Nancy Talbot in Her Daughters’ Words

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

Nancy Talbot created what was, for a time at least, among the most recognizable and respected New England fashion lines. Here, we present extended excerpts about this remarkable woman from interviews with her daughters Jane Winter and Polly Donald, plus a few others, as gathered in the pursuit of this story.

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It was in 1947 when Rudolf and Nancy Talbot, just back from the war (he was an army man, she a Red Cross nurse) decided to open the first Talbots store. “It was in a beautiful old house in Hingham, and it was quite prominent,” remembers their daughter, Jane Winter. “They decided to paint the door red. It was mother’s favorite color and they wanted something dramatic.”

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Nancy and Rudolf traveled extensively, and were both highly visual people. “My father was an artist, he carved and painted, they were both very interested in art,” says their daughter, Polly Donald. “They had a lot of respect for the arts. It informed who they were and how they bought for the store.”

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Frumpy, according to Polly Donald, was never part of Nancy Talbot’s DNA. “She always thought that you don’t have to dress a certain way because you’re aging, that you can wear clean lines that hide the midriff,” she says. “Everyone wants to look good in their clothes. My mother didn’t want you to look like a grandmother before you needed to. In her mind it never needed to happen.”

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Nancy was drawn to bright colors, strong patterns, and could often be found pruning her irises in Ferragamos, even well into her 90s. “She looked like a million bucks when they took her to the morgue,” says Donald.

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Despite her strong opinions on what the store should carry, Nancy was remarkably at ease with her own daughters, allowing them to experiment with fashion. “In the 60s, I was wearing bell bottoms and army jackets from the surplus store,” says Polly Donald. “But she never commented. She let us wear what we wanted to wear. She always bought us great clothes. Everything nice I own she gave it to me. I still wear her clothes.”

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In her later years, Nancy Talbot grew frustrated with the direction the store was headed. “There is a shop here [in St. Louis], and I always would go in and wander through with her,” says her daughter, Jane Winter. “Sometimes that was hard because she was disappointed and sad that it hadn’t kept up. She would never say it, she just felt angry about it. It was frustration—it was just ‘Why can’t they get it right?’”

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“Chic, smart, and snappy, were her favorite words,” says Jane Winter. “She hated the word cute. ‘You’re anything but cute, she’d tell me.’”

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The Talbots catalog was namechecked in The Preppy Handbookin 1980, officially putting it on the map as “the best selection of women’s Prep fashions anywhere.” According to Lisa Birnbach, the editor behind the original book and the 2010 followup: If you were outside of New England and wanted to dress like a New England preppy, the catalog was a godsend,” says “It was reliable, it wasn’t too fashionable, it wasn’t too expensive. It had sizes that would fit everyone. It has all of the virtues of preppiness.”

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Nancy would often convince designers to change their looks to meet her requirements. “We would customize things for the Talbots, and rightfully so,” says Jerry Finegold, a friend of the family who grew close to Nancy and Rudolf as a salesman representing Gordons of Philadelphia, a classic women’s suiting line. “She had an amazing eye. It’s the reason Talbots became such a brand.”

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“She was this formidable woman,” current CEO Trudy Sullivan remembers today. “When I started at Jordan Marsh, I used to go to New York for buying trips. When Nancy Talbot showed up at an Evan Piccone or a Pendelton, it was like the queen arrived. She was so highly regarded and fierce about who her consumer was.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/05/nancy-talbot-in-her-daughters-words/