The Thrill of Fashion


Thoughts on a beautiful summer day

Necessity is the mother of invention. I see them before me, Aunt Gitta and Aunt Esther, in the immediate postwar years. Sisters with quite different temperaments. They both laughed lightly and were messengers of novelties that they unloaded at our house like presents.

Aunt Esther had one of her many Schnauzers at her hip, and jammed her middle finger between his paws to compel his obedience. Maxi was a biter, and one first had to calm our own dogs, and the others -- Aunt Gitta too did not arrive without dogs.

And then, finally, once they had all found their places and sniffed one another: Maxi, be good! Sit! -- carefully setting him free.

Normally an American officer appeared with Esther and Gitta, having chauffeured them. Since the end of the war a department of the American military had been headquartered in one wing of their medieval water castle, because of the nearby radio station.

Our big living room filled up with grandparents evacuated from the city, friends and strangers whom a fateful roll of the dice had sent our way and given a haven with us.

Marlboros were passed around. Olga rolled in the tea cart with cakes and coffee, and an orchestra of laughter, fragments of American English, in the background, sometimes a few piano keys, hovering in the cigarette smoke.

I’m going to let in a little air, called out my mother, the only nonsmoker.

The moment the aunts made their appearance, their lips as red as roses straight from the garden, was like a sweet first kiss. The lipstick was called Fire and Ice. It was the invasion of Style and Elegance, Lifestyle, Tolerance and Joie de vivre, allowing me to grasp something I could never quite fit into place before. Despite all privations, despite the empty, bombed-out stores that stared at us as we passed on the streetcars. The law of fellowship, the collective spirit of rebuilding. Isolation as fruitless. The past cannot become the future until it is buried. A shared responsibility.

I ran upstairs, aflame with the spirit of this new aesthetic frontier. Plucking a necktie from my father’s rack, I wound it twice about my waist.

In the society of cigarette steam, whiskey, Bavarian sauerkraut with sausages from our farm, produced by the village butcher and the culinary taste of my mother, English, French and Russian mixed in with German and Bavarian treats.

In the background, the radio droned:

Ich nenne alle Frauen Baby,
und das ist mir so angenehm
”,

and

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

One did little dance steps and hummed along to be part of it all.

Aunt Gitta wears an American officer’s jacket over her wool skirt, bound together at the waist with a leather belt. On her shoulder, a corsage of fresh flowers. On her head, a Tirol hat at a rakish angle, with rooster feathers in its band, atop her rust-brown hair, which two combs suspend above her ear.

Naturally Aunt Gitta had a thing with the officer -- he really was so nice and so magnanimous. Esther was already married to a boring baron, and raised Schnauzers.

Aunt Gitta I recall with an head scarf made into a turban, and a woolen sweater over pea-green army trousers. She wrote the first pulp romances, which sold like hotcakes, though we were forbidden ever to mention them.

She is back living in Munich. At some point unbelievable laughter bursts out, people are pounding the table with enjoyment. Aunt Gitta’s tenant has been exposed as a pickpocket. The police forced their way into his room, where he had heaped up small stolen treasures: watches, rings, wallets, silk handkerchiefs, coats, bicycles, irons -- anything anyone might need.

In handcuffs, he bowed goodbye to Aunt Gitta: It was a distinct honor to live in your apartment, Countess. Unfortunately my business enterprise has gone off the rails.

He had not stolen anything from Aunt Gitta.

Thus today’s story from the treasure trove of that time in my life.