I woke this morning to an NPR story marking the forty-fifth anniversary of Dorothy Parker’s death. Parker has long been an idol of mine, both as a literary wit and as a smart, independent woman who struggled to live life on her own terms in a time that did not appreciate smart, independent women.
She may not have been your typical fashion icon, but then, there was little if anything about Parker that was typical. In almost every photograph I’ve ever seen of her, she wears the same wearily bemused expression — eyes wide, eyebrows high, mouth slightly grim, her hair just this side of tousled.
Her outfits always walk a delicate line between bohemian eccentricity and simple practicality, nothing too conformist but nothing fussy. And usually there’s a hat. Preferably with a wide brim. There’s a certain charm to her clear effort at achieving her own look without being too bothered. And no doubt, hiding behind the brim of her hat when she wanted. If only, I imagine, to conceal a smirk.
Fashion wasn’t often the subject of Parker’s famous wit, what with so many cultural foibles to bash. But when she did turn her attention to fashion, it’s clear she understood both the power and often undelivered promises of clothing in women’s lives.
There’s, of course, one of her most famous quips, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie” and one of my personal favorites “A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika,” which isn’t necessarily about fashion, but I like to think that it is.
Parker’s poems were more biting on the subject, juxtaposing the romance of beautiful clothes with her trademark skepticism of men and love. In “The Satin Dress,” which Parker admires for its delicate design and bold fabric and likens to a woman’s dreams, she ponders “Where’s the man who could ease a heart like a satin gown?” In the similarly titled “The Red Dress,” Parker compares her youthful fantasies of love with her heartbroken adult reality. A young Parker imagines herself in “a gown of reddest red, as fine as you could see” meeting her lover on a warm summer day. But the grown woman Parker knows the dress isn’t enough to fulfill the fantasy: “Now I am grown to womanhood….I have the silly gown.”
Dorothy Parker broke into an all-male circle, vicious though it might have been, long before anyone seriously talked about equality and smashing glass ceilings.
She did it too with a sass and style that was all her own. That’s a fashion icon to which we can all aspire.
So take some time today to raise a martini glass (no more than one or two) in her honor. Or at least grab a wide-brimmed hat and make snarky remarks under your breath. As Parker herself said, “A girl’s best friend is her mutter.”
- How Dorothy Parker Came To Rest In Baltimore (wnyc.org)