Mommy's little accessory

Jo Copeland designed glamorous couture clothes for the rich and famous. But while she was an extraordinary designer, she was a disaster as a mother.


Dayna Macy
October 21, 1998 9:26PM (UTC)

In the '30s, '40s and '50s, Jo Copeland's designs, spectacular clothes
of couture quality, graced the bodies of the rich and famous. Her taffeta
evening gowns, embroidered with hand-sewn French crystal, made the women
wearing them feel as glamorous as Lana Turner or Grace Kelly.

Though Copeland achieved great success as a designer, she was a disaster
as a mother. In "Mommy Dressing: A Love Story, After a Fashion," Copeland's
daughter, novelist Lois Gould, captures the glamour and anguish of
having a mother who knew everything about clothes and nothing about being a
parent -- and transforms the experience of a loveless childhood into a
sharp, severe but not unkind memoir.

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Today Gould is the author of 11 books, including the 1970 bestseller
"Best Friends." But as a child, she recalls in "Mommy Dressing," she didn't
know who she was besides "Jo Copeland's daughter" -- a neatly dressed,
clean accessory to her mother's work-absorbed life. Though Gould seemed to
have it all -- a floral chintz, doll-filled bedroom on Park Avenue in New
York, horseback riding lessons and gorgeous clothes, she was a neglected
and mistreated child. Gould remembers the odd and harsh rules that governed
her young life -- she was strictly forbidden to step on white diamond floor
tiles; she ate her supper alone in her room every night facing a wall; and
she was often punished by a sadistic nanny who force-fed her pepper when she
wouldn't finish her meal.

But "Mommy Dressing" is not exactly "Mommy Dearest." Gould eventually
learns that Copeland's own mother had died giving birth to her, poisoning
her vision of motherhood forever. Throughout Copeland's labor and delivery
of both Gould and her brother, the designer continued sketching, even when
she was screaming and writhing in agony. "But when I finally understood her
terror," Gould writes, "I also knew what made her cling to that pencil. She
boasted that the dress she designed in the ordeal of my brother's [birth]
was the hit of her next collection. True or not, she had created something
that night, besides a baby. And she believed that it was the pencil that
saved her. Perhaps it was."

"Mommy Dressing" is not only the story of a sad little girl's
nonrelationship with her glamorous mother, but also of Gould's struggle to
accept her mother's complicated legacy. In a recent interview with Salon,
she recalls her mother's extraordinary need to create, Copeland's disdain
for feminism and civil rights and the first time she saw her mother
pinning a dress.

You had a remarkably unhappy childhood. Was your mother ignorant or
cruel?

Definitely not cruel. Cruelty indicates some sort of intellectual
motive. My mother was not there because she was incapable of being there.
We had no relationship.

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You write, "What I know about her was only the dressing. Nothing
of the rest of her life was visible to me, unless dressing was, in fact,
the life."

Working with design and creating this artificial reality which consisted
only of surfaces were a consolation for some kind of deep and terrifying
void within her. Dressing was more than just putting on and taking off
clothes -- it was a grand coverup for immense terror and emptiness.

Your grandmother died giving birth to your mother. Was this the
origin of her terror?

Can't have a worse loss than that because the guilt and terror marks the
psyche forever.

Your mother sketched designs all the way through labor. Did she
believe having a child would destroy her creative life?

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She believed that if she had to have the child, she would get through it
as quickly as possible and then get back to who she really was. And who she
was essentially was not a mother.

- - - - - - - - - -

Was your mother aware of how unhappy you were when you were growing
up?

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She was not aware of me at all, except on the surface. If I looked like
a reasonably well-put-together accessory then I could be acknowledged as
that. But what went on inside me or what I needed or felt or suffered was
potentially terribly distressing to her. So she had to shut that out, like
a horse with blinders, so that she could look straight ahead to do her work.

You write that you fell in love with tap dancing and horseback
riding. But all of these things were taken away from you. Why did your
mother deprive you of the things that made you happy?

Horseback riding made you messy and smelly -- you could rip your
clothes and it wasn't controllable. Since the surface was everything,
controlling that surface was important.

