My friend Debbie Council is one of the classiest, most sophisticated women I know. She and I worked together as newspaper reporters at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, California, over a decade ago. Debbie was the Society Editor and covered local philanthropic and charitable events. Our desks were right next to each other which meant I had the privilege of getting to know her.
In addition to being smart, kind and full of life, I admired how put-together Debbie always looked. Her thoughtful, coordinated outfits. Perfectly manicured nails, pretty lipstick, never a hair out of place. She wasn't one to shy away from color and patterns and I could tell she loved expressing herself through clothes. Debbie was a beacon of fashion light in that ugly, drab newsroom.
These days the Indio, California resident is enjoying the retired life with her husband, John. Meeting friends for afternoon cocktails by the golf course, playing bunco and spending a good portion of the year traveling in their 27-foot Airstream trailer. They're currently traversing the US from California to Florida down to Key West, up the East Coast to North Carolina and then back west through Memphis, Nashville, Tulsa and Denver.
Livin' the good life and lookin' good, Deb!
Jennifer Cho Salaff (JCS): Does fashion matter? Why or why not?
Debbie Council (DC): Yes, fashion matters. It matters because it reflects who you are. My mother always told me that first impressions were important. That meant you were well groomed when you walked out the front door.
I was born in 1947 in Pensacola, Florida. My impressionable years for fashion blossomed in the 60s. However, I don't consider myself a flower child. My mother always "dressed" when leaving the house. Where you were going dictated what you wore. Church was for dresses, earrings, jewelry and a hat (like the photo above -- that's me, in high school, and my mom -- all dressed up for church!). You never left the house without your makeup or lipstick on. I'm not even sure my mother had a pair of jeans until many years later when style became more relaxed.
I am an only child. When I was younger my mother employed a seamstress to make a lot of my clothes. Maybe it was a matter of affordability. When I was in junior high and high school, she and I shopped at the mall. The "in" thing for my age group at the time was Villager and Levi's. You couldn't wear jeans, slacks or culottes to high school (culottes might encourage a young lady to sit with her legs open instead of knees together or crossed... Really!). I graduated in 1965.
JCS: Who is your fashion muse?
DC: I have always loved the way Audrey Hepburn looked in the movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I love slim Capri pants and simple tops. I also remember the influence that Jackie Kennedy had on fashion. And I love Kate Middleton's fashion sense.
JCS: What is one item of clothing or accessory you carry with you or wear every day?
DC: Earrings, purse and sunglasses. Sometimes I wear a long scarf either wrapped, knotted or just hanging. I have all colors and patterns. I use the wider ones as a wrap if I'm cold instead of a jacket depending on the time of year.
JCS: Worst fashion trend (current or past)?
DC: The muumuu! It's an appropriate style for Hawaii, but it looks more like a nightgown or maternity outfit. Also, bell bottom pants. I wore them because they were popular, but looking back I don't think I'd wear those again. I don't like real busy, large, flowery or psychedelic patterns.
JCS: Favorite fashion trend?
DC: I prefer the slim fit Capri-length pant with a ballet shoe or open toe flat. I also re-discovered the polka dot. I have a pair of black capris with tiny white dots, a white sleeveless blouse with a black polka dot, a white scarf with big black polka dots, and a hat that I bought for a Woman's Club of Indio fundraiser called, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (in the photo below).
JCS: You were always so stylish, even as a child! Do you remember the first time you were conscious of a thing called fashion?
DC: Probably looking through teen movie star magazines (Ann Margret, Annette Funicello) and the fashion worn in movies like "Bye Bye Birdie" and TV shows like American Bandstand. I loved Jackie Kennedy's fashion sense. I follow trends if they look good on me. I don't have to wear trendy labels unless it's timeless and I can afford it.
JCS: How has your style evolved over the years?
DC: I went through the Eddie Bauer "preppy" stage in the 90s when I worked on my undergraduate degrees at Chaffey College and Cal State Fullerton. I also loved the pant suit, but don't favor those anymore (the photo below, from 1992, is one of the few geometric print dresses I owned). I've followed trends that I see on television, on the street and on my friends. If I really like a certain look I'll stop someone and ask, "Where did you get that?"
