A celebration in highest style Fashion: No mannequin herself, socialite and designer Pauline Potter created clothes that defined an era. A New York exhibit pays fitting tribute.

March 14, 1996|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,SUN FASHION EDITOR

If the afternoon frocks, ball gowns, dinner suits and smart hats idling in forgotten closets could talk, what stories they could tell. Not just about the women who wore them, but also about the designers who tailored them for their roles in society's limelight.

Sibilant echoes of gossip, wit, scandal and celebration flutter among the elegant mannequins posed for "Hattie Carnegie American Style Defined," an exhibit now at the museum of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. It is a sampling of clothes and accessories from the salon of the woman who dressed America's socialites and stars from the '20s to the '50s. Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Clare Booth Luce, the Duchess of Windsor, Gertrude Lawrence, Barbara Hutton and Tallulah Bankhead were Carnegie clients. Fashion legends, too, sketched in the Carnegie workrooms, among them Norman Norrell, Jean Louis, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere and Pauline Potter.

Pauline Potter, you ask? Pauline Fairfax Potter Leser, later the Baroness Pauline de Rothschild. She was a daughter of old Baltimore families who counted among their branches the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," jurists, landed gentry, intellectuals and idlers. Her father was one of the idlers and a cad. Her mother an alcoholic. She was born in Paris in 1908, where her parents had fled to stretch their limited means. The father abandoned them. The mother died. When Pauline grew into her teen years, the father found the means to ship her off to relatives in Baltimore.

It was here, where she lived off the kindness of cousins, that Pauline began to hone what was to become an international standard of style. She painted her nails, furnished a lively Bohemian salon with castoffs, gilded her mouse hair, wore gold instead of white for her first disastrous marriage.

Author Annette Tapert, in "The Power of Style," counts Pauline among the women of this century who defined the art of living well. In that Pauline keeps company with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel, the Duchess of Windsor.

Like Wallis Simpson, that other Baltimore belle who eventually married a title, Pauline showed that style, although a gift, must be paid by slavish work and constant vigilance.

Decorator Billy Baldwin, another Baltimorean who left home to find international fame, was a friend and confidante.

"A young woman must be a debu- tante in Baltimore and a young married woman in New York City. An old woman must marry a European, preferably in Paris, and live the rest of her life there," Pauline told him. It was the script for her life.

As a life, it had the ingredients of a blockbuster romantic novel or epic costume film. Writer Mitchell Owens first fell under the spell of "le style Pauline" when researching an article on her chateau and gardens for HG magazine.

Her flair and the snippets of stories he gathered became material for a biography he is writing, which will be published by Clarks and Potter.

"She is not that different from other fashion legends," he says. "All idols, if you think about it, are self-invented. When you look at these women you notice that none of them were conventionally pretty, not conventionally brought up. They all had oddities which they used to advantage."

'Great fish out of water'

In Pauline's case, the oddities added up to a striking woman. In an era when conventional prettiness was prized, she was nearly 6 feet tall, low-bosomed, virtually chinless and had a rough, sallow complexion.

What she had were magnificent eyes, a voice that enchanted listeners and the infinite patience to listen and learn.

"She was a great fish out of water in Baltimore and realized it early on," says Mr. Owen.

She got out by marrying Fulton Leser, of a good Baltimore family, an art restorer and her aesthetic soulmate. He was not a bedmate, however, and the 1930 marriage was doomed from the beginning.

He dropped out of her life after their stint at shopkeeping in Majorca. She went on to become a vendeuse for Elsa Schiaparelli in Paris and London.

World War II brought her back to New York.

Hattie Carnegie, society's tastemaker, recognized Pauline's talent in her first attempt at a fashion collection and hired her to design for the Hattie Carnegie label. They apparently understood each other. Hattie Carnegie, born Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna, emigrated with her family to New York's Lower East Side and adopted the surname of Andrew Carnegie, America's richest steel baron.

Pauline got her baron by marrying one. She did couture and custom designs for Carnegie from 1945 to 1953, and it was reported that she was one of the highest paid women in America in her time.

Knew her look

Pauline was one of the first working socialites, making fashion and living fashion. Her turnouts were chronicled in breathless style in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country. She was photographed by glossy society shooters Cecil Beaton and Horst. She knew her own look best, however.

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