Tuesday, November 13, 2012
My Grandmother, the Tailor
Just like almost everyone else, I'm thinking about seasonal food a lot. (You're NOT? Really? ) And the memories of Seasonal Festivities Past take me directly to memories of the the women who cooked those huge, savory-sweet, nap-inducing feasts. One of those was my paternal grandmother, who was a professional tailor and dressmaker for decades. My memories of her are relevant here because because she was also the orchestrator of some of my best holiday outfits. She was the one who introduced me to the discipline and joys of dressing up. And that not only beautiful women were entitled to wear wonderful clothes.
In a previous post, I briefly mentioned my mother's mother, the delicate, purple haired one. She didn't work outside the home after building bombers during WWII. My other grandmother was the tallest of all the women in our family, and farm wife, block-sturdy with some physical heft and size. She was short-waisted (a trait I inherited) and severe faced (some of this, as well.) She had not an ounce of the swan-like beauty so admired in the time, or the voluptuous movie star curves that were also popular, but she loved and wore beautifully made clothes. I don't know when exactly she learned to love the higher elements of fashion in the New Look era, but she must have taught herself a lot as she made clothes for her daughters, son and husband as a young farm wife in Dust Bowl era West Texas.
I spent a lot of my little girl years in her alterations and tailoring shop in Southern California, waiting for parents to pick me up after one or the other finished work. There I saw my first fashion magazines, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. There were always the new editions on an old coffee table she had placed in a little waiting area at the front of her shop, as well as several months of well worn, previous issues. But the best things were the out-of-date pattern books. Butterick, McCall's and Vogue pattern books came my way after everyone was finished with them, and I had an eternity of paper-dolls to cut out, paste on cardboard and cast in little dramas.
I wasn't her favorite grandchild, but her only granddaughter and dress me she did. From special dresses for the first day of elementary school, to a prom dress and pink bouclé suit copied whole from Jackie Kennedy's pictures in Life magazines, she saw that I had what was appropriate. Every Christmas brought another dress especially for family holiday festivities. I'm now desolated that I didn't keep a single one. We were a lower-middle class family economically, but the way I was often able to dress taught me a lot about the value of personal presentation and how effective it is in bridging class issues.
She was not a cuddly sort of grandmother, but she was always willing to teach. I learned less than I could have or wish I had, but I can alter my own pants and put up a hem, size a pattern, and (if I absolutely have to) set a sleeve and replace a zipper.
In retrospect, though, it was her own wardrobe that was most amazing . She often wore the standard, shirtwaist house dress that was so ubiquitous in the 50's and 60's. They looked practical, somewhat dowdy but ladylike even then. They shared her regular closet with the gabardine suits she wore to work. But she had a closet in her extra bedroom-sewing room that was devoted to her "formals", and it was fairy-land for a little girl. I never touched them, never played dress-up in them. They were way too precious for that. I only looked.
This is not my grandmother. This is Mamie Eisenhower. But
same period and in a dress, bag and gloves a little less grand than
my grandmother's formals ...
She was an officer in the Eastern Star (a fraternal organization related to the Masons) and as such, she had occasion to dress in ways most of the women I knew never did. Her dresses were full length ball gowns, mostly in pastel colors, in amazing fabrics; satins, chiffons, netting, silks and brocades. She had a jewelry box full of elaborate costume jewels that went with each dress. She kept the empty bottle from Schiaparelli "Shocking" on her dresser ... but this special closet smelled of the lush-but-much-cheaper "Tabu" while her everyday clothes closet smelled more like mothballs and Tide. All this was so much at odds with her otherwise tailored and severe personality. I can't prove but can imagine that she participated in Eastern Star primarily because it was the one place a woman in her position could ever hope to wear such dresses.
I've often thought of her precious closet, and more often still as I grow older. That she had the mad skills that allowed her to dress way beyond what she could afford to buy ready- made is a constant lesson to me. I don't pretend that I make any of my own clothes, but I learned a lot about how to make things happen by sharpening and then using the talents I have. And I learned how clothing often defines social ritual and occasion, and can elevate events beyond their intrinsic meaning. And that it's way more than permissible to spend time, effort and whatever treasure you can muster to dress yourself for the holidays or special occasions (or any occasion, really.)
But the most important thing I learned from her is this: one doesn't have to be pretty, or fashionably shaped, or rich or young to be and feel beautiful in her clothes. Every woman should know this feeling deep in her bones at least a few times in her life. And in this case, more is really better.
I was completely blown away to find that her shop, Kay's Alterations is still there, in one of what I understand is one of several incarnations since the late 1960's when she retired. I'm told by the very nice woman who owns it now that all the previous owners kept the original name because it has always meant high quality to the community.
Her old shop, as it is as of January, 2012
Wow. I bet she'd be happy to know that. Maybe she does.
Even though I'm not quite ready for prime time this week, I'm linking up with Patti's Visible Monday anyway!