When holy thoughts encountered fashions frumpy and wiggly

November 02, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

THESE FIRST TWO DAYS in November carry a special meaning for Christians. They are back-to-back feasts -- All Saints and All Souls. On the first day, the church celebrates all those who have passed on to their heavenly reward. On the second, we pray for all "the faithful departed," especially those who may not have made it all the way across the river.

For our family, Nov. 1 was a school holiday, a day when we attended Mass. I recall it as a brilliant fall morning when my mother gathered her six children together for the trek westward across 29th Street to SS. Philip and James Church.

If you're going to have a holiday in Baltimore, the first day of the 11th month is an excellent choice. The weather is usually neither hot nor cold. It's perfect day for a fall fashion show -- brown tweeds, a new coat and hat that have yet to become a necessary bore when the real winter settles in six weeks later.

Baltimore in 1960 was a frumpy city -- a perception underscored by the All Saints' Day fashion parade. Men wore gray suits, felt hats and gabardine coats. Many of the women in the congregation were widows. They wore proper hats, often with veils. These veils were a sub-species of fashion. Occasionally you'd spot a stylish one with chunky diamond-shaped do-dads inserted in the netting -- the look of Mata Hari meets Lauren Bacall.

Being children of the television era, our reference for what was frumpy came from "The Five O'Clock Show," the classic movie aired every evening by WBAL, just a few blocks south on Charles Street.

The best of these were the Marx Brothers classics of the early 1930's, which regularly featured character actress Margaret DuMont as a much-tortured comic society lady. There were others in that category -- Louisa May Oliver, Helen Broderick and Alice Brady -- but Margaret DuMont was the outrageous best.

For some reason, about half a dozen Margaret DuMont look-alikes appeared in church every Nov. 1. Sometimes they made a grand entrance, arriving in long, black Cadillacs driven by chauffeurs who stood outside the church and smoked cigarettes during the service.

Inside, of course, proper church behavior was expected -- if not always achieved. Come time for Holy Communion, my mother led the way out of the pew. Ahead of us on one memorable occasion was one of the DuMonts -- a woman wearing a half-length coat, a style newspaper ads called a topper.

The coat was shoe-polish black and it wiggled. It looked like a thousand ostrich feathers glued on a pelt. As the woman approached the communion rail, the coat's surface floated in a different direction from her feet. She walked eastward and the coat's surface danced north and south.

It was never easy to keep a straight face in church with your siblings there beside you, but seeing the antics of this coat made it about as tough as if we were watching the Marx Brothers. The holiness of the occasion only added punch to the )) convulsions of laughter we were suppressing with little success.

The woman's steps on the hard terrazzo floor -- as well as the act of kneeling and rising -- only caused the coat to misbehave more. We were right behind her, observing the coat's every twitch and roll.

My mother, never sanctimonious, kept the situation under control. She spotted the source of the laughter. She herself was amused. During the reading of the Last Gospel, she whispered the words -- "Monkey fur".

On the way out of church and en route to Hutzler's downtown (what better way to spend a holiday?), she instructed us in furs, fashion and Baltimore social history. Monkey fur, she said, was popular in the 1920s.

Even for 1960's Baltimore, wearing such a relic was curious. Women regularly wore pelts around their necks (stone martens), but monkey fur was an oddity. But, she said, you never knew what might come out of the Charles Street apartments of that era, places where the dictates of fashion were immune to hands of the clock.

By now, there was no controlling the laughter. It was an excellent All Saints Day.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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