Last week fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died. The fashion world sighed sadly at the loss of one of the greats, but I was truly heartbroken. I sat up late and chatted with my friend, Amit, about how hard this loss hit. It was like losing family which sounds a little silly, I know. Think of it — I’m a thirty-something larger woman living in the Midwest. Yes, I do makeup and I love style, but I’m also a writer and and a victim’s advocate. I don’t have much opportunity or reason to dress in designer garments, nor do most of them fit me well. Oscar de la Renta pieces really weren’t in my budget, financially or lifestyle-wise, and yet there I was crying softly knowing that there would simply be no more of his beautiful work in this world. I cried, I grieved, I felt loss because for me Oscar de la Renta represented more than just flawless femininity and design. Oscar de la Renta factored into my childhood and had been my gateway to style.
Growing up my family didn’t have a whole lot. I don’t really remember ever feeling poor (we always had decent cars, a nice house, food on the table, etc.) but I know now as an adult just how hard my parents worked to make sure we had what we needed. We were a one income home and neither my brother nor I were particularly healthy kids. My father left the house every morning at three to drive two hours to work in an automotive factory to provide for us. When Chrysler nearly tanked in the 80s, my parents spent a white-knuckled few months trying to make sure they didn’t lose their home. I don’t remember the struggles. I think the worst thing that I recall was wearing a yard sale coat and getting teased for it by kids on the school bus, but these kids teased me for everything so it was no big deal. In fact some of the memories connected to the struggle to stay above water are actually pleasant ones in to me. Specifically, the sound of my mother’s sewing machine.
My mother sewed. She was (and is) still very good at making things. During lean years she would come up with things that she could do to bring extra income into the home. She made dolls for awhile, among other things. She also made a lot of our clothing which was not only cost-effective, but meant that I had custom made pieces. Not a lot of kids could say that. Even when financial times improved for our family she still made a great deal of our clothes, especially fancy party dresses for junior high and high school dances. This is where Oscar de la Renta entered my life as one of his patterns for Vogue ended up in my mother’s hands and, after several measurements and some pinning that I was less than patient for, I had a pale blue brocade party dress with puffy sleeves and a fluffy, girly pouf of a skirt. It was nothing like the other girls were wearing and yeah, I got a little bit of teasing from the so-called cool girls with their over-priced bridal store dresses, but I felt beautiful. Me, a gawky, awkwardly proportioned girl with curly reddish hair, too-round cheeks, and glasses felt absolutely gorgeous in that dress. Something changed in me.
I’ve had a few other Oscar de la Renta pieces over the years. A party dress picked up at a thrift store in college, a couple of scarves, nothing fancy, but each pieces made me feel wonderful. Subtly I found myself looking for his pieces, either in more accessible retail or the high-end items in thrift stores. I didn’t even have to think about them most of the time because I knew that they would always fit and always make me feel good. And while I’ll still have thrift finds, with the designer’s passing leaves a beautiful void in my world.
So as Amit and I were chatting we were also hitting up the internet, searching for bits of Oscar’s work that we could buy to help numb our grief. I happened across a couple of lovely vintage scarves that needed new homes (aka, ME) and he found some lovely jewelry. We were talking about how my mom used to make many of my clothes and that’s when I found it: I found the pattern of the dress my mother had made me all those years ago. Something else happened in that moment as well. I had an idea.
I would fashion myself an entire wardrobe of Oscar de la Renta by purchasing old Vogue patterns and making it myself.
Now, I can sew. I’ve made things for years, but I’ve never been particularly amazing with patterns. I’m also a little larger than most of the patterns I’m finding for decent prices on eBay, but I bought a couple instantly anyway. I haven’t yet sorted out the details, but I’ve decided that I am going to learn to sew from pattern better and then I am making a minimum of five Oscar patterns, from the 60s through the 90s. I’m going to learn to sew with Oscar. The first pattern arrived yesterday. I bought some more this morning. This weekend I’ll locate my sewing machine in the basement, go to the craft store and find some basic fabric and a super-easy pattern, and I’m going to try to learn how to sew better. I’m also working on bettering my body by watching my diet and working on getting my weight under control so that I can fit into some of the beautiful vintage patterns I’m picking up. It’s going to be one hell of an undertaking, but I’m excited. I think it will be fun and informative and liberating. I know that at the end I’m going to feel absolutely beautiful. It’s the least I can do in tribute to the man whose clothes first made me feel that way.
RIP, Oscar de la Renta, and thank you.