Globe and Mail fashion writer Joyce Carter once described a runway outfit as being “as sexy as a collection plate.” It was a typical Carter aphorism – witty and pithy. For a woman engaged in a world that depended on artifice, she was deeply suspicious of all things contrived. In short, she was an unlikely fashion maven. But fashion wasn’t the point, no-nonsense reporting was. According to colleagues, she could equally as well have written about politics, business or the arts.
During the pre-feminist 1950s, by virtue of her sex, Carter’s default beat became fashion. She loathed the clerical work she was doing at an ad agency so, in a bold move for a high-school dropout, applied for a reporting position at the Kitchener Waterloo Record. She had a demonstrable flair for using words economically and was a stickler for grammar. She also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics. She was told that, because she was a woman, she could write about either cooking or fashion. She admitted that she couldn’t cook, but said she knew how to sew. Forever grateful for the sewing lessons her mother had insisted on, she had acquired an appreciation for detail and the skill to construct clothing. The multilayered world of fashion became her domain until she retired.
Joyce Carter was born in the Parkdale area of Toronto on March 26, 1930. She was the only child of Jean Carter, a Scottish homemaker and Edward (Ted) Carter, a violinist who played in various symphonic orchestras until the Great Depression caused him to seek regular employment as a high school janitor. Their daughter attended school first in Parkdale then in North York, where the family relocated. She dropped out of high school in her mid-teens and worked at various jobs until she found her niche in Kitchener.
As a junior reporter she was expected to cover events like weddings. When one member of a Martin family married another member of a different Martin family, 27 people, coincidentally including the minister and the carriage driver, turned out to be named Martin. The story garnered her international attention.
Smart, determined and committed to her career, everything seemed to be falling into place for Carter – until she met with calamity. One day when she was in her 20s, driving the 401 in her second-hand Karmann Ghia, another driver crossed eight lanes of traffic and smashed into her. Carter’s left leg was damaged to the point that amputation was considered. The drastic option was eventually rejected but, as part of reconstructive surgery on her ankle, the surgeon asked her to decide whether she wanted to wear high-heeled or low-heeled shoes for the rest of her life. Carter said, “I’m in fashion. It better be high heels.” From then on, Carter was unable to walk flat-footed and, barefoot, had to tiptoe.
A favourite hangout in the Kitchener days was the Walper Hotel, which served as an informal press club. It was there she met Clayton Derstine, a writer/intellectual who liked drinking at the bar. He also liked the dark-haired reporter who sewed her own fashionable outfits. It didn’t hurt that she was now driving a brand new snazzy Buick Roadmaster convertible, acquired after an insurance settlement.
“My mother cut quite a figure back in those days,” says her son Dirk Derstine, a lawyer. “My parents used to love driving around the countryside with the top down, even in the middle of winter.”
Breaking with social convention of the day, Carter and Derstine lived together for several years. The advent of their only child prompted a marriage in 1965.
Kitchener was abandoned for Toronto in the early 1960s when Carter’s Judy Award for promoting Canadian fashion brought her to the attention of The Globe and Mail. A close friend, Sally Gregson says, “It might have been her Scottish background, but she had no use for praise or credit being given to her for anything. She was overly modest about her writing. It attracted a much wider audience than fashion writing usually does because it was about the workings behind the fashion world, not just celebrities.”
Her son adds, “So much of fashion reporting is an adulation of stars. She would report in a different way. She wanted to bring to fashion the same rigorous approach as other areas of journalism.” Her first national byline appeared in The Globe on Nov. 14, 1962.
In 1963, Carter visited The Unicorn, a store run by designer Marilyn Brooks. “We’d been in business a month or so,” Brooks said. “She asked if we were doing any white shirts. I said, ‘Yes, when do you need them?” She said ‘Ten days.’ As soon as she left we started cutting. A few days after we delivered them, they were on the front page of the fashion section. I was so happy. I ran to a printer and got a big blow up of the article. The rest is history.”
In 1981, as fashion writer for The Globe, Carter was named Woman of the Year by Fashion Canada, the association responsible for promoting Canadian designs.
The writer could also lay claim to having discovered Italian style for Canadians. She was enamoured of all things Italian, including their designers. The feeling was mutual. Giorgio Armani, appreciating Carter’s bluntness and absence of sycophancy, once refused to be interviewed by anyone but her. They had an arrangement in which she was able to preview clothes that hadn’t yet been seen so that she could produce a timely section for the paper.
Lenore MacDonald, an editor of the fashion section from the 1970s to the 80s calls her, “the best fashion writer of her day in Canada. She could pick out trends. She just had an instinctive skill for what was right and what wasn’t.”
Carter was deeply suspicious when advertisers were brought to meet her because she didn’t believe they should be able to buy their way into editorial copy. And, despite the nature of her business being all about change, she alerted readers when she felt they were being pressured. Knowing that women’s closets were filled with miniskirts, in June, 1970, she wrote, “Midi skirts have been heralded by some as necessary devices to reinvigorate the garment industry by rendering present wardrobes obsolete.”
David Livingstone, a fashion journalist who worked with Carter at The Globe in the 1980s, describes a gracious, fun woman who could apply lipstick without a mirror, and who mastered the lost art of walking without making a sound. “She wore things more than once. This current ‘fashionista’ business would’ve driven her nuts.”
While Carter jetted off to runway shows in Milan, Paris, and New York, Clayton Derstine assumed the role of a househusband, taking care of their son. “My mother was the breadwinner. People saw a swashbuckling journalist, but she didn’t get paid a lot so there were a lot of stressors around money.”
She was, however, able to relieve some of the financial stress in her family by bartering samples she received in return for dinners cooked by friends. “Ours was an extremely social household when I was growing up,” says Dirk Derstine. “Many nights were spent with my parents smoking and drinking and yapping away about politics with friends.”
The marriage endured until Clayton died in 2008. “My mother was supportive of him to the end. They loved each other.”
After Carter retired from The Globe in the early nineties, she never wrote again. Livingstone remembers a succinct reporter who got quickly to the point. “She was the type of writer who could reduce the Bible to eight inches of copy and still retain its meaning.”
Joyce Carter died at her Toronto home on Nov. 3 at the age of 81. Forthright to the end, in a combination of humour and exasperation, one of the last things she said to the gathering of family and friends was, “Can’t we just get on with this?”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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