I'll Drink to That, the memoir from legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich, is more than just a book about fashion. Sure, there are tons of stories of little, lonely Betty playing in her mother's closet among bottles of Joy perfume, of working for "Mr Beene" (no one would ever have called the mid-century designer anything else), of the golden sable coat that still, to this day, hasn't turned color. (They do that, you know.) But equally interesting is the way Halbreich's life unfolds, and how she managed to turn a passion into a salvation. Halbreich's voice "“ on the page and in person "“ doesn't have a soupcon of little-old-lady; what I like best is that it's peppered with barbs and idioms of her era. (Now that I've talked to Halbreich, I appreciate that co author Rebecca Paley is a genius channeler; Halbreich in person sounds just like Paley has made her read on the page.) Sure, she rambles a bit "“ but, as she reminds you often, she is 87. Besides, she says she's not crazy about all this attention she's getting. (Methinks the lady doth demur a bit.) But all I can tell you is that the only thing better than a half hour conversation with Betty Halbreich might be Betty Halbrech looking around your closet for half an hour. But, alas: she doesn't make house calls. (I asked.)
Q: You were featured in a beloved documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's) and have been the subject of an article in The New Yorker. Lena Dunham (of Girls fame) is developing a TV show around you. And now you have this book: can you say why you decided this was the time to write it?
A: I think this was a catharsis. It's a strange thing about my life. I've never had to look for a job, I never wanted to write a book. Someone I knew always pushed me. I always have to be pushed. Everything I do, someone has to take me with an invisible hand and leave me. I'm not a self motivated person, but once I start to do something, I always belong to the Clean Plate Club.
Q: Were you always obsessed with clothes?
A: I cared about clothes. I care visually about clothes. My mother loved clothes and was fashionable, and I guess I grew up in a world of looking around. It's [the love of fashion and art] is sort of inbred; it's truly something you're born with. My daughter knows about painting and art. She's the associate director of the Modern [Museum of Modern Art]. My son is a nonprofessional photographer. So we are sort of visual people. I don't add, I don't subtract, I don't divide and I don't use the computer. Visual people sometimes have a very difficult time.
Q: You get the sense from the book that fashion advice is not the only kind of counsel that your clients are seeking...
A: Here in the dressing rooms, you wouldn't believe what comes out. And they say things like: My husband says I should wear this or that, and what do you think? Half of the women cannot face themselves in the mirror... but they can face me. They can face the stranger, but not themselves. They don't feel secure, but maybe I make them feel secure because of my age. They have nothing to fear from me.
Q: Don't you think we all grow up with "rules" in our heads about what we can and cannot wear, rules maybe our mothers or the fashion world told us.
A: Well, you can take those rules and scratch them right now! I said to young Emily (her assistant at Solutions, the personal shopping department at Bergdorf) who's my right hand, my left hand and half of my brain: "Everybody is wearing white pants!" In my day you never wore white pants in the city. Maybe at the beach, but not tight ones. I see size 20s in white pants: where do they find them? They look like they're going to be beached. I can't wait until winter when everybody puts a coat on.
Q: But size 20s have a right to be fashionable, don't they?
A: Yes, of course, but it can be very difficult. I say my most difficult clients (to dress) are the 12s, 14s and 16s: they're the lost ladies. Nobody wants to dress her, give her a sleeve, or some length. My department shouldn't be called Solutions. It should be called Challenge.
Q: Do women dress for fashion, for men, or for each other?
A: Don't you think people should be comfortable in their own skin? I always say it's how you carry yourself. A lot of dressing is to make you feel good, but sometimes it has to do with your peer group. You want to look like your group. And we're all into a youth thing: I abhor what everyone's doing to themselves: the injections and the redoing. There's a lack of individuality. Do women dress for women or men? Both, I think, but when someone says to me that they took a dress home and Joe didn't like it, I say, "You know. Don't wear it around him. Don't let him make you hate that dress!"
Q: If you had to pick your favorite item of clothing, what would it be?
A: Well, there's that sable, still in my closet... The cabochon ring my mother gave me is the most important thing in my life. Every morning when I put it on I hear my mother saying, "You wear that every day of your life." My mother was one tough broad. I have a love hate relationship with the old world. I'm thrilled that I can be part of this [modern] world. I really don't know how it happened. Somebody is taking care of me. So many people my age, they're in wheelchairs. I'm in heels!