BEST DRESSED WOMAN

by

Albert H. Morehead (1952)

Paris may still be the fashion center of the world — even New York’s principal couturiers privately acknowledge it, then hastily add “and don’t quote me” — but the best dressed women are right here in the United States. The Parisians design the clothes; American women wear them.

Now, it has long been known that we lead in well-dressed women. A waggish newspaper editor, a few years ago, ran a photograph of two young ladies and captioned it thus: “Chairman of debutantes’ committee consults with chairman of stenographers’ committee on Red Cross plans. Problem: which one is the debutante?”

But there is a vast difference between “well-dressed” and “best-dressed.” The truly best-dressed women have made a lifetime career of it.

Picking the world’s ten best-dressed women is a favorite indoor sport of the fashion industry. You’ll read the lists from time to time in your daily newspaper. The New York Dress Institute, which started the custom thirty years ago and calls its list “official,” goes by a poll of several hundred experts. Others have their competing lists, based on individual judgment, most prominently that of Cholly Knickerbocker (Count Igor Cassini), the society columnist.

The selections vary, of course, but not much. The same names occur and recur, list after list and year after year. In the last eight years — since World War II ended and fashion became popular again — only thirty women have gotten into the first ten.

A few names dominate all the lists. Seven times in eight years, first place has gone either to Mrs. William Paley, wife of the founder of CBS, or to the Duchess of Windsor. (For the last two years it has been the Duchess.) Mrs. Leland Hayward, wife of the Broadway producer, grabbed off the other first place and has been on six times. Mrs. Harrison Williams, who holds the all-time record for appearances on the list; Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr., the Duchess of Kent [Katharine Worsley], and Mme. Louis Arpels — wife of the Paris jeweler, and France’s one representative in the top ten — have made it four or five times apiece, with honorable mentions for the years they missed.

Of these thirty, twenty-six are Americans. What’s more, twenty-two of them have permanent addresses in New York City or one of its hoity-toity suburbs. Women from Washington, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other big cities are sometimes mentioned but seldom achieve top billing. The Duchess of Kent is the only woman who regularly appears on the list and never appears in New York; the others, even if they are not New Yorkers themselves, get there for some weeks or months during “the season”.

Typically, the ones who now live in New York weren’t born there. Mrs. Paley was Barbara Cushing of Boston’ the Duchess of Windsor came from Maryland, Mrs. Williams from Kentucky, Mrs. Hayward from California, and so on.

The lists don’t pass uncriticized. Is there a woman alive who isn’t certain she could be there herself, if she had the money to spend and the time to spare? “It’s just a publicity stunt,” they say…”They’re snobs — you have to be ramous to make the list.”…”The judges are mostly dressmakers, and they vote for their best customers.”

There’s a grain of truth in every grumble, but only a grain. Money’s important, but you couldn’t buy onto the list with a million dollars (it’s been tried, and failed); you have to look like a million. Certainly movie stars are famous (for their clothes, among other things), but they rarely make the grade; only Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell and Gene Tierney have done it. And though the couturiers do favor their customers, it's chiefly from admiration of their own creations, and they constantly pass up $20,000 customers to vote for the $5,000 kind.

So what does it take to be a best-dressed woman?

Let’s consider a composite of them all, and see what they’ve got. Though the ladies themselves may not like to hear it, the fact remains that they were all cut from the same pattern, even if their clothes weren’t.

First, definitely first, comes the figure. The perfect fashion figure is slender. Dowager Queen Mary of England gets a few votes every year, but that comes under the head of name-dropping. A best-dressed woman is size 10, 12, at most 14. Furthermore, she stays that way. As will be seen, she has to, to protect a tremendous wardrobe investment. Getting too fat is the unforgivable sin. Mrs. Leland Hayward’s lifetime nickname is “Slim,” and that might go for almost any of them.

Don’t look for Miss America on the list. Her figure may be our ideal in a bathing suit. Best-dressed women, though, don’t go around in bathing suits. They wear clothes. Under clothes, a missing curve or bulge can be supplied artificially when the costume demands it. (Nevertheless, we might mention for the record that every best-dressed woman without exception wears a foundation garment.)

Next, our best-dressed woman has to be rich. Oh, yes, she does. Very rich.

The experts all pooh-pooh this factor; Hattie Carnegie says, “You really have to spend very little. Why, I know women who spend three or four times as much as many of the best-dressed women, and never get their names mentioned.”

