Miss Lorraine’s School of Charm and Modeling

(This originally started out as a short story, and was posted on my first blog, Dilettante’s Progress a year or so ago.)

When I was a child in the early 60’s, Jackie Kennedy was a national icon, and up until I was about 7 or 8 years old, we dressed up for dinner at Grandma’s, trips on an airplane, and holidays. “Dress up” meant stiff dresses with starched petticoats, black patent leather Mary Janes, and often little white cotton gloves. Here’s a picture from Christmas, probably 1962.

(That’s me driving the car, and my sister anxiously awaiting a turn.)

It’s not for nothing that I threw in the Jackie Kennedy reference above. For white, middle-class women my mother’s age, she was The Ideal Woman. From her taste in clothes, her slender figure, her bouffant hairdo’s and uber feminine mannerisms, she set the standard that upwardly-mobile women aspired to*. I don’t think my mother was the only one in our neighborhood who harbored visions of slender, cultured, tennis-playing, French-speaking debutante daughters to live out their Jackie fantasies.

The light years between that vision and the reality of the two daughters she had to work with caused my mother much consternation. First, there was me: chubby, clumsy, with fine mousy brown hair that looked stringy if not brushed constantly (note the Pixie cut in the picture…I spent my childhood pining for hair long enough to braid) and horse crazy on top of all that, forget the tennis lessons. My sister, though thin, was a confirmed tomboy, who hated those stiff dresses even more than I and who preferred to play with Matchbox cars and GI Joes. She climbed trees and did James Bond kid-karate with the neighbor boys (breaking her collarbone once while practicing being flipped one’s shoulder). We picked our noses, scraped our knees, had to be reminded to chew with our mouths closed and had no interest in the girly arts, such as walking up and down the hall balancing books on our heads like Hayley Mills in “Summer Magic.” [A more sexist piece of tripe you’d be hard-pressed to find.]

The sign outside Miss Lorraine’s School of Charm and Modelling must have glowed like a beacon for my mother. Situated on San Antonio Road, just north of El Camino (about a block from where Chef Chu’s now continues to serve up some pretty consistently awesome Chinese food) in a small 60’s “ranch style” shopping center, Miss Lorraines offered classes in “cotillion”, manners, ballroom dancing for children and, of course, modeling. We passed it on our occasional family trips to Sears for garden hoses and such, and soon my mother began holding it over our heads like a switch. “If you can’t start behaving like young ladies, I’m going to send you to Miss Lorraine’s!” she’d threaten. (This replaced the threat from earlier days in which our bad behavior would result in being sent to live with The Indians, an idea that actually held a certain attraction for me because I figured I’d get my own pony.) Probably the only thing that actually stopped her from signing us up for indenture there was the worry of being judged pretentious by the other neighbor ladies.

My sister and I managed to elude Miss Lorraine’s manicured clutches until the year I was seven, and a new upscale children’s clothing store opened up on Main Street (and I believe is still there to this day). Unlike most children’s clothing of the day, many of their ensembles mimicked contemporary adult styles. I particularly remember a couple of dresses designed to look like miniature Chanel suits that I regularly wore in second grade (of course not without commentary from my mother that they’d look so much better on me if I were thin). Presumably because she became an immediate and regular customer of this shop (ka-ching!), the owner asked my mother if she’d be willing to allow my sister and I to model some of the clothes in local fashion shows. But we’d have to take a modeling class to learn to navigate a catwalk. Eureka! This was the rock-solid excuse my mother needed to justify a set of classes at Miss Lorraine’s. I think she figured she’d get us in the door on the modeling pretext, and before you could say “foxtrot” we’d be enrolled the Debutante Intesive Study program.

I honestly don’t remember much about the modeling classes. I know that we went for 2 or 3 weeks for an hour at a time, and that there were about six kids in each class. We learned how to walk and turn and to SMILE! (dammit) and that we should want people to think we were having a good time. I do remember that my sister hated the whole idea, and would stomp across the dance floor like a construction worker in steel-toed boots.

Somewhere, there is the Super-8 evidence of our debut as child models which if I’m lucky has by now dissolved to dust. I remember the venue was outdoors, the day was hot, and that I was in a velvet dress and doing my best not to sweat. As part of the package, I was assigned to carry a brass trumpet. By the time it was my turn to go onstage, I was sweltering in the dress, and the trumpet felt as heavy as a bag of bricks. I remember little of my turn on the runway, but the home movies show a chubby girl with short hair in a red velvet dress shlepping that trumpet on her shoulder like a fireman rescuing an invalid from a burning building. My sister clomped down the runway, hunched over and with a scowl on her face, the very picture of seething resentment. (I always give my sister credit for being true to herself and honest about her feelings, regardless of whether that made anyone else happy or not. I’ve spent far too much of my life trying to be a Good Girl and to please others, and it’s taken me decades to cultivate some of the chutzpah and sense of self she seems to have been born with.) My mother did not hide her disappoinment well that we had not been transformed into Poised Young Ladies. I think we did one more fashion show after that, and then she and the shop proprietor gave up on us. If I remember correctly, the second time I was selected to wear a baggy flannel nightgown as presumably this would not point up my obvious chubbiness. So much for the glamour of it all.

Threats of Saturday afternoon “charm” classes Miss Lorraine’s were dropped not long afterward. Funny thing is, I can still do those model pivot-turns.

