Ladies Who Lunch
One of the joys of finding vintage clothing, or just playing dress-up in them, is to imagine where each garment has gone before; gilded ballrooms or dark banquettes? Smoky nightclubs or balled up on a hotel room floor. I have a leather jacket from my twenties nicknamed Big Stinky that certainly has some tales to tell… Anyway, this St. John knit dress caught my eye because the color is so on trend for fall and I could picture this demure, below-the-knee length paired with a bootie, a knee-high or even a cowboy boot. But what struck me the most about this dress is its place in the annals of WASP style and how far from that pedigree I am.
After browsing online forums of St. John collectors (yep, they exist) trying to find more context about this piece, I searched for info on the origins of the line and found it was started by an enterprising model who began designing knit separates for herself and then her model friends and eventually the line took off and became a mainstay at gold card (and gold carpeted) institutions such as Bullock’s and Nieman’s and Nordstrom. It wasn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story, but nonetheless it was the ‘60s and she was an entrepreneur so that’s pretty cool. However, what makes me itchy (besides my tragic wool allergy) is that her apparel – whether appropriated by or directed at—wholeheartedly embraced the ladies-who-lunch set; a through-line that reverberated via price point and ad campaigns, a cultural decree.
My experience with that crowd has been minimal and unintentionally defiant. Post-college, when I was saving up for a big move, I worked nights as a caterer at mostly charity galas, where wives greedily grabbed my goat cheese-stuffed beggars’ purses from my tray and their husbands just grabbed me, touching my back while they asked what I was serving and where I was from. Los Angeles. No, I mean where are your parentsfrom? LA. Cut to confusion as I turned to replenish my platter. Another time I was a plus-one at a Junior League charity brunch where I approached the check-in table to give them my name for admission. After I said Dominga, she said, “I need your FIRST name.” Replying that was indeed my first name, she insisted I spell and repeat the spelling of my name as she grew increasingly flustered and finally spat out, “I just can’t understand what you’re saying!” The unfamiliarity of my name, which, frankly, is undeniably phonetic, clearly made her uncomfortable and I walked away from that table feeling like an interloper, afraid I’d be followed to make sure I didn’t have a Ziploc in my purse that I planned to stuff full of cocktail shrimp.
But back to the dress. There’s no denying this is an incredibly well designed, quality piece. Ms. Marie St. John invented her signature “Santana” knit from a rayon and wool blend so that it would feel incredibly soft but still hold its shape. And 40+ years later, this dress is neither stretched out nor pilled but as pristine as when it first graced a shiny hanger. While part of me feels conflicted acquiring and selling this dress which is a sort of talisman of an exclusive social ranking, there’s also something that feels almost subversive about reclaiming this conservative uniform and offering it in a different context, for the lady who doesn’t lunch as much as she scarfs down barbecue pork rinds in between checking emails.
I also like to think that perhaps this dress is stoked about getting a new owner, someone who can bring a new life and point of view to an old pattern and way of thinking. Perhaps it will make its way to a fancy event, where the check-in girl smiles and says, “I love your dress!”