Her name is Mary McFadden.
After an exhilarating experience brought about by the Delacroix retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, I was inspired to wander around the European Art galleries, wondering if I could forge a fresh eye in revisiting some of my Met favorites. Indeed, one caught my attention, a portrait by Théodore Chassériau of Comtesse de la Tour-Maubourg, painted in 1841. I then thought of three things: first, what fashionistas of that era did to immortalize their youth, influence and a good outfit; second, how painters have greatly contributed in documenting fashion history; third, that the subject looked like Mary McFadden--the famed designer who dominated the fashion scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If not for the facial depiction, at least for the subject’s coiffure. Like Anna Wintour's weather-proof bob, what's specific about Mary is her hairstyle, always neatly combed and parted in the middle, not a single strand that strayed away from a bed of jet black hair. This is almost the only way you’ll see her if you search on Google images.
And at any age, her hair remained black.
So I reminisced about the time I met the celebrated designer. It was at a birthday dinner party for my gallerist friend Paul Bridgewater, who celebrated his 50th in 2004 at the Andalusia estate in Bucks County, PA. It was an intimate gathering of about 50 guests, comprised mostly of artists and people of varied creative pursuits. I don’t remember meeting anyone else in fashion. Just myself and Mary.
When it was time to chow, I saw her sitting alone and eating quietly in a table for 8 people, so I sat next to her, while my ex boyfriend Linas sat on her other side. Immediately, with the enthusiasm of the Queer Eye squad, five other gay men joined us at the table. Apparently, the boys knew who she was, ‘just too intimidated and star-strucked to engage. I was glad to have been the conduit.
She was beautiful, delicate as goldleaf waiting to be applied, a sincere conversationalist who was equally interested in what I did as I was of her celebrity. I remember asking her about that Fortuny-type micro pleated fabric that she’s known for. We also talked about turquoise and how the ones with the most matrix are far more beautiful than the flawless, gem-quality varieties.
On the other side, Linas was also having a unique experience in meeting the designer.
L: “Nice jacket. What brand?”
M: “I designed it.”
L: “Cool. What’s your name?”
I could have buried my face in my hands, but I must admit, there’s an endearing and comedic quality to such fashion credulity, especially being a gay man in New York. He obviously didn’t know her. Linas is a tech genius who could read a Microsoft manual from cover to cover in one seating, yet cannot comprehend why square-toed shoes from Aldo repulsed me with passion.
Remember when I said that Mary is as “delicate as goldleaf ?” Well, later that evening, after large quantities of wine and limoncello were consumed, Mary told a joke that made Linas break into a big laughing streak. While uncontrollably giggling, he pushed (!) Mary’s left shoulder and roared, “You’re too funny! Get out o’ here!”
The boys and I held our breaths in shock, in Jack McFarland fashion. Wind just blew the goldleaf!
I’m sure she wouldn’t recall any part of my little story, but she might remember the man who adored her jacket and laughed at her jokes, seemingly the only gay man at that dinner who didn’t know who she was.
From time to time, Linas would share this tale of the famous designer he almost knocked over at dinner. He’d almost always end the anecdote with the same question: “Who’s that lady again?!”
“Mary. It’s Mary McFadden.”
(Photo of Mary McFadden by James Salzano for the New York Landmarks Conservancy)