A portrait of my great-great-grandmother Aurelia Smith Davis Ripley Smith Woodward hangs in the Cabildo at Jackson Square, New Orleans, part of the Louisiana State Museum collection. Neither Aurelia nor the artist was famous. The primitive painting hangs to illustrate a widow in lavender half-mourning attire in the mid-nineteenth century. Aurelia’s third husband and my great-great-grandfather, the father of her two children, was murdered in 1851.
Though Queen Victoria wore widow’s weeds for decades after her husband died, Victorian custom only demanded that a widow wear black for a year and a day (as worn by the woman in the photo at the top of the page) before she could begin to wear gray and lavender—a period known as “half-mourning.”
Today, widows have no obligations to observe a formal mourning period, and many choose to wear bright colors—even at the memorial service—to chase away gloom and sadness. While I pulled a black skirt suit from my closet to wear to Lev’s service in 2009, I wore a white blouse with it, and I remember rebelliously deciding not to wear nylon hose but to go bare-legged.
For years afterwards, I felt uncomfortable in bright colors, and I began to wear gray and shades of purple regularly for the first time. I avoided the bright reds, blues and yellows in my closet. Though I did not consciously try to dress appropriately as a new widow, in retrospect, I realize that the muted colors matched my somber mood.
I did not purposefully set out to reinvent myself as a widow. My severe, minimalist new style also matched my new responsibilities as CEO of Lev’s small business and as executrix of his estate. For more than a year, my schedule was crammed with meetings with lawyers, bankers and accountants, tasks for which I felt totally unprepared and unqualified. When I dressed the part and projected the image of the assured businesswoman, I had more self-confidence.
I reached back into my past, when I became the fourth woman on the 48-person board of regents at Baylor University in 1992. I owned no suits. Arriving at my first board meeting, I joined other regents, senior administrators and their spouses in the foyer before dinner. My mentor’s wife, like me in a silk dress, took me around to meet everyone. They assumed that I too was a spouse. Clearly, I needed to buy a suit. At our business meeting the next day, I appraised the participants. The other women were in skirt suits, female staff in Brooks Brothers-like man-tailored pants suits. For the most part, the men on the board—successful businessmen and professionals, some of them executives in Fortune 500 companies—were in well-tailored suits, starched white shirts and silk ties. I decided to dress the part, and for nine years my closet held designer pants suits.
During those last years of Lev’s life, as his health failed and I stayed close to home, I did not replace those suits when my size and circumstances changed. As a new widow, I needed to go shopping again.
Traveling alone, I became a keen observer—and sometimes eavesdropper—of those around me. On two stays at Paris 5-star hotels, I checked out the other women. At Sunday afternoon tea in March, a mother and her adult daughter wore the Parisian casual chic uniform: tailored slacks, white cotton shirts with the cuffs turned up over the hem of the sleeves of their tweed jackets, silk scarves at their necks, boots. Several years later, in the lounge at the end of a workday in the couture district in early September, every woman but me was in black—pants suits, skirt suits or dresses. If their legs showed, they were covered by black opaque tights. Their shoes were universally plain and black, whether classic pumps, Chanel flats or boots. No hardware or platforms. And again, silk scarves. Tres chic. I was frumpy and dowdy in comparison.
Though styles have changed and it is as hard to find a suit now as it was a dress 10–15 years ago, I am comfortable in my skin. I have softened my look—at least occasionally—wearing more color and an occasional dress. But I have embraced my age, and I would rather people say she looks good for her age than to say, Who does she think she’s kidding?
Like everything else about widowhood, it’s an individual choice. There is no right or wrong answer. We can re-invent ourselves and our look whenever we want. We don’t have to please anyone but ourselves.
What is your choice?
Adapted from my book-in-progress, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS. I have touched on the subjects of image and perception before, most recently in two blogs:
Today’s blog was prompted by a brief STYLE article in the Sunday New York Times, “Here’s an Idea: Wear Your Own Clothes.” (Online, the story is titled, “Charlotte Rampling Lets Tailoring Do the Talking.”)
The Wall Street Journal also addressed the subject recently, though focusing on men: “Why Dressing for Success Leads to Success.”
I just finished reading WOMEN, WORK & THE ART OF SAVOIR FAIRE: Business Sense & Sensibility, by Mireille Guiliano, 69, former head of Veuve Clicquot U.S. Guiliano is French by birth but an U.S. citizen who has lived in New York for more than 30 years. Her book is all about perceptions and creating the image we want to project. The titles of her other books hint at her theme. Her first, FRENCH WOMEN DON’T GET FAT: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, was a bestseller; her most recent is FRENCH WOMEN DON’T GET FACELIFTS: The Secret of Aging with Style and Attitude. While some criticize her approach to style, I’m a fan. She epitomizes the French concept of une femme d’un certain âge, a description I much prefer to elderly and aging. One quote: “The trick is not to confuse glamour with girliness.” Never let it be said that I am girly!