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On Texans Weakness for the Grand Gesture

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Mimi Swartz ruminates on Texans’ love affair with The Grand Gesture in Texas Monthly’s style issue. Although nominally on style, Swartz takes the opportunity to delve into the caricature and the only slightly more complicated reality of the showy Texan. It’s an instant classic of Texas writing.

Self-examining though I am, it never occurred to me to wonder why I am so drawn to masters of the grand gesture, people like Clyde Wilson, Tom Alexander, and Kristi Schiller. The attraction has always seemed natural, like craving tamales and barbecue or enduring summer heat, a part of my psychic landscape. The truth is I am a hopeless style addict, doomed by both genetics and environment. My mother has great style, but so, of course, did many other people I grew up with in San Antonio, including the wife of a local architect who wore china poblana skirts long before they were knocked off by New York designers, and my favorite high school English teacher, who kept her bun in place with varnished chopsticks. I am not equating style with being fashionable; it is entirely possible to dress impeccably and have no style at all. People with true style have an unerring authenticity in the way they carry themselves and in the expectant, hopeful expression they wear on their faces when they greet the day.

A hint of narcissism is not a drawback; people with great style tend to believe that it is important that others take notice—a lot of notice. In Texas, with our endless mintings of new rich, style has been nearly synonymous with excess, but it has just as much to do with humor (for example, Ann Richards and that great quip about George H. W. Bush’s silver foot) and fearlessness—a need to put inside-the-box thinkers on notice. Mickey Leland, one of Texas’s first black state legislators, debuted in a dashiki in 1973; the license plate of the enormous car he drove up to the Capitol displayed just two words: “SO BAD.”

In the San Antonio of my youth, expressing one’s style took a different form than it did in Dallas or Houston. The understated old rich of my hometown were satisfied enough with the age of their money that they didn’t feel compelled to display it like those bumpkins in the rival cities (probably because their fortunes were no match for those in the bigger cities). San Antonio also posed the everyday challenge of living in a city where the prevailing cultures were German and Latino, a civic combo not unlike oil and water or, more to the point, Ritalin and Prozac. In other words, this was a place where citizens believed it was a sin to appear in white shoes before Easter but also celebrated the bacchanalian Fiesta week every year, wherein debutantes from the finest families wore bejeweled $50,000 handmade gowns while riding atop floats carpeted with zillions of paper flowers.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be a duchess?” my mother asked me when I was in college, and now, in middle age, I wonder why I was so determined to decline. Maybe because when I was five, someone buttoned me into a stiff organdy dress and whisked me to the converted mansion that was the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, where I was given a long ribbon and made to dance the maypole with other hapless children. The maypole! In Texas! This activity made sense only in context: In insular San Antonio, the oldest families were determined to prove their sophistication to the outside world (“Pay no attention to those witless show-offs in Houston and Dallas; we alone know how to behave . . . ”), even if the outside world ignored them.

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Category: life in texas

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