A Chanel Red Dress
1926 was an eventful year for Gwendolyn Bennett. She completed her year-long residency studying art in Paris and returned to New York in June. Back on her home turf, she eagerly immersed herself in the Harlem arts community, organizing a “homecoming exhibition,” launching a the “Ebony Flute” arts column in Opportunity, and hatching up plans with Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes to issue Fire!!: A Magazine of the Younger Negro Artists. Just as her career was taking off, her personal life crashed. In August, her beloved father Joshua Bennett was killed in a subway accident. According to newspaper reports, his purported suicide was triggered by the imminent disclosure of an extra-marital affair, which they described in lurid detail.
In the wake of her father’s widely publicized death, Gwendolyn’s birth mother, Mayme Abernathy, reached out to her for the first time in sixteen years, setting the stage for a brief and tumultuous reunion. Her mother initiated a correspondence under her new married name “Mrs. Pizarro,” posing as a dear friend of the Bennett family (Gwendolyn recognized her neat, Palmer-method handwriting and saw through the ruse).
When Gwendolyn didn’t reply, Mayme wrote again, holding out clothing as material evidence of her closeness to the Bennett family: “I believe I made and put the first dress you ever wore on your little fat body.”1Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Sept. 29, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910 In Mayme’s exchanges with her estranged daughter, clothes play a key role in her effort to mend their torn bond. In subsequent letters, she promises to send Gwendolyn a package of “pretty things,” including a few “dresses for school,” asks what “articles of clothing” she needs most, and requests her glove and shoe sizes.2Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letters to Gwendolyn Bennett, Oct. 20, 1926; Oct. 23, 1926; Oct. 21, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910 Most extravagantly, she inquires:
Have you one of the new Chanel red dresses? Well, you will have and you will look beautiful in it I am sure.3Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Sept. 21, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910 Mayme spells it “channel red dress,” but given the popularity of “Chanel red” in 1926, she is undoubtedly referring to the trademark color of the Parisian house of fashion.
The Chanel red dress reverberates with symbolic meanings in this exchange. Publicly, it signals the height of modern female fashion. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which owns a circa 1928 Chanel red evening dress so rare and valuable that downloading its image is prohibited), “beginning in the early 1920s, Chanel used red with such regularity that Women’s Wear Daily began using the term ‘Chanel red’ in 1926.” Advertisements for “Chanel red” frocks peppered the pages of Good Housekeeping, Ladies Homes Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and other mass market periodicals. A 1926 magazine item takes the form of a letter from a female reader to Vogue: “Dear Vogue: I think that the new chanel red was made for brunettes just like me. Besides, it matches my favorite lipstick! But I can’t find a dress in it in the shops in anything but flat crepe and I want georgette.”4“A Frock in Chanel Red.” The Washington Post. July 15, 1926, p. 11. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
The ad copy converts a fashion fad into an intimate form of personal expression (“made for me”), attaching affective desires to material garments (“I want Georgette”). Just as Vogue editors supply Marion K. with an image of her own “chanel red georgette” that she will “enjoy wearing,” Mayme promises Gwendolyn a “Chanel red dress” that she “will look beautiful in.” In both instances, the verbal invocation of a Chanel red dress materializes an intimate relationship between giver and receiver, whether the transaction is commercial or familial.
Chanel red wielded particular symbolic power for African American women, who historically had been denied access to the realms of fashion, beauty, and even femininity. According to Noliwe Rooks, in the late 19th century, fashion served as a way for Black women to distance themselves from the painful history of slavery and resist the degrading sexualized stereotypes associated with them from that era. The emerging politics of respectability “privileged the display of fashion as the public performance of morality in order to combat cultural assertions about African American women’s perceived hypersexuality.”5Noliwe M. Rooks, Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture that Made Them, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. p. 48. In the 1890s, African American women’s magazines explicitly counseled against wearing red because of its association with sexual availability and moral laxness.6Noliwe M. Rooks, Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture that Made Them, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. p. 52. But by the 1920s, African American women were encouraged to reject such outmoded prohibitions and embrace their roles as modern consumers. In 1926, Rosenthal’s women’s clothing store ran ads in the widely read African American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore’s Afro-American, featuring “stylish” dresses at “certified bargain basement” prices.7Rosenbaum Company display ad. The Pittsburgh Courier. December 18, 1926, p. 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
This ad signals that the modern Black woman can be fashionable on a restricted budget and don “All High Shades” including “Chanel Red,” “Jungle Green,” and “New Tans.” In this context, Mayme’s offer of a Chanel red dress entails a promise to certify her brown-skinned daughter’s beauty, freedom, and status in modern American consumer culture.