My go-to stores are H&M, Chico's, Talbots, Macy's and Stein Mart. As you age, your style should change with you. Youth calls for a certain look like crop tops, short shorts, mini dresses and skin-tight pants that flatter a more youthful figure. Like the looks below (me in 1968; and the professional black-and-white photo of me modeling, in the late 60s or early 70s!). I call these my "cheesecake photos" -- to keep John looking forward to coming home from his service in Vietnam.
But as you mature, become a mom, move in professional circles or a particular lifestyle, your style matures and changes with you. The times influence what you wear. Periodically I'll go through my closet and pull out what outdates me. I went through a phase where I loved the long skirt and layered blouse belted (like in the photo below, with my daughter Katy). I think I got that from a Ralph Lauren ad, and Coldwater Creek carried that look for a while.
My preferred word to describe my style would be "classic." I've always loved clothes. My mother said I was a clothes horse, whatever that means. Even now that my husband and I are retired and living in the Southern California desert, I want to look like I cared about what I put on that day. It's nice to be noticed and complimented. Desert or country club casual is probably what describes my style these days. I don't wear heels anymore. But flats can be dressy. Not sure I could wear the elevator shoes my younger friends crave. From head to toe, style matters.
JCS: Speaking of the desert, how has retirement living affected your style?
DC: My society editor suits, cocktail dresses and evening gowns hang on the highest rod and rarely get worn. "Desert casual" is the norm here in restaurants. Unless it's a fast food restaurant, I wouldn't wear jeans out to dinner. I wear mostly Capri pants and a slip on top or blouse, flats and a scarf. Or I'll wear a skirt, blouse and a simple jacket. Summer in the desert requires Bermuda shorts, a solid color T-shirt or golf-style shirt and sandals. Packing for travel in our Airstream trailer is is a challenge for me. It requires planning weeks ahead.
JCS: Describe your figure.
DC: I'm 5'9" and considered trim/thin by my friends. When I was in high school I did some modeling and was in fashion shows for Sears, Roebuck and Co. I don't remember how I got into that. (That's me in the middle, in the photo below.)
Because I'm tall I hide bulges well. Your body changes after motherhood and during the aging process. You either embrace it or do something about it. I'm not overweight by medical standards, but I weigh 25 lbs. more now than I did when I was in my 30s and 40s. I used to exercise every day but I've let that slip some since we retired and it shows.
JCS: When do you feel most sexy?
DC: I feel most sexy when I'm trim and in good shape. I feel good about myself when I look in the mirror and like what I have on. What makes me happy is if someone compliments me on what I'm wearing. Sometimes a few things I throw together just happen to make a statement. I play with my clothes. I mix and match. I'm a spur of the moment kind of dresser.
JCS: What are you trying to do or achieve when you dress?
DC: I want my appearance to say that I care about myself, that I pay attention to details and that I want my husband to be proud to walk next to me. He always compliments me when we dress to go out to dinner or to a friend's house. We've been married 48 years (that's a photo of us at our anniversary dinner!) and I still want to please my husband. And I'm not just talking about the clothes I wear. Makeup, lipstick, spending money on keeping my hair stylish and my nails pretty. I want to feel good about myself. The more I age, the harder I try and harder I have to try!
JCS: How has your background (where you grew up, your heritage, etc.) affected the way you dress?
DC: Growing up in the South during the 50s and 60s, women were expected to present themselves in a positive way and make a good impression. Today, I wouldn't be caught dead shopping in sweat pants and my hair in rollers. My philosophy is that you don't need a lot of money to be stylish. Thrift stores have hidden treasures if you have the time and patience. I've nabbed some cute, casual items at Kohl's, Target and Wal-Mart.
JCS: You have quite the style retrospective, Debbie. More than 50 years of fashion, so far! I love all your looks throughout the years.
DC: In the 60s I liked head scarves. In 1976 I had the Olympic Gold Medalist Dorothy Hamill's wedge haircut (look at that black-and-white family photo!). In the 80s it was the curly perm (that's me on the left in that beach photo from 1986). That tells me that the decades I lived through definitely had an influence on my choice of clothing and style. Thanks, Jennifer for my stroll down memory lane. I was laughing out loud at some of these pictures!
Photos courtesy of Debbie Council.