When Blue, Wear Red

Featured image
Pauline Trigére trying on a vintage coat at the City Opera Thrift Shop. “When blue, wear red," she was often quoted as saying. Photo: Patrick McMullan

Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Big snowstorm from the Midwest that we’ve been hearing about for the past couple of days came mainly passed us by here in New York. Some flurries, some raindrops and cold wind but otherwise nada. Which is good news; always good to acknowledge. Otherwise, how’re you holding up? Fine? Good.

The extent of the snow.

A couple of days ago I got the following email from Melanie Radley, a reader reminding me of a Diary from February 2002 about Pauline Trigére who died the week before. I remember Pauline well although I’d forgotten about this in memoriam. Ms. Radley was inspired to write (and remind) after watching the Inaugural activities in DC last week, and I share her message:

“20 years ago you wrote a fond, wry, and highly insightful tribute to Pauline Trigére, my always difficult mother-in-law. As much as I admired her as a designer, admittedly, I haven’t thought much about her — our relationship was, to be polite, contentious — but as I watched the inaugural, I realized, Pauline was finally having the last laugh.

“As that panoply of women swirled by in their day outfits of matching coats and dresses, I thought about Pauline — how she perfected that look, with her understanding from her own experiences of women and power. She had pioneered women in pants suits in the Sixties — although at the end of her life she always lamented Hillary’s “Easter Egg” suits as she called them — but her coat ensembles were legendary. 

“Pauline didn’t clothe women so much as she armored them. Her clothes were done with panache and a disciplined cut that were made to exude confidence, sophistication, and glamour, even her evening clothes. Trigére women were outfitted to be the seducers, not seduced. 

“Three cheers for women in pearls and power dressing. Pauline Trigére was the pioneer in women in pantsuits, and at the Inaugural when matching coat and dress ensembles were front and center, she must have been cheering from her atelier somewhere up there. It was her favorite daytime look, it added great drama to a grand entrance, bespoke confidence and experience and she did it with vivid colors.”

Pauline Trigére in 2000 at Judy Green’s annual holiday party.

After reading Ms. Radley’s message I went back to our archives to find the piece. I had naturally forgotten how long ago it was that Pauline Trigére left us, and I made my search with the pleasure of thinking of how nice it was to have known her.  

And here it is, first published on February 20, 2002:

Pauline Trigére died at her apartment here in New York last week. Appropriately, I thought, during fashion collections week.

We had several broken luncheon engagements in the past three months, either from her side or mine. Although I did see her last December when they presented her with the medal of chevalier of the French Legion of Honor at the French Cultural Consulate, “in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the world of fashion.” The medal is the highest bestowed by the French government. Founded by Napoleon, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is made up of five ranks: chevalier, officier, commandeur, grand officier and grand croix. It is awarded each year to a limited number of French and non-French recipients.

When she took the podium to make her acceptance speech, she looked as chic as she always did, wearing a red blouse and, if my memory serves, matching red pants, with gold earrings and bracelets. She often wore red and was often quoted for her line: “when blue, wear red.” Her hair was brushed back meticulously in the same smart and practical style she had for more than four decades, and she was wearing her signature slightly tinted eyeglasses.

She had reached her ninety-third birthday only about a month
before. Yet, except for the number, there was no physical indication of great age. She was one of those rare birds who remained young all her life. She was still graced with a youthfulness of bearing that deserts a lot of us by age forty. Her posture, standing or sitting, was always erect. Her gait was solid and noble. As was her state of mind, which was very liberal in terms of society.

Speaking with her characteristic directness that night — in that softly husky voice with the French inflection — she announced that the future of fashion was, in one word: “vintage.”

Everyone laughed; Pauline smiled broadly. Many present were aware, as she reminded, that some of the most coveted clothes being worn by fashionable young women today are vintage items made by the famous designers of Trigére’s age.

Trigére red.

I called her Pauline, but in my mind, she was Trigére, a kind of large, almost legendary presence. One of the great gifts of my business is the opportunity to meet some remarkable human beings, people who can be fairly called “great.” Trigére was one of them.

She was a no-nonsense girl, with the gift of friendship. I’d known her for several years now. She introduced herself to me at a party by praising my work as a writer and as an editor. Naturally I was very flattered, especially as it was coming from someone who spoke with a certainty assisted by long experience.

I think the first time we lunched, it was to interview her (I can’t remember the piece it was for). It was also a great chance to get to know her. I have great affinity for people who are much older than I am, people who have led active and stimulating lives. They often have much to share both in memories and in perceptiveness. They are also great historical resources. They can also be great friends. The wise ones, and I do believe Pauline was one of the wise ones, also have sage advice when called upon.

So we became fast friends. Never with the closeness that comes with time, but Pauline imparted a sense of intimacy immediately.

She was always curious about people, feisty in outlook, and direct in expressing herself. She was quick to notice irony, and although perhaps sympathetic, quick to turn from fools, and quick to laugh.

I could imagine that she must have been difficult as a mother. I’ve known a couple other women of her generation (same as my mother’s), who have since passed on, and although they were wonderful, even great, as friends, motherhood wasn’t their ace.

An early Pauline Trigère design for Woman’s Day magazine, photographed by Leombruno-Bodi.

At one of our lunches, she talked about age. She had just lost a friend to cancer who was “very young.” I asked how old. “She was seventy-two, and that is very young when you get to my age,” she said with sadness in her voice. She’d also recently lost another friend, the producer/manager Anna Sosenko. She and Sosenko talked on the phone every day.

Sosenko was also a strong character and quite inflexible in her opinions. Pauline said she could be impossible at times, would even call just to express some slight she’d felt and then hang up. I could imagine Sosenko might have said much the same thing about Pauline. Pauline laughed, however, as she recalled those incidents. No matter, Sosenko’s passing was a great loss. For Pauline it was one which marked the approach to her own mortality.

Pauline Trigère with model Beverly Valdez in 1961.

She’d had a long professional life and was very successful. Although WWD pointed out that she’d never really made the big money that big designers now make. Part of her friendship with me was, as it is in New York life, professional. She was still interested in promoting her causes, and herself professionally. Opportunities might just come along, you never know. She wasn’t naïve; the survivor’s optimism was part of her character.

Over the holidays she caught that bad flu-cold that was going around, and couldn’t rid herself of it. Nothing she took helped, she told me, and she “felt tired all the time.” Hearing that troubled me, because of her age and because she was such a hardy person.

However, her ailments didn’t keep her house-bound.

Last October I went to lunch with her at Michael’s. After lunch, as we were leaving, she asked Steve Millington, the restaurant’s General Manager where the ladies room was. He told her, and she bounded up the steps in that direction.

“Did you see how she took those steps?” Millington, a guy in his thirties, asked in amazement. “How old is she anyway?”

I told him. “Wow!” he said, astounded, adding “great legs, too.” Great legs, too. Really.

Pauline Trigére, looking as glamorous as she always was, in her leopard coat.

I am sorry for my personal loss of friendship, but not for Pauline. She lived to a good age, always with her health and mind intact. She was energetic and full of talent. The only thing I regretted for her, in the short time that I knew her, was that age prevented people from using her talent. She was a worker — disciplined, steely — and an achiever. She would have been working if she could have had it her way. That, I believe, was her secret to a long, rich, and successful life. Trigére; it was a big life. And lucky was I, to have known her.

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