Saturday, July 08, 2006

Miss Lorraine's School of Charm and Modelling

When I was a child in the early 60's, Jackie Kennedy was a national icon, and up until I was about 7 or 8 years old, we dressed up for dinner at Grandma's, trips on an airplane, and holidays. "Dress up" meant stiff dresses with starched petticoats, black patent leather Mary Janes, and often little white cotton gloves. Here's a picture from Christmas, probably 1962.

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The pedal-powered race car was a present from our Grandma. That's me in the car, and my sister, who shall be known only as Spot (her request) in the cowboy hat.

It's not for nothing that I threw in the Jackie Kennedy reference above. For white, middle-class women my mother's age, she was The Ideal Woman. From her taste in clothes, her slender figure, her bouffant hairdo's and uber feminine mannerisms, she set the standard that upwardly-mobile women aspired to. I don't think my mother was the only one in our neighborhood who harbored visions of slender, cultured, tennis-playing, French-speaking debutante daughters to live out their Jackie fantasies.

The light years between that vision and the reality of the two daughters she had to work with caused my mother much consternation. First, there was me: chubby, clumsy, with fine mousy brown hair that looked stringy if not brushed constantly (note the Pixie cut in the picture...I spent my childhood pining for hair long enough to braid) and horse crazy on top of all that, forget the tennis lessons. My sister, though thin, was a confirmed tomboy, who hated those stiff dresses even more than I and who preferred to play with Matchbox cars and GI Joes. She climbed trees and did James Bond kid-karate with the neighbor boys (breaking her collarbone once while practicing being flipped one's shoulder). We picked our noses, scraped our knees, had to be reminded to chew with our mouths closed and had no interest in the girly arts, such as walking up and down the hall balancing books on our heads like Hayley Mills in "Summer Magic."

The sign outside Miss Lorraine's School of Charm and Modelling must have glowed like a beacon for my mother. Situated on San Antonio Road, just north of El Camino (about a block from where Chef Chu's now continues to serve up some pretty consistently awesome Chinese food) in a small 60's "ranch style" shopping center, Miss Lorraines offered classes in "cotillion", manners, ballroom dancing for children and, of course, modelling. We passed it on our occasional family trips to Sears for garden hoses and such, and soon my mother began holding it over our heads like a switch. "If you can't start behaving like young ladies, I'm going to send you to Miss Lorraine's!" she'd threaten. (This replaced the threat from earlier days in which our bad behavior would result in being sent to live with The Indians, an idea that actually held a certain attraction for me because I figured I'd get my own pony.) Probably the only thing that actually stopped her from signing us up for indenture there was the worry of being judged pretentious by the other neighbor ladies.

My sister and I managed to elude Miss Lorraine's manicured clutches until the year I was seven, and a new upscale children's clothing store opened up on Main Street (and I believe is still there to this day). Unlike most children's clothing of the day, many of their ensembles mimicked contemporary adult styles. I particularly remember a couple of dresses designed to look like miniature Chanel suits that I regularly wore in second grade (of course not without commentary from my mother that they'd look so much better on me if I were thin). Presumably because she became an immediate and regular customer of this shop (ka-ching!), the owner asked my mother if she'd be willing to allow my sister and I to model some of the clothes in local fashion shows. But we'd have to take a modelling class to learn to navigate a catwalk. Eureka! This was the rock-solid excuse my mother needed to justify a set of classes at Miss Lorraine's. I think she figured she'd get us in the door on the modelling pretext, and before you could say "foxtrot" we'd be enrolled the Debutante Intesive Study program.

I honestly don't remember much about the modelling classes. I know that we went for 2 or 3 weeks for an hour at a time, and that there were about six kids in each class. We learned how to walk and turn and to SMILE! (dammit) and that we should want people to think we were having a good time. I do remember that my sister hated the whole idea, and would stomp across the dance floor like a construction worker in steel-toed boots.