Well, it all depends on what Miss Carnegie means by “very little.” A best-dressed woman buys twenty to fifty new dresses a year (the average, admittedly, is nearer twenty), plus accessories, plus at least one major fur purchase. She needs at least one personal maid, and is more likely to have two. She has to travel and be seen at most of the fashionable places on both sides of the Atlantic, because if she isn’t seen how will anyone know how well dressed she is?

Necessary or not, there isn’t a woman on or near the list who has any money problems. Some, like Mrs. Foy and Millicent Rogers (Chrysler and Standard Oil respectively) are rich in their own right. Others, like Clare Booth Luce and Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and Mrs. Paley and the Duchess, have fabulously rich husbands. The movie stars can make three or thousand a week on their own. Though the fashion industry may point with pride to women who spend “only” twelve thousand a year or so on their clothes, their husbands are usually in such high income brackets that it would take $50,000 of gross income to supply even that much. And many of them spend $50,000 net, not gross.

True, money alone won’t do it. Our composite best dressed woman has a certain indefinable quality that you might call taste, or style, or awareness, or whatever. Most of the best-dressed women could be designers on their own. All of them without exception know at least what looks best on them. Furthermore, they know not only what is right for the occasion, but what best fits their particular mood of the moment.

Mrs. Luce, when she was a Congresswoman, once called for a certain dress; then, when her maid brought it, changed her mind and sent for another. “I’m going to get mad today,” she reasoned, “and that will pull the corners of my mouth down, and I won’t look good in anything gay.”

The appropriate costume isn’t necessarily the stylish one. Marlene Dietrich is on the Dress Institute’s list this year, in seventh place. We hear often of Miss Dietrich leaving her apartment in the Plaza, clad in pullover jersey, plain skirt, and polo coat, a scarf over her hair (which is up in curlers), bobby sox on the ankles of her famous legs and moccasins on her feet, trudging over to baby-sit with her two grandchildren while her daughter Maria Riva acts on television. An observer might ask, “What! This is one of the best dressed women?” Yes indeed it is; and what more appropriate costume could there be for a baby-sitter?

There was the time when Fira Benenson, the noted New York designer, was to go out to dinner with the revered Madame Chanel, in Paris. She sat, waited and observed while Madame Chanel donned her dress, pinned her belt into place, and announced herself ready. “Ah,” twitted Miss Benenson, “what your customers would think if they learned that the great Chanel adjusts her belt with a safety pin!” — “Pouf,” retorted Chanel, shrugging gallically, “without the pin there is no fashion.”

What the grande dame meant — and her colleagues and pupils agree — is that the final individual touch, the hitch here and the tuck there, is the secret of true distinction in dress. Don’t ask the best-dressed women what it is; they don’t know. Each of them serves as a pattern for millions of emulators. Everything they wear is copied faithfully, immediately, expensively, by thousands of beautiful figures with beautiful bank accounts. Still there are only a few dozen in the best-dressed class.

The typical best-dressed woman is not young. She is 35 to 40 years old, she is married, and she is living with her husband, even though the best-dressed women have averaged well over one husband apiece. No spinster has made the list in a decade; only two have achieved so much as honorable mention.

The average of 35 to 40 may seem high; it is. The fact remains that a woman under thirty seldom makes the list. Mrs. Vanderbilt made it at 28. A generation before, Mrs. Harrison Williams had done the same. These are merely exceptions to emphasize the rule.

Mrs. Henry Ford II, after some eight years as the wife of a rich and famous man, is just beginning to appear on the lists of the best-dressed women. No one doubts that Mrs. Ford could have assembled a complete wardrobe all at once without stretching her husband’s resources. This, despite the fact that best-dressed women often have hundreds, literally hundreds, of dresses. But the secret of style doesn’t lie in quantity.

The best-dressed woman buys her clothes carefully and thoughtfully. Every item has to be just right for her. And

 

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And largely due to the fact that the Windsors are likely to stay as many as six months on one continent. Most ladies of extreme fashion could get along with two or three trunks (or, in the manner of their set, sixteen or seventeen suitcases, which their social secretaries systematically number and count on and off each train, in and out of each baggage room).

Courage is an attribute of the best-dressed — the courage to defy time and fads. The New Look appeared, and some drape a longer skirt over the dress and let the dress be a petticoat; but there are some rebels — like Lady Mountbatten, who simply declined to lengthen her skirts and hide her beautiful legs, and she still wasn’t neglected when voting for the best-dressed women came along. The hourglass figure comes into fashion, and the best-dressed women merely tighten their belts around the same dress. There is suddenly a return to femininity, and all it entails is a frilly fluff sewn onto the bosom of something that was severe before.

