Gail Rubinstein didn't get her first new outfit until she was 14. Growing up in a small apartment in Brooklyn, the 80-year-old says clothing came via hand-me-downs from cousins. "A bag would arrive, and I'd rip open that box as if it was brand new clothes," she recalls. While Rubinstein's father had a good job as the manager of a publishing warehouse making the first series of paperback books, he never made much money. "We just learned to do with what we had," Rubinstein says. "But I never felt that I was missing anything."
Still, she can recall her excitement upon receiving that first brand new suit. "It was a pleated skirt and a bolero jacket in a light gray plaid pattern," she says. "It wasn't very flattering, but I wore it all the time." She was given the outfit because one of the men who lived in her apartment was the floor manager of the women's wear section of a department store. "He could bring home patterns that they used and that's what he brought. I had no choice in the matter," she says.
And she had no choice in the matter three years later when it came time to find a wedding gown. Due to tight finances, she borrowed a dress from an acquaintance. "It was pretty, ankle length," she says.
Rubinstein credits these experiences, growing up poor in post-World War II Brooklyn, with some of her knack for thrifting today. Her favorite places to shop are Goodwill and consignment stores, but that doesn't mean she's wearing tattered cast-offs. Finding discounted Eileen Fisher pieces, a designer who makes ready-to-wear that sell for up to $450, is Rubinstein's specialty — she once snagged an Eileen Fisher skirt for a dollar. But it's really the way she pairs high- and low-end fashion that makes her so chic.
"I don't have a particular style," explains Rubinstein. "I don't wear anything too youthful or too old. I'm sort of just the average person who happens to maybe have a little flair for what goes together."
That flair came in handy when Rubinstein and her husband moved from the Northeast to Charleston in 1966. "My husband was in aerospace and Avco-Lycoming built a plant here," she says. Suffice it to say, the shift to the South took some getting used to and that included adjusting to Charleston's style.
At that time in the Holy City, you got dressed up to go downtown shopping. "You did not wear pants. You wore a skirt or a dress," says Rubinstein. And she found herself needing to buy all of the above when she started getting involved in local women's organizations. But to be accepted, she needed to look the part. This was not a simple task. "I had spent a lifetime of not looking the part," Rubinstein says.
Occupation: Former dental hygienist, owner of a court reporting business
Age: Almost 80
My style: There's a little drama in it. It's eclectic.
Signature accessory: Large jewelry
Favorite designer: Eileen Fisher
Trend to avoid: 7-inch heels because you'll break your back
Favorite style decade: Whatever decade I'm in
Luckily, she had Anne Snyder to help. Snyder, the owner of Anne's on King (which has been in operation since 1942), became Rubinstein's style guru. "She let you pay it out," Rubinstein explains, describing Anne's layaway policy. "You didn't have to have a card. If you knew her and she knew you, you had a house account." As for accessories, those came from King Street too.
"I bought my shoes and purses at Bob Ellis, and they did the same thing," Rubinstein says.
The irony is, Rubinstein says that having the finest blouses and heels doesn't equal feeling fashionable. "If I'm not looking in a mirror, I feel as young as I want to feel," she says. "When I look in a mirror, I come to terms with who I am. Sometimes I feel 30 and sometimes I feel almost 80."
That said, she's discovered one trick to help her feel good — statement jewelry.
"A large piece of jewelry grabs someone's eye," Rubinstein says. "When they're looking at that, they're not looking at your wrinkles." And that, she says, makes people feel more comfortable approaching her. "They say, 'I can talk to this lady,'" she adds. It's something she's experienced time and again and more often than not the interaction starts with a compliment like, "I love what you're wearing."
"Then a conversation ensues and you learn about that person. And you may have never met that person or you may never meet them again. But you're finding out something about them and they're getting to know you and you walk away having known one more person," she explains. "It is the best time of life. As an old person you can get away with all of that."
And that, she says, is just fantastic.