“Why are you so dressed up?” … “You’re so elegant”… “Robin, why are you wearing lipstick? You’re only going to the supermarket”. I’ve always been asked about my fashion sense. While touring with Simple Minds, David Bowie or overseas with Dreams Come True and other bands. Like many of us we are the product of our environment and the rearing of our parents. To that end, in order for me to answer the question of why, I’ve got to go back to the way I was raised by my mama, and all the things she said.
It was the summer of 1962 and we had just moved to Harlem. As a 12 year old girl my impressions of beauty and fashion were now not only governed by the fashions of the local “Church Ladies” but by images of the changing trends not only in our neighborhood, but on television. Bell bottom pants, leopard print fabrics, platform shoes, capes, fringed vest … nothing was too “far out,” not only for women, but for men as well.
At that time my sister Leslie and I were raised primarily by my mother Rita Clark, as my father drummer Bill Clark, was a touring musician with the George Shearing Quartet. She was a trained cosmetologist and beautician. At one point my mom worked for Coty, the famed cosmetics company. One of her jobs was creating nail polish. The first time I ever saw white, blue, green or purple nail polish was because my mother brought the samples home from work. She told me not to touch them….and of course I did. I couldn’t help myself, as I was fascinated and mesmerized by what I assumed was a magical liquid potion in a bottle!
Suffice it to say, my mother loved all things beautiful. Fashion, makeup, mani’s, pedi’s, jewelry, art, music, dance, as well as a tremendous love of people. Mrs. Clark was a real artist. By being a beautician, she made sure that her two daughters were always “snatched”. Our hair was always done right. It was washed, pressed and curled on the weekends for church and braided neatly during the week for school. A couple of my mother’s favorite sayings were “Beauty, knows no pain” and “You will not leave my house, rough dried”. The second statement meant that all clothing would have to be ironed before leaving the house … or else.
When Easter would roll around you’d find my mother at the sewing machine, like Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, whipping up our Easter finery. I remember one year we wanted the “Jackie Kennedy look,” down to her “Pill Box” hat and her clutch purse. Well, that was no small feat. Somehow she managed not only to turn out two sheath dresses with reversible faux Chanel jackets, she also made the hats and clutch bags in the same fabric that matched the lining of the jackets. Needless to say, she was “hell bent for leather” when it came to sewing for us. Because her passion to create something beautiful for her two daughters was insatiable, she would stay up all night, if she had to. Her pride in seeing us go to Church on Easter Sunday morning in her outfits, was her joy. But those outfits would have to be taken off when we came home from church, and then put back on after dinner for our annual pilgrimage to the Apollo Theater’s Easter Sunday Gospel Caravan.
The Easter Sunday Gospel Caravan event at the Apollo theatre was a major annual event for Black people in Harlem. Men, women, children and families from all faiths and walks of life would come in their Sunday best, “dressed to the nines” and ready for their souls to be moved by an event like none other. Although I was raised Catholic and use to hearing Gregorian chants, my mother loved Gospel Music. On one show you would see the Superstars of Gospel. Stars like Mahalia Jackson, The Soul Stirrers Featuring Sam Cooke, The Five Blind Boys From Alabama, Clara Ward And The Clara Ward Singers, Rev. James Cleveland and The James Cleveland Singers, Albertina Walker, The Caravans, Dorothy Norwood, The Gospelaires and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her guitar… all on the same day. It was also the only show I had ever seen where there were nurses standing in the aisles. I found this rather odd, until my mother explained that they were there to aid whoever was overcome with the Holy Ghost …“Ghost? What ghost, mama? What’s the Holy Ghost mama?” I would ask. And she answered, “It’s not really a ghost, honey. It’s the spirit of God that makes you wanna dance. It’s called the Saint Vitus Dance.” Of course, this just brought on more questions, until I saw for myself what it all really meant. This dance did not care about fashion.
All that fashion, all that preparation did not matter. Because when the Holy Ghost took over, all that fashion would be rolling all “up and down” the aisles of the Apollo Theatre floor. Crumpled hats, disheveled suits, pompadours flattened, wigs-a-flying, ripped blouses, torn off flowers and the look of horror on the other little children’s faces. My look of horror was based on the fact that my mother would have beat us silly if we even wrinkled our clothes. But here we were, at the famous Apollo Theatre where grown adults were not the least bit concerned over their Sunday-best being destroyed, as they roll around sweatin’, hoopin’ and hollerin’ with no thought what so ever about Fashion.
As we walked home all I could do was snicker to myself and point out the dusty, now ill-fitting wardrobe of those participants of the “Saint Vitus Dance.” I swore to stay in Catholic church for as long as fashion permitted, but eventually we did join Rev. Alvin Childs Baptist church and I became a member of the choir. To this day I have never experienced the Holy Ghost … I wonder why?