1930s + 1970s: It’s a Beautiful Day for a Costume

If I were attempting to channel Little Edie in response to the pandemic, I might indulge in play, in costuming. I might sing and dance or read about astrological signs. I might feed stray animals or lounge in the sun, spy on the neighborhood happenings or make a quick trip to the store for a little ice cream for myself and my cohabitant. Truth be told, I’ve done a little of all these things. But, in true Little Edie fashion, I have also attempted sincere self-reflection.

If you aren’t familiar with Little Edie, the affectionate nickname given to the junior Edith Beale of Grey Gardens, allow me to introduce her to you. The Beales, a mother and daughter both named Edie, were the well-to-do aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The family knew money, high-society, and extravagance. But after husband and father Phelan Beale left the picture, Big and Little Edie were left with their 28-room mansion in the Hamptons and, according to Biography.com, little else.

Both women were performers: Big Edie a classical singer and Little Edie a model and aspiring actress. Little Edie ended her New York socialite days in the early 1950s to return home and take care of her mother. For the next 25 years, the women lived in what became a dilapidated home occupied by themselves and a host of raccoons and stray cats. In 1973 they eagerly became the subjects of David and Albert Maysles’ documentary Grey Gardens.

In the film, Edie and her mother are occasionally shown bonding–over a radio program, gossip, or the well-being of their “pets”. But more often presented is a passive-aggressive resentment from Little Edie and a put-out bossiness on the part of Big Edie. Understandably, being closed in with one person presents both its joys and challenges. No, I don’t find myself wondering what my life would be like if I weren’t with my husband Daniel. But do I find myself longing for the ease with which we moved freely in our outside world before Covid-19. Like Edie, I find myself resenting the choices of others (in our case, those who have chosen not to take the virus seriously) and wondering what connections I could be making in my desired fields of writing and and art if I weren’t so shut in. In perhaps not ways as extreme as the Beales’ situation, it is also a time of reflecting on one’s family: the pasts, presents and futures or ourselves and those we are closest to.

While she and I both hold strong opinions about a lot of things and as she was a self-described “S-T-A-U-N-C-H” character, Edie also chose to make the most of her life and her situation. Especially in regard to the Grey Gardens documentary, Edie was well known for her love of “costumes,” iconically describing her look to the filmmakers one morning by telling them, “I think this is the best costume for the day.”

The look I donned for this shoot was intended as an homage to her style. Because Edie was a society girl, I felt it was fitting to wear this balloon sleeved velvet blouse from the decade she was honored with a debutante party: the 1930s. The skirt and rust-colored cape (which, is there anything more dramatic or possibly Edie-approved than a cape?) date to the 1970s, and the scarf is vintage as well. Scarves–and improvised scarves–were a big part of Little Edie’s wardrobe, as she had suffered hair loss because due to alopecia. Edie was inventive and playful and knew the importance of expressing herself even when no one else could see her.

There is a world and a life past this one, past the one full of fear and frustration, and it takes a lot to remind myself that sometimes. I don’t mean just spiritually, but physically, too, in this lifetime. Throughout this pandemic, I’ve had creative highs and lows. Great, exciting possibilities and rather debilitating slumps. I have to continually check in with myself on what I want to do with my life and with the privilege I’ve been given and the talents I’ve nurtured.

Sometimes I’m not ready for that challenge. I have too often been unwilling to make a plan of action after confronting the systemic ugliness in our world and the ways in which I’ve benefited from it. I don’t know where exactly I go from here, but I think if I were to channel Little Edie, I would find that it was best to be honest with myself and with the kind of person I am capable of choosing to be. A person who cares about the lives of those closest to me, but also about the lives I cannot see.

People have long debated the Beales’ circumstances, wondering who in their right minds would live the way they did. But their connections and status as white women, for the most part, protected them.

A few years before filming, the local government threatened to evicted the Beales because of how bad a shape the property was in. Cousin Jackie stepped in with the money needed to make repairs, and, temporarily, clean-up, and they were spared the ordeal of leaving their home. That kind of safety net isn’t necessarily available for Black communities who are struggling with the places they live. Recognizing that, and perhaps even introducing that idea to others, is only a beginning. I often start and stop projects, losing momentum when convenient. But I am adamant that I must continue to learn what my role is in making this world a more just and livable and beautiful place. It will take more than a few staunch women to do that.

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