For Proust’s narrator, it was a petite madeleine that evoked the past. For Tracy Tynan, it’s clothing: apple-green shoes. Her mother’s Pucci dress. A black trenchcoat. In Tynan’s candid memoir, Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life (Scribner, 2016), each of the 36 chapters tells a story prompted by the memories associated with an item of clothing from her past. Together, the stories add up to a vivid depiction of the Bohemian London world of the ’50s and ’60s in which Tynan was raised and the years that followed, leading to her current life in Los Angeles as a costume designer working in film.
Tynan will mark the paperback release of her memoir with a reading at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Saturday, August 5 at 6 p.m. Admission is free, but an RSVP is requested at http://bit.ly/2u212U9.
Writing a memoir, says Tynan, brings to mind a comment by the poet and essayist Mary Karr: “She said that writing a memoir is like punching yourself in the face! And you know, there is a bit of that. There are parts that are cathartic, and parts that are painful to relive, to burrow down into. And it’s just trying to figure out what was really going on.”
As the only child of successful novelist and biographer Elaine Dundy and the notorious theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan – his credits include both The New Yorker and the racy 1969 musical Oh! Calcutta! – Tracy was the calm in the storm in the household in which she grew up, weathering with composure her parents’ mercurial marriage, epic rages and outrageous behavior. Watching her parents battle it out while safely snuggled in her mother’s fur coat was the equivalent of watching a horror film, Tracy remembers: terrifying, but also mesmerizing. And with all that chaos going on in her home, she says she took the only role that was left: the adult.
All that high drama left her with a taste for the dramatic for the rest of her life. High drama seems normal, after all, when it’s all that one knows. But there was something else that occurred in the rarefied atmosphere of her parents’ glamorous parties, peopled with the stylish and famous (Cecil Beaton and Katharine Hepburn were her godparents, although she only met the latter once): Tracy was exposed to unique and eclectic fashion on a daily basis.
Her father, in particular, was well-known for his extravagant sartorial choices, even before he became an established part of the cultural glitterati. A fellow British theater critic remembers a young Kenneth Tynan wearing a bottle-green suit made from the fabric that normally covers pool tables. Tracy’s mother writes in her own memoir of the get-up that Kenneth Tynan was wearing when they met: plum-colored trousers with a camel-hair jacket, yellow socks and a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. And the photograph depicting her parents chatting with each other on an animal-print-upholstered couch wearing fanciful matching leopardskin-print leggings says it all.
With this type of influence at home, it’s no surprise that early on in her life, Tracy developed an admitted obsession with what people wear. One of the things that she finds so interesting about clothing, she says, is the power it has to transform attitudes and impressions, like the way that a garment becomes intertwined with memories of the experiences one had wearing it. “You can have a good experience wearing an item of clothing and so you always associate it with that; you have your ‘lucky suit’ when you got a job, or something like that. But if you have a bad experience wearing something, even though the piece of clothing is perfectly all right, it’s like it’s jinxed. You don’t want to wear it again.”
And clothing can symbolize milestones. One item particularly evocative for Tynan is a pair of apple-green shoes: the first purchase she made at age 14, when getting a clothing allowance for the first time freed her from endless tussles with her mother over her clothing choices. “The shoes were expensive, so I was taking the risk that maybe I wouldn’t have much else to wear. But I had these great shoes, and that was kind of a starting point in my clothing obsession.”
More than that, however, “It was kind of a moment of liberation for me, that I was getting to choose what I wanted to wear,” she says. As Tynan wrote in the book, “In a world where most everything else felt out of control, having control over the clothes I wore filled a hole.” She wore the shoes for two more years – a symbol to herself of “the beginning of walking on my own two feet, walking away from my parents and toward freedom.”
When asked if the exposure to fashion that she had from the showbiz world around her growing up informed her work today as a costume designer, Tynan says she thinks that the effect has been more about the way it showed her how people present themselves differently in different items of clothing. “That’s what you’re doing as a costume designer; you’re taking a character in a film and trying to communicate to the audience something about that character by the clothes they wear, and by the choices they make…is everything freshly pressed? Is it crumpled? Is it last year’s fashion or is it fashion-forward…is it expensive, how much do they earn, do they shop at Wal-Mart or do they shop at Prada? All those layers, hopefully, in a well-designed film, come through.”
The collaborative process of costume design is very rewarding, Tynan says. “You’re with a photographer, and a production designer, and they each have various views from the director about the look of the movie, the colors, the style… I like the collaborative process a lot.”
The book took her six years to write. Tynan says that she doesn’t think she would have written it while her parents were alive – “It just wouldn’t have been appropriate, I think” – but at the same time, she isn’t spilling the beans on them, by any means. “I didn’t really feel in any way constrained, I have to say. They wrote a lot about their own lives; my mother wrote a memoir, my father [published] his diaries. There’s a lot of information already out there about this family, and there’s nothing in my memoir that isn’t known already, whether it’s alcoholism or my father’s predilections for sadomasochism. None of that is secret.”
And while Tynan is frank in recounting her memories, it’s done with a light touch and sense of perspective. “My parents were complicated people and they had a complicated upbringing. They weren’t really the best equipped to be parents. I understood why they were like they were, and they were doing the best they could.”
We all do the best we can with what we have, she adds, “and when you become a parent, you realize how incredibly difficult it is, how many pitfalls there are.”
Tynan can be found on Instagram at “tynanthreads,” where she posts “the daily clothing report” with images of clothing accompanied by brief commentary.
Tracy Tynan author talk, Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life, Saturday, August 5, 6 p.m., free/preregister, Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, http://bit.ly/2u212U9.