The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
By Dixie T Palmer
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only.
Fashion is in the sky, in the street.
Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.
Coco Chanel, 1883–1971
Chamberlain School of Retailing in Boston groomed young women for fashion careers. My article is comprised of fond memories of my two years at Chamberlain starting in 1966 — that was just yesterday right?
The school, founded in 1927, during my matriculation still adhered to a classical dress code — tailored suits or dresses, hats, gloves, and high-heeled shoes. Yet, these years from the Silent Fifties to the Swinging Sixties were ones of pivotal change in ideals. Our boyfriends were in Vietnam, the hemlines rose six inches to mini sizes, and everyone had a movement to promote.
At Chamberlain we lived in two worlds: the academic, where we strove to achieve our goals and the Boston student world of camaraderie and fun. I invite you to read all about it from a Chamberlain Girl’s point of view.
Dixie Tabb Palmer
Chamberlain School of Retailing in Boston, Massachusetts, was of a certain time and place in American life. While it no longer exists, it prepared me for my over-20 year career as a retail executive at first with Saks Fifth Avenue and then Neiman Marcus. But mostly it opened my eyes to the subtle, sometimes confusing and fantastic changes that were going on in the world of politics, society and how fashion reflected all that upheaval. After high school in 1966, I was accepted at Chamberlain School of Retailing. The school was founded in 1927 as a private two-year fashion/business college for women. But times they were a-changin: these were the early-revolution days of the Second-Wave Feminist Movement and it was important to me that the administrators of the school I attended were female. I wanted a woman-friendly career, one that allowed females to become managers, editors, or buyers and control the action, unlike the areas of law, engineering, and architecture.
My love of fashion began at an early age. As a six-year-old, I’d model my vacation frocks when visiting relatives. Everyone would o-o-o-h and a-a-a-h as I’d come out from the bedroom in my red plaid sundress and white hat and sandals — my mother was my behind-the-scenes beauty pageant dresser.
My admiration of style evolved from my parent’s approach to fashion. Dad wore brown wool-gabardine suits, white shirts with cuff links of gold Cadillac symbols (he sold Cadillac cars for a living), and a brown-beaver fedora. My mother channeled Jacqueline Kennedy with sheath dresses and pillbox hats. Now, I was ready to continue my fashion journey at Chamberlain where heels and gloves were de rigueur for girls matriculating the 1966–68 class.
After driving for hours from my hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, my father exited from the Massachusetts Turnpike to enter Boston’s Back Bay.
We were distracted by the city’s tallest landmark at the time: the Prudential Building in the 800 block of Boylston Street. My father turned mistakenly onto Newberry Street. I went crazy, marking the boutiques there with the Mary Quant dresses and skirts — I would have never seen a hemline six-inches above the knee in Harrisburg!
My Back Bay guidebook informed me that this two hundred-acre area was created before the Civil War by filling in an estuary of the Charles River. Wealthy Victorians had built their stately mansions here in a variety of classical architectural styles unified with a brownstone façade that reflected their Puritan sensibilities — having money, but not standing out.
Finally, we arrived on campus. My dormitory, Gloucester House, was on 269 Commonwealth Avenue across from the Parisian-inspired Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The mall was comprised of 32 acres of trees and esplanade connecting the Boston Commons Gardens and Boston University and was part of a parks system developed by Frederick Olmstead Law known as “Boston’s Emerald Necklace.”
We drove past the other girls carting boxes, their parents in tow doing the same. I quickly knew this would be the best city I could have chosen for my college experience. It was charming and there were over 30 colleges, including major universities and schools of engineering, arts, and music. I was in a young person’s heaven.
Inside of Gloucester House, traffic went two ways on Georgian stairways — fathers ascended with perspiration on their brows, heaving several suitcases and then descended, wiping their brows with monogrammed handkerchiefs. While they labored hauling their daughters’ overloaded suitcases, the mothers were directing from behind especially when there was a thump or mark left on the white wall below the stairs’ dado railings.
“How the Hell did this happen?” my father asked. “You’re on the top floor — that’s six flights up!”