The promise of the Chanel red dress is more than skin deep: it is a way of mending a mother/daughter tie that had been frayed to the point of breakage after Gwendolyn’s father, kidnapped her at the age of eight. After Joshua and Mayme divorced, Mayme was granted custody of their daughter. She took Gwendolyn to live with her at a white girls’ finishing school in Washington, DC—most likely the Chevy Chase School—where she could earn more as a live-in hairdresser and manicurist than in her previous role as a public schoolteacher.8 These biographical details are recounted by Sandra Govan in Gwendolyn Bennett: Portrait of an Artist Lost, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1980, pp. 58-60. Why did Joshua take Gwendolyn away from her mother? Did he think he could provide her a better life? Why didn’t Mayme try to track them down? Did she lack the financial, legal, or emotional resources to pursue them? If she reported the kidnapping, would the police have taken any interest in a missing 8-year-old Black girl?
Whatever the reasons for the 16-year separation, when Mayme read the news of Joshua’s death in the papers in 1926, she set out to resume her maternal role and repair the breach with her daughter. By Gwendolyn’s account, as a child she had been her “mother’s sole companion and confidante,” and Mayme expressed her affection by adorning her daughter in elegant, handmade dresses: “Every Sunday my mother dressed [me] in the pretty clothes she had sewed so beautifully at nights after her work was over.”9Gwendolyn Bennett. “My Father’s Story.” Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings. Eds. Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. p. 149. She curled Gwendolyn’s hair “using much water” and “topped it with an enormous red ribbon.”10Gwendolyn Bennett. “Ward Place.” Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings. Eds. Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. p. 152. Given that Mayme had lavished so much attention on her daughter’s apparel, providing her fashionable clothes may have seemed a natural way to resume her maternal role. She offered clothing as a material expression of the emotional and physical intensity of her enduring attachment to Gwendolyn. The three words Chanel red dress refer to more than a material garment: they are an expression of love more ardent and tangible than I love you.
In The Fashion System (1967), Roland Barthes argues that “Fashion writing”—the verbal description of clothing—is an intimate, domestic language:
Fashion writing…is familiar, even intimate, a bit infantile; its language is domestic, articulated on the opposition of two principal terms: good and little… it conveys a certain filial tone, the complementary relation a good mother/ a nice little girl; the garment is sometimes loving, sometimes loved: we could call it the ‘caratative’ quality of clothing. Hence what is being signified here is the role, simultaneously maternal and childlike, that devolves upon the garment.”11Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, p. 241.
Although Barthes is referring to Fashion writing in commercial magazines, his theory also applies to the language of clothing in the Bennett family letters. In correspondence with Gwendolyn’s birth mother, stepmother, father, and aunt, clothing conveys a “caratative” quality: it expresses love, intimacy, and care; it defines, preserves, and attempts to restore family members’ roles as caregivers and receivers.
In the Bennett family correspondence, clothing fulfills a social function similar to money: according to anthropologist Bill Maurer, money is not merely a transactional tool, but an “emotional currency” and a “memory device,” a way of indicating relationships and “enduring obligations that people have to one another.”12Bill Maurer, “Emotional Currency: How Money Shapes Human Relationships,” interview with Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain, Jan. 13, 2020. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/795246685 Mayme utilizes clothing to materialize emotional obligations and summon memories of past ties:
Tell me which dress fits best and the one you like best then I will know your size and taste. You used to be so wild about red. I remember so well that mother bought you a pair of red, red shoes on your seventh birthday and you jumped up and down about five minutes saying “O-o-h! O-o-h! O-o-h!” My but you were some happy. You gave your mother seven hugs and seven kisses for those shoes and through all these years she has felt those hugs and those kisses still burn on her lips. A mother never forgets.13Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Oct. 23, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910
In this memory, the mother’s gift of red shoes is reciprocated with seven kisses from her daughter, which “burn on her lips” as an enduring mark of their affective bond. The emphatic statement “A mother never forgets” conveys an implicit obligation for the daughter to reciprocate in kind.
