Beverly Brown Williams vividly remembers her high school prom dress: yellow halter top, full skirt, a layer of crinoline underneath, and open-back high-heel shoes. That was back in the ’50s, when fashion was at its girliest. Teenagers like Beverly gushed over pretty gloves, delicate hats, and dramatically fluffy skirts. And the shoes — well, it was a pair of black patent leather, ankle-strapped heels that inspired Beverly to get her first job at the tender age of 14.
“I was working at Edward’s 5 and 10 on the corner of King and Woolfe Street making the Easter Bunny’s Easter baskets,” says Williams, who was born and raised in downtown Charleston. “I had a friend who worked there, and I said, ‘Can you get me a job there? Because I want to get some shoes from Bob Ellis.’ Every Easter after that, I was helping her make those Easter baskets and saving my money for my Easter shoes.”
Williams fell in love with the treasure trove that was King Street. Her mother took her to Band Box and Condon’s before Williams began buying her own gems at Anne’s, Saks, and St. John, the latter of which remains her go-to shop. But her fascination with fashion really came from her experiences outside of the South.
One of Williams’ four older sisters lived in New York City, so every summer Williams spent two weeks there — each time returning more stylish than before. “That’s where it all started,” she says. “I was high-fashion when I was younger. I wanted the New York look.”
Occupation: Retired social worker at the VA, assisting veterans with PTSD.
Age: A Southern lady never tells her age.
My style: Sophisticated, matchy-matchy
Signature accessory: Big statement pieces/necklaces
Favorite designer: Chanel
Trend to avoid: Not dressing your age. “I don’t ever want to look like my daughter, so I am very conservative when it comes to my clothing.”
Favorite style decade: 1950s
After graduating from North Carolina Central in Durham, Williams attended graduate school at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., getting her degree in psychiatric social care. And when the university asked where she wanted to do her internship, it was a no-brainer. “My first year, I was in Philadelphia with one of my older sisters,” she says. “The second year, I was in New York with another older sister, so I have a lot of history there. Oh, I have always loved New York.”
Beverly smiles as she reminisces with her daughter, Kia Williams, who owns the Etsy store Third Eye Vintage. Kia brags about her mother’s fashion conquests, like a mink fur coat with the sleeves removed and an ornate statement necklace that matches one of Beverly’s favorite St. John suits. And then she describes Beverly’s Smith College graduation dress: tie-dye with a halter top, a 1960s dream-come-true. It was, of course, retrieved from her fashion muse, the Big Apple. “I went to New York from Smith to have that made by a lady who had an African store, and she got all of her fabrics from Africa,” Beverly explains. “She made that to my specifications.”
Beverly also brings out one of her most beloved pieces, a mink hat from Gimbel’s with a sweet story. “This hat belonged to my older sister when she lived in New York,” says Beverly, who was once a member of the Charleston Hat Ladies. “She passed away, and we were sitting in her apartment and her children were taking out some of the things she owned to give to me and our other sisters. Well, my sister, who is the fur monger, grabbed that hat and she tried, but it didn’t fit her. My next sister, she tried to put it on and couldn’t get it over her head.” Beverly was the last sibling to give it a go, and like Cinderella, that Gimbel’s department store hat fit perfectly. She says,”I cherish this hat.”
These days, Beverly doesn’t get up to New York as often as she once did, but she is plenty busy right here in her own community. She’s a member of downtown’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the Charleston Chapter of the Continental Societies, and the Charleston Chapter of Links Inc., a prestigious organization for African-American women. And when it comes to shopping, Beverly doesn’t have to leave the house to get her New York style. With her computer, she can go anywhere. “I can go to Neiman Marcus, I can go to Saks, I can go to Bloomingdales,” she says.
Be it on King Street or online, Beverly’s aesthetic remains the same as it ever was. “I’ve never wanted to look like anyone else,” she says. “I wanted to be different, and that’s what I have always strived to do within my means.”