Thursday, January 5, 2012

My love affair with Betsey Johnson

Even as a child, I was always into fashion. I loved going through my mother’s closets and putting together outfits. I used to “design” outfits for my Tammy doll. Mother was an excellent seamstress and would stitch them together. Tammy had several “Sally-contour” outfits including an aqua leather jacket and skirt and several monogrammed dresses.

At that time when my father drove a cab on the weekends, to help pay for my private school education, he would stop at the huge newspaper stand in downtown Detroit and pick up a Sunday New York Times. When he would finally make it home from driving all night, I would literally attack him for the fashion section.

I loved looking at the latest in haute couture from Givenchy, Pucci, Lavin, and Chanel. The 1960s seemed to be a turning point in fashion. The shift from couture to ready-to-wear for designers was in full swing. It seemed the “average” woman no longer wanted to be average.

Betsey Johnson began her career in fashion in London by using non traditional materials such as car lining and shower curtain fabrics. Her designs were soon sought after by the likes of Twiggy, Julie Christie and Brigitte Bardot.

In 1971, at age 28, she won the Coty award for her influence on American fashion. In the early 1970’s she founded Alley Cat line and her ready-to-wear became very hot items. In 2003 Betsey branched out and began her accessories lines. Her bags and jewelry are well sought after. Her bubbly style, childlike enthusiasm and end-of-show cartwheels  have  influenced countless young designers and continues to do so.

I first saw Betsey Johnsons’ work in Seventeen magazine in the early 1970’s. It was a full  (and I do mean FULL) color article featuring her “Alley Cat” clothing line. It included pictures and a bio. It also had some of her “doodles”. I read it, I drooled over it, I slept with it under my pillow. Her work was everything I had been searching for!

Soon after, I discovered that Butterick had produced Betsey Johnson Alley Cat sewing patterns. My mother and I headed to the fabric store to purchase one (or 2, I think) and select the perfect fabric. That particular trip took 3 hours. Pairing just the right fabric (without breaking our budget) was time consuming. I found a bright apple green knit for the skirt and an apple print for the top. The suit fabric was to be a floral knit with a bone background and tiny flowers in muted pastel colors. The halter top was in a sea blue nylon.

I was so excited about the impending outfits I could hardly sleep--for days!

With my very first paycheck from my full-time job at Hudson’s in 1972,  I purchased an Alley Cat top and skirt that was on markdown. My mom wasn’t even mad. As a matter of fact, she loved it. My dad thought it was “too damn short!”

As soon as I could grow my hair long enough, I wore it braided up like hers with clips and barrettes.

Betsy Johnson’s vintage designs are still much loved. Her looks remain whimsical, fun, and current. A nice variety of vintage Betsy Johnson Alley Cat items can be found online at Etsy and Ebay.

Betsey Johnson’s Official site:


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