Evening gowns are an exception to the rule; they are so often worn on special occasions, when an impression must be made, that one of our chosen ladies will ordinarily have fifty or more on hand and still add a few every year. But here the matter of memory enters in and every best-dressed woman has an incredible memory for when and where she has worn everything she owns. At a ball in 1949, the Duchess of Windsor danced by Castillo the designer, waved to him, and pointed gleefully to her gown. He had made it for her in 1939, but no one else at that particular party had ever seen it before, except the Duke.

Neither is duplication of costume a source of chagrin in the haut monde. Clothes partake so much of the personality of the wearer that the same outfit on another woman is still “different.” Mrs. Williams once bought a very striking hat, and that evening in a restaurant in Paris she saw another woman wearing the same hat. She caught the woman’s eye, smiled at her, and called, “Stunning, isn’t it?” The woman stared blankly, and Mrs. Williams thought she must be annoyed, until later — in the powder room — Mrs. Williams saw herself in the mirror and suddenly realized that at the last minute she had decided not to wear the new hat after all. “That woman,” Mrs. Williams mused, “must have thought I was crazy.”

With so much depending on the personality of the clothes-wearer, the selection of the ten best is peculiarly responsive to what a woman looks like today, not at the very moment. Again a good example is found in the case of Mrs. Harrison Williams. For eighteen consecutive years she was among the top ten, and her prematurely white hair was a breathtaking highlight of her appearance. Then in 1944 she had a serious illness, and a medicine they gave her had the unaccountable effect of restoring the brown color to her hair. Her clothes were no longer appropriate, and for two years she dropped off the list. The one time Mrs. Paley didn’t make it was in 1950, when she was shopping for maternity clothes.

While on the subject of shopping, we might observe that these ladies spend more time on it than they will admit. After all, they are women; and for women, shopping comes under the heading of fun. Often the expedition is involuntary; Sally and Sue meet for lunch, and after lunch Sally says, “I have to buy a new suit; come along.” So Sue goes along, and as often as not it’s Sue who buys and Sally who doesn’t.

Money or no money, the best-dressed women are as shrewd shoppers as their closely-budgeted sisters in the suburbs. They boast about bargains even as you and you. But occasionally they admit that the fancy couturiers are more than matches for them. Listen to one of them, it being strictly understood that this intends no reflection on the above mentioned Hattie Carnegie:

“You know,” said this particular best-dressed woman, who was No. 6 on the list back in the forties, “I never spend anywhere near $500 on a dress, but this season Hattie’s things were divine. There was one, velvet and satin — yummy! So I asked how much and Hattie said $695. So I looked shocked and she said, ‘That’s cheap.’ So I went home and called up later and said, “I’m only size 10, you can save a lot of velvet, how’s about a break on the price?’ So Hattie said, “Dear, why don’t you just buy the model?’ “How much is the model?’ and Hattie said, ‘Only a little more.’

“So next day I went in again and saw a chiffon. Perfect. I could wear it 365 days a year. That vel-vet-and satin was only good for two-three months. So when I asked how much she said $465, and you see how she’d softened me up? I bought it.”

The only one of the group who doesn’t have these problems is Mr. Richard Halliday, whom you know better by her stage name — Mary Martin. Mary, uniquely, made the list in 1950. What made her selection unique is that her husband buys her clothes.

This one exception aside, Mary Martin is quite typical of the best-dressed woman. She learned, the hard way, that it is more important that the clothes suit her than that she fit the fashion. Mary has a swanlike neck, lovely but long, for years, Broadway and Hollywood designers tried to drape and hide it. Then the “French” couturier Mainbocher (born a Midwest American, named Main Bocher) got hold of her. He lifted her hair and lowered her neckline and showed her neck, and she made the list. Both Hallidays have loved him ever since.

Similarly, the Duchess of Windsor looks well in blue, so she blandly wears it where fashion would dictate black. Mrs. Paley gives similar preference to pink. “Slim” Hayward is known for her marvelous slacks, Mme. Arpels for her severely tailored suits.

Milliners have no reason to love the best-dressed woman. They uniformly wear small, unobtrusive hats. You can’t see the Duchess of Windsor’s, they’re so tiny, and Mrs. Paley goes even further — she doesn’t wear hats at all. A striking hat, like a pretty face, is all very well in itself, but how would you know a woman’s well dressed if something draws your attention away from her costume?