Somewhere, there is the Super-8 evidence of our debut as child models which if I'm lucky has by now dissolved to dust. I remember the venue was outdoors, the day was hot, and that I was in a velvet dress and doing my best not to sweat. As part of the package, I was assigned to carry a brass trumpet. By the time it was my turn to go onstage, I was sweltering in the dress, and the trumpet felt as heavy as a bag of bricks. I remember little of my turn on the runway, but the home movies show a chubby girl with short hair in a red velvet dress shlepping that trumpet on her shoulder like a fireman rescuing an invalid from a burning building. My sister clomped down the runway, hunched over and with a scowl on her face, the very picture of seething resentment. (I always give my sister credit for being true to herself and honest about her feelings, regarless of whether that made anyone else happy or not. I've spent far too much of my life trying to be a Good Girl and to please others, and it's taken me decades to cultivate some of the chutzpah and sense of self she seems to have been born with.) My mother did not hide her disappoinment well that we had not been transformed into Poised Young Ladies. I think we did one more fashion show after that, and then she and the shop proprietor gave up on us. If I remember correctly, the second time I was selected to wear a baggy flannel nightgown as presumably this would not point up my obvious chubbiness. So much for the glamour of it all.

Threats of Saturday afternoon "charm" classes Miss Lorraine's were dropped not long afterward. Funny thing is, I can still do those model pivot-turns.


Anonymous citizen spot said...

OMG, does this bring back the memories. I vaguely remember the modelling of those horrendous outfits, and the constant threats of "doing time" at Miss Lorraine's. Hah! But I still can't play the piano, tennis, or speak a word of French, except for a few "key" phrases learned from some French boys who were visiting exchange students in the early 70's. But that is another story. ; )
And yes, I hated those dresses and shoes. And the damn white gloves. But that red race car was wicked cool!

11:05 PM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

Yep, it was so much cooler than the surrey.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Maya's Granny said...

What our mothers did to us! Mine was also determined to turn me into a lady. It was an uphill battle and, thank God, she lost. But those frilly dresses! Mine were white with eyelet embroidery. And, since my childhood was the early 40s, no wash and wear. My poor mother washed on a scrub board and ironed those awful dresses (that had to be buttoned down the back! Yet another way to keep us helpless) and I would stain them with pomegranites and rip them climbing trees. My mother tried ballet to straighten me out, and when that didn't work, pictured me coming home from college wearing circle pins with my hair in a page boy. And I? I went to UC Berkeley in the 60s and came home a hippy! Poor Mom!

1:12 AM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

Good ol' Berkeley! I wanted to go there and got accepted, but it was a year after they Patty Hearst kidnapping and my parents said "no way!" They used that as an excuse, but I think it was my potential radicalization they were worried about too.

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved your story and do appreciate your outlook. It really brought the memories back about Miss Lorraine's. Unlike you however, I had to beg my mother to part with her hard-earned wages (as a elementary school teacher) to let me attend. I loved the school! It somehow made me much more comfortable in my gawcky, awkward body at the time. I obtained a totally different image of myself in that studio than the one I'd grown accustomed to at school. I even ended up working for Lorraine for a while. It sure beat cutting apricots in the orchard sheds or serving up burgers in the summer for earning clothes money. Hey, it couldn't have been all that bad, or we wouldn't enjoy looking back so much the way we do! Thank you, Mommy!

1:29 PM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

I'm glad it was a good experience for you. I do wonder if such a business would do well today. I was reading a few years ago about "charm schools" for business executives to learn ediquette (like which fork to use or how to butter a roll at a fancy business dinner, or handshake protocols) but I don't know if such schools still exist outside of a certain social set for kids.

7:02 AM  
Blogger jason said...

This is my aunt lorraine. she now lives in santa cruz. and....she still is a life coach. she does one large show a year in santa cruz at the civic center. still is involved in large fashion shows. she still works with designers and famous fashion photographers from all over the san francisco area to raise money for scholarships for young people who have chosen the fashion industry as their career. her email is
I have benefitted from my Aunt Miss Lorraine's teachings throughout my life and have passed down many of her wise teachings to my own 7 children, who modeled in a few fashion shows to raise money for the homeless of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada that my aunt helped organize and host.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

Hi Jason - please tell your Aunt Lorraine that I can still do those model catwalk turns. They're permanently etched into my muscle memory. :-) I'd probably appreciate her teachings much more today (could certainly use help with my posture!) than I did as a reluctant chubby child model. If you check out my other blog, , you'll see that I did ultimately develop an interest in style. Maybe those early fashion shows had something to do with it.

7:11 AM  
Blogger jason said...

My son's email account must have been open when I responded. My email is I am going to be 49 in June and visited your site at I registered there and posted a very recent picture of my aunt Lorraine and I. She had many laughs when I shared your posts with her. She will be estatic that some teachings stuck with you.
I sent you an email ) but it was returned.

8:17 AM  
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11:13 PM  

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