Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist

I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist
Betty Halbreich with Rebecca Paley

Betty Halbreich is divorced. She works at a department store and is in sales. She lives in an apartment and takes the bus to work and I’ll Drink to That is her story, the story of a working woman, but not the average working woman. Her apartment is on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she works at Bergdorf Goodman and has a corner office that looks past the Plaza Hotel to Central Park and up Fifth Avenue. She’s a personal shopper and her client list runs from Betty Ford to Betty Cronkite (Walter’s wife), [the late] Joan Rivers and Babe Paley. She routinely advised the costume designers for Sex and the City as it was created and throughout its run. So, if you’re into fashion and in love with grand old department stores, Betty’s story is for you.

Betty gets to work early and spends her mornings pulling clothes from the racks for her clients who show up by appointment later in the day to find perfect ensembles. Ultimately, for all of these women, regardless of their money, it comes down to the dressing room mirror, their bodies and Betty, who as often as not will yell at them to take off the clothes they are trying on before they ever peep at the mirror, a terrifying experience. But the goal is to find something that her clients fall in love with, and according to Betty, if you don’t love it right away, you never will—and if an expensive dress doesn't fit you may as well use it as a dust rag. Her clients come to her for clothes that make them feel marvelous and garner the praise of their peers…the one time they ever wear them.

Betty knows what it’s like to shop for clothes to be worn only once. Her father was the president of a big department store in Chicago and Betty grew up in luxury during the depths of the depression. She married a good-looking, young, rich man and raised a family on the Upper East Side with the help of several servants. They enjoyed the finest entertainment of 1950s New York. She only started working after her children grew up and her marriage fell apart. And jobs just fell into her lap. Fashion designers and department store magnates offered her jobs at cocktail parties. She knew how to dress and she understood the needs and insecurities of rich women, and, in her eighties, she still does. In particular she understands the Chanel jacket.

For decades, on TV and in film and in real life, the Chanel jacket has been the go-to fashion accessory connoting wealth and social class. Betty’s clients, whenever they are feeling insecure about their looks, ask, even beg Betty to sell them a Chanel jacket. It’s their security blanket, but Betty won’t let them off that easy and she challenges them to try for a more personal and distinctive look. She’s tough on them and she is even tougher on herself. This is not an easy story, but the gossip’s great.

If you love fashion and the daily life of grand old department stores, I’ll Drink to That is for you, and you may want to also check out Halbreich’s 2011 book, Secrets of a Fashion Therapist.

Shop ‘till you drop at the Birmingham Public Library.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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