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So where did you find comfort?

In my imagination. In my peculiar set of superstitions. In fairy tales.
In Greek mythology. I loved those stories. It was another kind of social
order; you could fly and overcome the forces of darkness and get your way.

As a child you would go to sleep at night and make up your own
stories. Do you think this was the birth of yourself as writer?

I first tried to be visual in my expression by drawing pictures. But my
mother would look at my drawings and correct them -- she'd say, "That's no
way to draw a face! This is how you do it." And she would deface my
picture. So I quickly found a way to find my own place, which was with
words. But it was my second choice.

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After your parents separated when you were 3 years old, your
father, whom you described as a Cary Grant look-alike, would visit often.
Did you feel loved by him?

I don't know I could ever have defined it as that. I felt he at least
talked to me. I never had conversations with my mother. But when he came to
visit we interacted. However superficial it might have been, it was the
concentrated gaze of an adult who wasn't getting paid to do it. He seemed
to be amused by my ability with words. And that gave me an enormous sense
of power. I could make him laugh.

Your parents, even though they separated and eventually divorced,
seemed to have a particular connection with each other that no one else was
able to supplant.

It was very odd, because why on earth they married was unfathomable. But
even more unfathomable is what kept them together for so long since they
were so ill-matched. But the fact is, my father remained extremely good-looking,
which for my mother was magical, seductive and had enduring power.
He was impressed that other people were impressed by her. His connection to
her became a feather in his cap.

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Did your mother ever give her heart truly to somebody?

No. I may be selling her short but it seemed she needed so much to
defend herself against the fear that was in her heart. She didn't believe
in therapy. She was against it in the same way she was against feminism and
civil rights -- she thought it was a sign of weakness. She thought we
should be able to solve our own problems.

When was the height of your mother's fame?

She got a lot of press in the '30s. In the war years and right after, she
began to be bigger and bigger. By the '50s she was up there in this rarefied
group of designers whose clothes and workmanship qualified as couture. It
lasted until the early '60s, at which point there was another revolution in
clothes. She was dressing older women at that point rather than young girls
and we had the explosion of Twiggy and the silhouettes of Courreges, which
looked rather little girlish. And my mother never adapted to that. She
always had the glamorous grownup as her model.

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You wrote that the first time you saw your mother pinning a dress up
you got very upset. Was that a little like seeing the "man behind the
curtain" in the Wizard of Oz?

I did not expect things to look so grubby. She was on her knees on a
cement floor -- this is what housekeepers and cleaners did. It was not a
position I could ever imagine her in. And yet there she was, pinning fabric
with total concentration as if it were something wonderful. Of course,
there is a secret grubbiness to art. The hard work that goes with making
art is not something we imagine. That's what they said about Fred Astaire
-- it was effortless, as if the dance was created whole. But the amount of
work that went into a Fred Astaire dance was never seen. And that was the
idea. It must look perfect. It must look as if it came from divine
inspiration without the dreadful details of daily living and struggle.

In fairy tales, the fairy godmother touches Cinderella with a wand and
suddenly she is gorgeous and is wearing the most beautiful dress in the
world, which came from air. That's how I thought dresses were made.

You wrote that she was unable to change with the times, like choosing
not to design pantsuits. Was that because these clothes were unattractive
to her?

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She did want to do some of that but her partners talked her out of it.

Your mother was a determined career woman. Yet, as you write in the
book, she deferred to her business partners to the point that she didn't
even realize that they were cheating on the firm's income taxes.

She was a conventional, feminine person and liked being thought of that
way. She liked having men do things for her -- perform duties, be
responsible, be adoring. She thought that somehow her talent was a block to
these things, that it made her less feminine, so she made up for it by
being naive about money and business, whether it was her brother who gave
her bad advice or her partners who she entrusted with her own destiny, her
finances and her talent.

Yet she always made sure she had beautiful things -- like the time
she bought herself a diamond and ruby bracelet during the Depression. Was
she proud of her success or disappointed and angry that as a woman, she had
to take care of herself?