“No, daddy it’s the seventh,” I corrected. “There are a few more steps up, this is Miss Driscoll’s room, she’s our assistant house-mother.”
“This is where the scullery-maids used to live,” he grumbled back.
We peered into our room and started to laugh. “It’s so small!” I said, “How are we going to move?” My new roommate, Marcia, helped me drag my luggage to the closet and hang my dresses while my mother took care of the drawers. We made my bed and I felt at home.
Soon, we were meeting my other floor-mates respectively (see photo L-R: Rosemary Lenahan, from West Springfield, Massachusetts; Marcia Kay Van Inwagen, Rushville, NY; JoAnn Willis, from Eliot, Maine; Gayle Esterberg, Ellisworth, Maine; Mary Elaine Monti, from Waterbury, New York; Judith Wrightman, from Woodstock, Connecticut; unidentified; and Donna Jellison, York Beach, Maine).
I heard them talking about where to ‘pahk the cah in Havad Squayuh’ or that someone was ‘wicked smaht’. I was in Yankee-land now and wouldn’t hear an ‘r’ or rounded ‘a’ for two years.
My parents took us all out for lunch at the Muffin House, on Boylston Street, which sold sandwiches and soup.
It was time to say goodbye. Standing next to the car, I gave both parents a hug, “I promise, I’ll call you and tell you everything, now, have a safe trip home. I have to get ready for classes tomorrow.”
Walking down the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, we girls resembled a regatta of Fifth Avenue fashion hats: Oleg Cassini pillboxes, cloches, and St Laurent berets. Our high heels were clicking; one white-gloved hand was swaying, and the other clinging to an edition of The History of Costume.
As we sailed along to our first day of classes, we were excited to see our school’s 90 Marlborough Street location.
Then another first: a Hippie! We’d heard about this type. He walked in slow motion toward us with his blond freak-flag-flying in the breeze from the bay. He wore denim bell-bottom jeans that swooshed on the concrete and caused fraying at the hems. A fitted-denim shirt stretched across a narrow chest. His blue eyes locked with our eyes. As he came to our port side, we sighed.
He proclaimed, “You know, you look just as strange to me as I do to you!”
Heart-struck, we turned to look at him, and I protested, “No, No! We love how you look; in fact, we’re hippies too! You just have to check us out on weekends — We’re Chamberlain Girls!”
Our sophisticated demeanor quite unraveled, we sprinted to the door of our school.
Of course, saying we were hippies on weekends wasn’t really true because that’s when we were invited to mixers at Harvard and Tufts.
I later realized that while we thought we were young and with-it, in truth, we were still living very mainstream, sheltered lives in the style of 1950’s, the silent 50’s. But the Sixties were starting to be felt in our lives and at our hemlines.
In 1966, fashion was on the cusp of changing. The ’66 fashions were still evolving from Christian Dior’s 1930’s Le Sack dresses into the designs of 1950-60, A-line, Y-line and H-line — all with hemlines at the knee or below.
But new innovations were gearing up. Manufacturers were making faux linens, boucles, and silk shantung from new synthesised petrochemicals: Nylon, Polyester, and Orlon. Imagine expensive polyester sold at Saks salons!
The show began with an adaptation of an St Laurent wool pantsuit with a double-breasted jacket, perfect for the business dealings of a fearless woman. The only problem was the fear emanating from the audience — so taboo!
At Chamberlain, the changes were showing up everywhere. Seniors presented current fashions of fur-trimmed, swing coats, dirndl-skirts, or dresses with cropped jackets, a peignoir of lace-trimmed chiffon, hemline to the knees (of course).
Hairdressers who molded the bouffant styles with tons of hairspray were now inspired by the Sassoon stylist who began in 1966 to cut the Wedge, the hairstyle of choice at Chamberlain. We would add braided dynel-chignons for greater sophistication and to hold our pillbox hats in place.
Feminist politics were smoldering. Gloria Steinem had just exposed the treatment of Playboy Bunnies by exposing herself in a satin, push-up and strapless body suit with a big white bunny-tail. She posed as an undercover-Bunny at the New York club. Gloria reported that sexist treatment and little respect were being paid to these women — referred to as girls — unless you counted oogling and groping as perks.