Because garments touch the body, evoke affective states, and recall physical contact, the provision of clothing can be more powerful than money in materializing an intimate, personal, and ongoing relationship of mutual obligation. Yet clothing bears its own risks, since material indulgence can easily slip into excessive materialism. When Mayme discovers that Gwendolyn is heavily in debt, she dials back on her sartorial largesse and begins warning her daughter of the dangers of materialistic excess:
I am so afraid you, like your poor Dad, will form the habit of borrowing…My dear it is the very worst thing you could ever do. It makes you a weakling, a dependent, it kills your whole life. Since I was 16 years of age I have been self-supporting and never once borrowing. —if I never had a dress or anything I would never, never borrow. It isn’t your clothes that makes you, it is what you really are which counts. A pure soul, a clean heart, a clear conscience, those are the sterling attributes of a character so noble…14Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Nov. 7, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910
Mayme worries that Gwendolyn had been too acquisitive, leading her father to indulge beyond his means:
I hope, dear, you were very cautious and did not want very expensive things while poor Dad lived because he was so weak he would have stolen to appease your every want and some people might call that “love” but love is made of sterner stuff– he loved you very dearly but parental over-indulgence must not be mistaken for love.15Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Nov. 7, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910
While garments may be a sign of love, Mayme suggests, they should not be mistaken for actual love—an intangible affective bond that is “made of sterner stuff.”
Mayme’s moralistic warnings reflect a larger trend Noliwe Rooks observes in fashion writing in African American women’s magazines in the late teens and twenties. With the rise of mass consumer culture, twentieth century fashion codes became a way of inculcating ideas about middle class values and American character, and African American women’s magazines shifted to a “focus on frugal fashion” to counsel their readers on how to become responsible consumers.16Noliwe M. Rooks, Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture that Made Them, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. pp. 84-84. African American women were subjected to contradictory expectations: dress in the latest styles, but be frugal and modest. Even as African American women embraced fashion as a way of publicly affirming respectability, self worth, and beauty, fashion writing became a tool for regulating consumer behaviors, and thus served to reinforce stereotypes of licentiousness and lack of self-restraint long and falsely associated in the American popular imagination with Black people.17Noliwe M. Rooks, Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture that Made Them, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. p. 63. Mayme’s anxious warnings to Gwendolyn suggest that she internalized these social anxieties and contradictory ideologies. She offers a Chanel red dress to affirm her daughter’s social worth and to mend their torn relationship, yet feels compelled to restrain Gwendolyn’s fondness for fashion, lest she mistake flimsy fabric for the “sterner” stuff of love.
Mayme and Gwendolyn proved unable to restore their relationship. After the initial rush of excitement surrounding their reunion, their emotions ran high. Mayme had a hard time imagining Gwendolyn as anything but a plump, happy baby, and Gwendolyn had only distant memories of her mother as a beautiful, ivory-skinned woman. Mayme played a game of cat and mouse, desperately wanting to meet her daughter in person, then shying away in fear that she wouldn’t live up to her daughter’s expectations. Gwendolyn’s emotions were also tempestuous at the time. Still grieving her father’s death, drained by teaching obligations, and driven to distraction by financial woes, she broke off a long term romantic relationship with an old family friend named Gene to pursue a short-lived affair with the artist Frank Horne. Though the details are murky, Gwendolyn apparently showed up at her mother’s workplace in Philadelphia, where Mayme had been passing as white to secure a position as a telephone operator. When her daughter’s dark skin exposed her as a “Negro,” she was fired. Tensions mounted between mother and daughter, erupting in a fiery exchange of angry words. In a follow up letter of self-defense, Mayme chastised Gwendolyn for “inconsiderate and disrespectful” behavior that threatened her mental health:
I am all unfit for work and will have a nervous breakdown if I have to go thro’ another seance with you—No wonder poor Josh committed suicide!18Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Dec. 8, 1926. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910
Gwendolyn, understandably wounded by the insinuation that she drove her father to suicide, blocked her mother’s efforts to make peace. She did not reply to a series of letters in which her mother deployed increasingly desperate strategies for reconciliation—setting conditions, guilt-tripping, wheedling, and pleading. The last of her surviving letters to her “precious Daughter” is dated April 17, 1927.19 Mayme Abernathy Pizarro, letter to Gwendolyn Bennett, Apr. 17, 1927. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910 Eleven years later, Gwendolyn sent a letter of apology to Mayme, begging her to “find enough pity in your heart to forgive my long, unexplained silence.”20Gwendolyn Bennett, letter to “Dearest Mother” [Mayme Abernathy Pizarro], Aug. 31, 1938. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910. Reprinted in Bennett, Gwendolyn. Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings. Eds. Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018, pp. 222-223. Attempting to understand and explain her own behavior, she writes:
I was young and full of silly dreams and fancies when I met you again after sixteen years separation; during those sixteen years I had dreamed of what we would mean to each other, if we were ever reunited. Then when I met you, we started a long series of misunderstandings and incriminations that at that time I could not understand. I couldn’t understand some of the things you said and did at the time — some of them I dont understand even now but years of experience and hardship have made me more tolerant of other people’s ideas and beliefs. I offer no excuse for my actions, I only ask that you try to forgive me.21Gwendolyn Bennett, letter to “Dearest Mother” [Mayme Abernathy Pizarro], Aug. 31, 1938. Gwendolyn Bennett Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/16817910. Reprinted in Bennett, Gwendolyn. Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings. Eds. Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018, pp. 222-223.