Furs are the principal item of expense, and here the ladies’ shopping genius is best evidenced. They anticipate the trends. They pick furs that will have high trade-in values when the time comes to change. And they own an average of ten or twelve major furs apiece — full-length coats in sable, mink, beaver, broadtail, lynx, and perhaps a seal; evening wraps in ermine and perhaps chinchilla; stoles and jackets and capes and neckpieces. They figure about $10,000 a year in purchases less trade-ins, and some go much further.

Perhaps the average woman can’t even dream about such extravagance, but in those who make the list there is one quality equally possible to any woman: absolute impeccability, an invariable band-box neatness and freshness. They are meticulous in personal daintiness, their masseuses call daily, and they visit their hairdressers once or twice a week. This care extends to every detail of their clothes, but there, with their enormous wardrobes, they all require help, None but has at least one personal maid whose job it is to care for her clothes. Cleaning bills may be enormous, but woe to Fifi if she puts out a dress on which there is a spot. Closets are veritable filing systems, but with every gown, every suit, every dress carefully protected; the packing of a trunk is a work of art.

Jewelry doesn’t count. For one thing, they don’t buy it; it comes in the form of Christmas and birthday and anniversary presents. Secondly, it isn’t characteristic of the best-dressed women. Most of them have jewelry, but they wear it sparingly and insist that it be distinctive rather than imposing. The Duchess has made her jeweled cross a virtual trademark. The women who get enough votes to make the list but whose names don’t figure because they are too closely related to the industry — Janet Gaynor, wife of the designer Adrian, and Valentina, a designer in her own right — have both identified themselves with special jewels. Janet with garnets and Valentina with jeweled ribbon fobs. Most of the elect, when they choose to make a splash with stones, wear costume jewelry that couldn’t possibly be confused with the real thing.

The best dressed-women because they like to. The old saying is that “Clothes make the man.” The best-dressed women are so smart they don’t need special clothes to make any man they want. When an interviewer called Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt to get some material for this article, reminding her that she is “on the list,” she answered, “Yes, isn’t that a scream? Why they put me on I can’t imagine. I just dress to please myself.” Unwittingly she hit on one of the prime secrets. She could never do so well to please somebody else.

Nevertheless friend husband — the man who pays for all this, more often than not — is usually quite pleased. He swells with pride when he sees the little woman’s name in his favorite newspaper once a year, and while he modestly wards off the plaudits of his friends at the club, his hello kiss is considerably warmer when he gets home that night. One of New York’s charming matrons was known to howl with anguish when her Journals arrived and she wasn’t mentioned on the list. A friend sought to console her: “You know it doesn’t really mean anything,” said the friend. “Doesn’t mean anything!” screamed our heroine. “It means anyway twenty thousand dollars I could get next year out of that tightwad I’m married to.” But next year she took anticipatory precautions and prettily begged Cholly Nickerbocker to put her on his list. Cholly prettily obliged.


WOMEN ON THE BEST-DRESSED LIST IN LAST EIGHT YEARS

Name

Number of Times

on List

On Latest List
Duchess of Windsor 7 Yes
Clare Booth Luce

3

 
Mrs. Stanley Mortimer  3  
Mrs. Byron Foy 6 Yes
Mrs. Millicent Rogers 4  
Mrs. Lawrence Tibbett

1

 
Mrs. George Schlee (Valentina) 1  
Mrs. Harry Hopkins 1  
Rosalind Russell 1  
Mrs. Robert Sarnoff 1  
Mrs. Howard Hawks 5  
Mrs. Michael Phipps  1  
Mrs. Andre Embiricos 2  
Mrs. Harrison Williams 4  
Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart 3  
Mrs. S. Kent Legare 1  
Mrs. William Paley 6 Yes
Mrs. Thomas Shevlin 1  
Mrs. John C. Wilson 1  
Mrs. Geoffrey Gates 1  
Mrs. William Wallace (Ina Claire) 1  
Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt 2 Yes
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. 3 Yes
Duchess of Kent 3 Yes
Mme. Louis Arpels 3 Yes
Mrs. Richard Halliday (Mary Martin) 1  
Mrs. Kingman Douglass 1  
Irene Dunne 1 Yes
Marlene Dietrich 1 Yes
Mrs. Charles MacArthur 1 Yes