*Funny line from this week’s “Mad Men”: a bunch of male ad execs trying to land the Nixon for President ad account are watching a campaign commercial with Jackie Kennedy (speaking Spanish). One of the guys says, “Women will hate her. She’s like their prettier sister who marries The Guy and now gets to live in the White House.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.

An addendum: one of the commenters noted on the original post that she too had attended Miss Lorraine’s but that for her it had been a positive experience. I’m glad it was for some people, but I suspect that because it had been held over our heads as a threat previously, that pretty much poisoned the well for me.

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8 Comments

  1. September 15, 2007 / 10:01 am

    I guess one of the things that’s upset me so much about fashion, and made me give away half or more of my clothes and shoes, is the pain = beauty thing. Or its insidious sister, the discomfort = beauty thing. Or its even more underground alter ego, the limited movement = beauty thing. So that cuts out skirts for me, because I can’t chase my kids in them. I will do a below knee dress and flats for a wedding in my husband’s family next month. Why are women expected to be constrained or in pain to be beautiful? Men’s clothes don’t go there at all. Men don’t have to worry about foot pain, or having no place for their keys, or overexposure. Ever.

    I was truly fortunate in that my mom didn’t pass on the body-loathing tapes to me. She has always been an independent thinker, but I know she’s not immune to the beauty ideal. That said, I have had plenty of struggles with hating what I see in the mirror, and I know she has, too. It’s a constant daily battle, even under fortunate circumstances like mine, to get the cultural message out and the positive self-worth playing in my head. I think my struggle is currently mitigated by not having the time (kids, job) to fool with it.

    Congrats on moving to a healthy place, after years of programming. And your sister sounds awesome.

  2. Shefaly Yogendra
    September 15, 2007 / 6:32 am

    And it does explain it! Very funny read 🙂

    I always find it interesting that finishing schools are set up – even now – as a separate place to learn some skills pretending to be special.

    Over on my other blog, I wrote earlier about my school. (Link: http://laviequotidienne.wordpress.com/
    2007/08/25/india-workforce-in-progress/)

    We had social skills, table manners, public speaking etc all built into the Saturday curriculum. Why Saturday? Well in India, the 5-day week is a relative novelty. Everyone worked Saturdays in the recent past. Even until 1996, we got only alternate Saturdays off at work and then of course I left for 5-day-week (and tonnes of holidays) Europe.

    Should these skills not be taught to ‘finish’ a student for the world? Hmm..

    But then how would the class system thrive? 🙂 Which brings us back to the original point at which we first interacted.

  3. September 15, 2007 / 2:11 pm

    shefaly: yes, class is always the elephant in the room, even as we here in the US like to believe we live in a classless society. A couple of years ago there was a flurry of articles about “finishing schools” for business executives. I’ll see if I can’t dig some of those up. Might make for some interesting discussions.

    I’ll be over to your blog in a bit to check out that post.

    dana: yes about the discomfort thing! Have you read “The Beauty Myth”? I know everyone likes to pile on Naomi Wolf these days, but I think she nailed it with that book. A while back someone over at Pandagon had a post about beauty standards the “fetishization of female suffering” whether that be as extreme as footbinding, or diets, high heels, corsets, plastic surgery, etc. I still struggle with cultural appearance expectations but comfort is where I draw the line.

    And yes, my sister was and continues to be awesome, always marching to her own drummer. 🙂

  4. September 15, 2007 / 6:13 pm

    wonderful post — so evocative of that period. The photo’s great, so reminiscent of ones in my own album. You can probably see now that the little girl who is you is really quite attractive, no?
    A few of your posts recently have really been making me want to make time at some point to explore my own history with fashion, body image, etc. And I’m really keen now to have some of those old photos digitized so I can post them. As always, thanks for the inspiration

  5. citizen spot
    September 16, 2007 / 2:47 am

    And Mom did finally relent to the Yamaha minibike for moi. I remember her man du jour trying to teach her how to ride it, and she popped the clutch, and wheelied crazily out of control down the driveway at the stonebrook house. Good times. I don’t think Jackie O would have ever even considered such a thing for Caroline. 😉

  6. May 18, 2012 / 6:29 pm

    I was sent to Wendy Ward to learn the art of walking like a lady and such. Furthermore, my mother took me to several modeling agencies afterwards. I remember them looking at my face, moving it side to side, and measuring my weight/height and such. I was in seventh or eighth grade at the time. My mother was told that I had good features and a strong bone structure, but to bring me back when I grew taller. I never grew taller. I remember my mother measuring my height every so often to see if I grew. Even if I did, I would have never been the height of today’s models. So, I happily resumed my sports and did not worry about growing taller to become a model. I do remember Wendy Ward and modeling for the “graduation” . It was o.k. and I do not recall feeling embarrassed –just ambivalent, but I can still do those turns.

  7. Tanya Weller
    March 17, 2017 / 11:32 am

    Hi I am Miss Lorraine’s niece. Her and my mother are sisters. I remember my aunt sending me lessons in the mail. I loved the tongue twisters and everything else she sent. She is still a lovely lady, poised and confident. I have lived in Canada my whole life. She grew up in the city I now live in Regina Saskatchewan. She was ahead of the times fashion wise growing up. It is second nature for her.

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