During their long separation, both mother and daughter had created idealized fantasies of each other, garbed in beauty and loveliness. Perhaps these fantasies made it difficult for them to accept and resolve the conflicts that arose when they reunited, and each encountered a woman very different from the ideal they had envisioned. It is unclear if Mayme replied to or even received Gwendolyn’s letter. The fabric of their relationship may have been torn beyond repair.
The correspondence with her birth mother is one of many instances in which clothing plays a significant role in Gwendolyn Bennett’s life and work. Mentions of apparel pervade her family letters—not only with Mayme, but also with her father, stepmother, and aunt. From her early childhood, her mother sewed her beautiful frocks, and her father arranged studio photographs of her adorned in the outfits. In her “Life Story” outline and autobiographical essays, she recalls scenes and events in relation to what she wore. Her poetry, fiction, and visual art utilize garments as symbols and metaphors, for scene setting, plot and character development. Sandra Govan explains the significance of clothing for Bennett and many African Americans of her generation:
She was part of a generation where clothing was a way of marking who you were and showing that you had come up in the world. You weren’t part of a 19th century rags story; you were part of a riches story. You had acquired riches. Plus Gwen looked good in clothes, and people admired her for that. She was an attractive woman. Back then there wasn’t emphasis on being bone thin, so the fact that she was a little plump didn’t matter. She was considered a very attractive woman.22Sandra Govan. Conversation. July 7, 2022.
In the early twentieth clothing became an important way for African Americans to tell a new story about themselves, to convey status and beauty in a world that had denied them both. Everyday fashion choices contributed to the formation of what Carol Tulloch calls “style narratives,” stories of Black self-definition and empowerment:
Style narratives are a form of agency through which the style choices an individual makes to construct their individualized look from various components of garments, accessories and beauty regimes that may be in fashion or not.23Carol Tulloch. The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives in the African Diaspora. London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 206. p. 64.
Tulloch views styling practices in everyday life as a form of self-expression and exercise of agency, “part of the process of self-telling” and “an aspect of autobiography.”24Carol Tulloch. The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives in the African Diaspora. London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 206. p. 5.
In Gwendolyn Bennett’s life and work, fashion writing is a form of individual autobiography as well as communal self-fashioning. Fashion choices establish family roles, preserve intimate bonds, and serve as political strategy in the collective Black effort to fashion images of the New Negro. Dress is a mode of self-styling, a means of interpersonal bonding, and point of contact between intimate and social realms. As Joanne Entwistle observes,
Our dress does not belong to our bodies but to the social world as well… The dressed body is not only a uniquely individual, private, and sensual body, it is a social phenomenon too, since our understandings and techniques of dress and our relationship to cloth, are socially and historically constituted.”25Joanne Entwistle, “The Dressed Body,” The Fashion Reader, second ed., ed. by Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun, Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011. pp. 138, 139.
Bennett’s dressed body was “uniquely individual, private, and sensual,” but it was also “a social phenomenon,” its meanings and values shaped by her family dynamics and by racial, cultural, and economic contingencies.