Merkl in her madras jacket. Photo: Meg Merkl
Fashion Week is upon us once again. For some it’s a showcase for what color will be the new black, for others it’s a boost to our city’s economy, and for those who frequent lower Manhattan, it’s a chance to see models roaming the streets en masse. But for me, the seven runway-centric days are a reminder of how fashion helped turn a girl from the Bronx, whose wardrobe consisted of Lee straight leg jeans, a T-shirt and, to complete the ensemble, a hoodie from Modell’s, into a woman who knows her way around Manhattan — in Chanel loafers no less. There were, however, a few detours along the way.Prepped for Work
The first day of my NYC professional life began in a chic black suit with a peplum jacket and pencil skirt. As the assistant to the advertising creative director at a prestigious/conservative department store, I thought I was dressing for the job I wanted. Before my boss finished saying, “Coffee, milk, two Sweet ‘n Low,” I felt like an ink stain on the company’s pink and green tableau.
My revelation coincided with the newly-published “The Official Preppy Handbook.” Indeed, I had reading to do, especially about something called “madras,” which I’d never heard of.Cyndi? Madonna? Is That You?
Jumping ahead five years, I was a copywriter at a major ad agency, who dressed like an extra in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” because “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”
My favorite outfit was as dizzying as a quick-cut video on MTV: a white lace blouse with a black camisole underneath; a black crinoline Betsy Johnson skirt with a swirl of pink ribbon at the hem; black stockings with a white design that looked like graffiti; and black low-heeled boots that folded over at the ankle to reveal a red band, which resembled flower pots.
I piled on so much chunky jewelry that if I held my arm out to hail a cab, it actually looked like I was about to yell: “Five for a dollar.”Sorry For Your Loss
I spent the last half of the ‘80s and early ‘90s fielding the question, “Who died?” My Black Dahlia phase kicked off when I switched jobs to an agency in Greenwich Village. Although a bit drab, the comforting thing about having a Morticia Addams wardrobe was that no matter what pieces I put on, I always matched.T Is For Shirt
I became a mother in the latter half of the ‘90s. Others may have smelled like teen spirit, but my scent was baby puke. It was clear that from then on, especially during the playground years, I needed a basic and nonthreatening uniform.
I reverted to my jeans and T-shirt look, but to distinguish myself from the person who once sat on stoops in her outer borough, my pants and cotton tops were labeled DKNY, Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren.Everything Old Is New Again
By the time both my son Luke and his younger sister Meg were in school full time, I desperately needed a change of costume, which I took literally.
I’d always had a soft spot for vintage clothing thanks to photos of my mother in her WWII stylings, so shopping was done almost exclusively at stores with the word “antique” in the name. I enjoyed the attention garnered by my ‘nother-time-and-place appearance, until one day on the subway a teenage girl asked if I was in a play. Upon hearing “no,” she made what I chose to believe was a complementary comparison between myself and her long-gone great-grandmother.The Look For Less (Then More)
A few years into the aughts, I decided it was time to stop treating fashion like a novelty act and start dressing like a grown up. The women in the neck of my Upper East Side woods, however, often wore things I saw in Town & Country with the indicator: price available upon request.
I had to ease into designer adulthood by favoring consignment stores like Second Time Around, Encore and Michael’s, where I procured the aforementioned Chanel loafers.
By 2010, when Lisa Birnbach celebrated the 30th anniversary of her first preppy tribute with the updated, “True Prep,” I had invested in a number of first-hand, high-end pieces of my own.
I always get compliments when I wear my madras jacket.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Back to Work She Goes” and
“Fat Chick,” for which a movie is in the works.