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Both. She never acknowledged that what she had achieved was a kind of
feminist ideal. There was a scene in one of my books where she was lunching
with women friends and they played this game of putting their new
acquisitions on the table. Each one would admire the new acquisition of the
other. And I said to her, "Does it not strike you that when this ritual
occurs that you are the only one at the table who has earned these pieces
for herself?"

She laughed and said she was aware of that but then added, "I have been
cursed with talent and therefore don't have a man who will love me enough
to give me things." I was stunned by that.

How did she feel about the emerging women's movement in the '60s?

She did not consider herself a feminist and had no sympathy for the
struggles of women. And when feminism, or women's liberation as she
persisted in calling it, was in the news, she got angry and would say, "I
made it on my own. I didn't need a movement. I didn't need to be shrill and
strident and demanding. I was just really good and I got to be where I am
by doing my work extraordinarily well and people appreciated it."

It was a messy movement. It exposed people's lives, their
unhappiness, their inequality. It disrupted the surface of things.

She disapproved of people being open about things she felt should remain
undisclosed.

What was your mother's relationship to your writing?

She didn't acknowledge my writing. I had some success as a reporter and
editor before I wrote fiction. She questioned me closely on how I got this
particular job as an editor for a magazine. I was very young for the title
and salary. She was for a moment quite competitive, which was a shock,
because it never occurred to me that I was boasting that I had bested her --
only that it was so wonderful for me.

Was she afraid of you surpassing her?

I wondered if she was competitive with me because I was not feeling
competitive with her. I had gone so far away from anything remotely
connected to her turf that I felt I had eliminated the possibility of her
putting me down, and then there it was. I was surprised by that.

What about when you started to be well-known for your fiction?

It was a peculiar moment because her career was winding down. She had
mixed feelings about it. She began to be pleased because she could ride on
a coattail. My first novel, "Such Good Friends," was published in 1970. And
coincidentally, that was the year her company went out of business.

Was she happy for you?

When the book became a movie and a bestseller, she was pleased. When my
second book came out and got what she thought was a favorable review in the
New York Times, she said she wanted to give me a party, which was
remarkable -- it was the first time she ever addressed me as a separate
person.

So how did you learn to forge an identity separate from simply being
your mother's daughter?

By becoming a writer. Having that much control over yourself and over
your material is amazingly empowering.

What is your relationship to fashion today?

I'm very attracted to clothes. I dress well. And yet, I'm not really
taken with the current scene in fashion. Most of it is for the camera and
the publicity and not for its wearability. There are a couple of designers
I think are terrifically talented. Issey Miyake, Jean Paul Gaultier. I like
the fact that they play with the vocabulary of clothes. I like their wit. I
think my mother would have admired them too.

Did your mother exhibit wit in her designs?

Rarely, but she did sometimes use an unexpected color lining or a fur
collar that ended up not being attached to a jacket. I never thought she
had a sense of humor about anything. And yet, there's that. And I say,
well, here's something that she did that went beyond just trying to look
pretty.

At the end of your book you describe your mother's whistle, which she
would occasionally unleash on unsuspecting taxi drivers, as "tremulous,
lyrical and achingly sweet."

She had this spectacular, surprising aspect of her, which gave me great
pleasure.

How do you feel now about your mother's success, her talents, her
extraordinariness?

I'm grateful for it. I've come to the point where I realize it is a
source of inspiration for me despite all my struggles against it. I'm
grateful to have reached this awareness. It inspires my work, my life, my
ability to survive losses and setbacks.

Your mother was a survivor -- she was born as her mother died giving
birth to her; she survived bad marriages and multiple abortions, including
one that was self-induced with a knitting needle. And she was a woman who
built a successful career during the Depression. Was this her lasting
legacy to you -- this gift of knowing how to survive?

There's a grace in watching a swan but knowing the furious struggle of
the swan's legs below the water. The struggle is never visible, and is an
unattractive process. Yet they achieve spectacular beauty, an unearthly
grace, almost like an epiphany.


Dayna Macy

Dayna Macy, former publicity director of Salon.com, is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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