Meanwhile, all politics is local, and I found out that Playboy Magazine was scouting Chamberlain women/girls to pose for the centerfold.
It was confusing living during all of those revolutions: fashion, feminism, hippie ideals, and the underground protests against the Vietnamese War, women’s rights like the right to work and to abortion, civil rights and changing mores.
Still, amid all the serious questions we still had to dress appropriately.
At Chamberlain I studied histories of fashion, furniture and architecture. My architecture professor was Mrs. Johnson O’Connor — we never used her first name due to the Emily Post forms of etiquette for addressing our elders at the time. She was the first woman to graduate from M.I.T. as an architect. We had a treasure trove of classical examples in the buildings of Boston.
Mr. William J. Meek was an editor at the Boston Globe and taught us what to read to become au courant. His wife Mrs. Meek taught us comportment and style: I remember that she was the only one ever to show me how socialites and debutants walked in the 1930’s. It was called the Debutant Slouch — imagine.
For my first practicum, I learned to fit French-made Kislav Gloves on ladies at Boston’s famous Jordan Marsh department story glove counter. It was an art! I learned to put my back into it: push the full length of the fingers into the curve of the hand, slide the paper thin kid-leather up to the elbow, and continually smoothing the leather into a supple, malleable texture.
The next Chamberlain event was the Junior Variety show. Since we were new to the world of fashion education, juniors were only expected to entertain the faculty with satire.
Our group skit got right to the point: a protest led by my classmate Mary Elaine Monty, now a professional actress, whose later roles included several Law and Order episodes. Our group of juniors adapted Barbra Streisand’s 1966 hit song from the Broadway play, I Can Get It For You Wholesale: Sam You Made The Pants Too Long! Instead we decided to spoof the song and also make fun of our headmistress: Miss NOONES You Made The Skirts Too Long!
However, at Chamberlain the hemline police insisted that the dress had to measured with rulers. After all, this was a conservative school for young girls, located in the conservative town of Boston. The hem must hit below the knee. It didn’t escape us that students of a fashion school should be more avant-gardes. But Miss Noones our director wasn’t going to change the rules; she believed, as did all the faculty, that the mini-skirt, the sky-high hemlines, were a fad, not a fashion revolution and a sign of the social upheaval. How wrong she was.
On weekends, when not going to mixers with college boys, we made the rounds of the Boston bars between our dorm and the University of Boston. Of course, we had a curfew! Midnight. That caused a lot of dangerous driving if you were out on a date or with a group of other students. Cars would come flying around curfew, landing on sidewalks or in the mall. Usually, the routine was to go to Alexander’s’ with white tablecloths, a big red number and a telephone on each table. Boys would call us and say what their table number was if the conversation went anywhere. The folk club Hungry I featured the early debut of Barbra Streisand, and the scene included the then-unknown Jefferson Airplane which I saw and admired Grace’s hippy chic. Boston had folk and jazz festivals, all very popular. The Beatles visited in 1966.
At Chamberlain I knew one student who would slip down to the Combat Zone, considered a place where nice girls did not go. Located downtown on Washington Street, it was known for adult entertainment and roving prostitutes. She told me tales of public indecency, but in retrospect it was all very innocent. Still, the Combat Zone to this day remains a hallmark of downtown Boston.
Then there was the “Musical Virgins” weekend.
My high school friend, Dick Pierce, called me from Rutgers. He suggested that I gather eight Chamberlain girls for a weekend with he and eight fellow Alpha-Sigma-Phi brothers for a weekend at Rutgers. So the Chamberlains flew the Boston Shuttle to New York JFK Airport to attend.
Our weekend started out pretty formally when the guys escorted us very ceremonially into their candle-lit and oaken dining room. A toga party followed, spilling beer everywhere. Then we changed dates. We all slept in one hotel room so nothing was happening in bed — most of us had passed out. The next day we went to the football game, changed partners again for the party afterwards, and spent the night in the same room.
Dick called later and told us our new nickname. We had many more invites and visits from them because they thought we were “cool.” The prim and proper Class of ’66 Chamberlain girls had arrived!