Mother's Pimlico visits sparked talk of clothes

May 19, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

WHILE I'VE never observed much evidence that Baltimore is a high-flying fashion town, there was a time and place when I did note some pretty good dressing up. I refer to the Pimlico Club House, the spring racing meet and the Preakness. How long ago? Let's say that Northern Parkway then was still called Belvedere Avenue.

Because my father, Joseph Kelly, wrote for newspapers and covered thoroughbred racing, I got to know Pimlico. Its telephone number - LIberty 2-9400 - was as familiar in our household as dialing O for operator.

And each spring my mother assembled her outfits for Old Hilltop, where she spent some of the happiest afternoons of her life. I know this to be true because each time she dashed home, she took her place at the dinner table and regaled her audience with her impressions of the fashion and personalities she'd experienced. Her mother and aunt, who rarely went to the track, sat alongside and digested every syllable. Horses were never mentioned. It was also about people.

This is not to say that the conversation was merely about fancy clothes and vanity. Before my grandmother and aunt became infirm and unable to sew, they made many of the outfits my mother wore. So, there was a type of cottage industry discussion about patterns and fabrics.

The three huddled for analysis of Belgian and Irish linen and critiqued grades of cotton. They discussed gloves, no gloves or lost gloves. Hats and veils. And any fashion trends noted in the Club House, along with who was there and what they'd had for lunch. We heard of heiresses, elegant divorcees and their dashing boyfriends.

I can recall one outfit made about 1961, when the actor Richard Chamberlin was the rage in the "Dr. Kildare" television series. Fashion dictated a type of imitation medical tunic with twin rows of large white buttons. It was reproduced for my mother.

This was also the era of the mink stole that could be worn on a cool May afternoon. (I'll never forget the sight of the glamorous star Audrey Meadows in her stole and sunglasses at the Atlantic City Race Course. I was 5 years old and the "Honeymooners" were still around. I thought I was in Hollywood, not New Jersey.)

Fur coats on a Baltimore budget could have been a problem, but that was resolved within the family. My mother's cousins, the Bagleys, had a mink ranch in Beech Creek, Pa. I can well recall the day when the big rectangular boxes arrived, one each for my mother and her aunt.

On occasions I too made the trip to Pimlico's Winner Avenue and made my own sightings. Indeed, the dressing was fabulous and the people wearing their race track finery were having a merry time. The clothes were everything the fashion flashes said they'd be. The men were so tweedy you would have thought you were in England.

And when a group of confirmed racing people get together, they know how to have a good time.

So today, for the thousands gathered in the Pimlico infield, I hope they enjoy themselves. At least they won't have to worry about crushing their Irish linen suits or getting a snag in the mink stoles.

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