the flick of a collarless jacket.”(172)
This book is a story of mismatched lives—the daughter needy, the mother cold; the daughter a future novelist, the mother who bought books by the yard for decoration. But in the end, it does turn into “a love story, after a fashion,” as the subtitle says. Listen to Gould’s description of her mother dressing: “The thought that informed each decision, the agonizing reappraisals, the luminous effort of the final whole, the impossibility that the whole would have been right on any other body, any other performer of style, or with any single element omitted–it was all like higher mathematics. It took me half a lifetime more to acknowledge that this was also my mother’s life’s work, and that it too was a work of art. By the time I knew this, it was too late to tell her.”(88-89)