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Betty Knows Best

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She’s right about that. Within moments, Halbreich sees that for all her modesty in conversation, this slender Idaho mom loves clingy, sexy, glimmery things, the sort of stuff you see at the Golden Globe awards, not at a bas mitzvah in Temple Emanu-El that ends before sundown. Slowly, kindly, but with a firm hand, Halbreich guides her to a sheeny suit in an unusual shade of teal by Richard Tyler and a form-fitting but eminently appropriate black lace cocktail dress by a lesser-known designer. The woman fingers a cocktail dress by Richard Tyler that’s a lot vampier.

“Where would you wear something like that?” Halbreich asks pleasantly.

Case closed. After four hours, mother and daughter end up with outfits that speak to their souls without saying anything wrong to the rest of the world. They’re radiant and grateful.

“If you need me,” Halbreich tells them as they depart, “I’m here.”

Nietzsche believed that the only things below the masks people wear in daily life are more masks. Halbreich seems to know this intuitively. After all, she prefers color, decorative touches, and accessories to the stripped-down essentiality of minimalism. Often, when she tries to see through her clients’ stated preferences, it isn’t to force them to confront their deepest selves but rather to help them define the new mask they’re looking for.

“I love this gown, Betty! It’s so wonderful! Thank you!”

It’s Friday, and a veteran soap-opera actress is being fitted in the bare-shouldered red satin gown she’ll be wearing as an honoree at the Soap Opera Digest awards in Los Angeles next week. On TV, she plays a kind woman, and it’s obvious that she’s been typecast perfectly. Her voice quavers as she stares with deep-set, un-made-up eyes at the overwhelming glamour cloaking her plain frame. The gown is so opulent, ravishing, and architecturally extravagant that it’s nicknamed the Chrysler Building. Only it seems bigger.

“This is exactly the gown I imagined,” the actress says. “It’s the gown in my head.”

Halbreich nods. She’s been finding clothes for this actress for twenty years and thinks she knows why she’s drawn to such a bawdy, bare-shouldered number. “Everyone has a fear of something,” she says, after the actress has departed. “She’s terribly afraid of being old.”

The following Monday, Halbreich is facing a real therapist across her desk, an ebullient, socially prominent Upper East Side psychologist with an apartment decorated by Peter Marino and a beautiful pair of legs. She’s a stylish client who has been distracted from shopping for five years by graduate school, but she’s finally back, with Ph.d. and a Chanel bag in tow.

“I’m so happy to see you, Betty,” she says. “Now I’ll never leave.”

For a while, they gossip. Then they talk about the therapeutic process. The real therapist, who has worked at Bellevue, talks about having a short period of time to find out who a client is and what the real issues are. The fashion therapist talks about the fear women have of confronting themselves in the mirror. The real therapist talks about addiction, confidentiality, and being empathic. The fashion therapist wonders why everyone today has to be so low-key.

“Aerin Lauder’s so minimal that she looks like somebody undid her,” she says.

The real therapist, however, doesn’t mind minimalism. She thinks it’s a search for “essentiality.” She also believes that, as a group, psychologists should learn to dress better. “It’s true that if you have form without substance, you’re empty,” she says. “But if you have substance without form, you’re boring.” Pretty heady stuff for Bergdorf Goodman, but then, Halbreich is practiced at talking about anything, from politics to psychology. She thinks it’s part of her job.

“If I only talked about clothes all day,” she says, “I’d be in Payne-Whitney.”

Finally, they get to the clothes she has gathered. And they’re not boring.

“Betty, I love you!” the therapist exclaims as she caresses a white leather jacket by Alber Elbaz for Guy Laroche. “I just want to give you a hug!”

Within seconds, she’s in front of a mirror, getting fitted in a rust-colored mandarin suit by Josie Natori. With the Asian influence in fashion as strong as the yen is weak, it’s a very now outfit. The only thing is, she wants the skirt short, to show off her shapely legs.

“You can’t do that,” Halbreich tells her. “It’s not the trend for spring.”

The therapist won’t have it. “I’m not going to be pushed around by a trend that changes every four months,” she says. “I like my legs and I want it shorter.”

Halbreich knows the suit looks better longer, regardless of trends. What can she say? After it has been pinned up, the therapist asks, “Is this too short? It’s okay, isn’t it?” Halbreich closes her eyes a moment. In her line of work, the customer is not always right, but in this case, faced with such childlike exuberance, she gives her approval. “Yes,” she says, “it’s fine.”

Life is short, even if hemlines are knee-length this spring.


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