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 But the best things were the out-of-date pattern books.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 bouclƩ 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.

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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.
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Even though I'm not quite ready for prime time this week, I'm linking up with Patti's Visible Monday  anyway!



17 comments:

  1. thanks for your sweet comments on my blog btw!

    I also, being a child of the sixties, sewed a lot of my clothes I couldnt afford. It was the beginning of being able to go wild and crazy!

    How wonderful to still see your grandmothers shop!

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    1. I'm still time-warping about that, actually. I had been working on this post, and while I was taking a Google break, I ran across the ad for the shop. Incredibly, they still use the same phone number ... after all these years. Course, I had to call, and the very nice new owner must have thought I was nuts ... babble, babble, babble. Now I know what the British expression "gob-smacked" means. Who'd a thunk it.
      Yours is one of those blogs I check back often to see if you have put up anything new.
      And weren't the 60's amazing? Thanks so much for reading.

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  2. Great story Jan. I'm glad that you take the time to write such thoughtful posts! Always an entertaining, and often a thought provoking read.

    Sue xo

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    1. I admit that I am often more interested in the ideas about fashion than presenting myself in what I can manage. Glad they are thought-provoking and not just provoking! Thanks for reading and commenting. It's nice to have even a little audience.

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  3. I always enjoy your blog because there's a story. The mention of "Tabu" and mothballs brought back memories of my grandma's closet too. I also like the "be and feel beautiful" in your clothes message. Every woman deserve to feel that way. Beautiful story!

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    1. Thanks so much. My own mother's closet smelled of Emeraude. I'm always taken aback when a perfume brings back memories so intensely. Don't think of myself with much of a *nose* but seems I have at least some sense of smell left. What's most interesting is that most of those associations are in the noggin rather than the old snoot itself!
      Hope you're feeling better. Have a great week, Alison.

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  4. What great memories, it makes me appreciate my mother so much, she does all my sewing projects for me (the important ones). She has tried to show me how to sew, but I sometimes don't have the patience. I sometimes need instance gratification. Love your pic!

    Carrie

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    1. Isn't it nice to have your own alterations department? There was a point for me, given that I'm so short, that I had to learn how to at least sew a decent hem. Actually, I prefer hand-sewing, but sometimes, only the machine will do. Patience? Comes with age... I want it and want it NOW! Thanks for reading, and for blogging!

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  5. What sweet memories of your grandmother! I love the era of fashion in the pic of dear Mamie, so beautiful!!! ~Sarah

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. One of these days I'll have to learn to digitize all the old family photos ... we have boxes and boxes carefully stored away. Would have liked to find one of her in her creations. Have a great week in my favorite city, and thanks for reading and your own writing!

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  6. Jan, what a lovely story about your Grandmother. My maternal Grandmother sewed for us. She even made things for me into my late teens. I did not appreciate her skills as much as I should have. She tried to teach me to sew on her treadle sewing machine. I was a miserable failure. She was a wonderful Granmother and I miss her especially this time of year.

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    1. Funny you should mention the treadle machine. My other, maternal grandmother had one, and it was a clunker. I was much less intimidated by the it than the very modern machines. I got pretty good at controlling the speed on the treadle, but the electric pedal would run off with me! Thanks for reminding me. Have a good week. I'm really loving the changes in your look!

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  7. That was a beautiful story. My Grandma (not Grandmother) also wore beautiful gowns. She was also involved in some type of organization with the Moose Lodge. In particular I remember a long baby blue number. Your story brought back some of those memories that had been tucked away to make room for all of the current crap that stays in the front of my mind.
    You know, I don't think I know one young person that knows how to sew, let alone how to thread a sewing machine! Sadly, another lost skill! I haven't made anything new in years but those skills sure come in handy to refashion or upstyle thrifted items.....I sure can whip out some one of a kind items!
    Thanks for stopping by. We really do have a lot in common. Sans mustache, tiara and glasses!
    Have a good weekend!

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    1. You didn't like my tiara look? I'm shocked. Nope, I don't know any young people who sew. My daughter does a bit, but she's darned near 40! I'm excited about finding Dross Into Gold ... Jean is a genius, and has presented some upstyling that blows me away. I have trouble thrifting here as there are few outlets, but I persevere. Have a great week and feel even better!

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  8. What a wonderful story Janin. I too have an older female relative that taught me to sew. I don't use the skill nearly as much as I should but it's sure nice to have.
    You're so right in that clothes, at times can bridge a socioeconomic gap and most importantly every woman should feel beautiful in her clothes.
    That's absolutely amazing that your grandmother's shop still has the same name!

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    1. Awww ,,, thanks, 909! Thanks for reading, and of course your own very fun and informative blog. I'm ready for another adventure from you. I have your blog bookmarked right under Girl Genius Online Comics, and that's pretty high in my book. Have a great turkey day, and the rest of the week as well!
      Jan
      (JaninJabitt means Jan-in-Jabitt, since East Jabitt is just west of Bumfuzzle Nowhere. But Janin isn't too strange a name. I might change it ...)

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  9. What a lovely story, it seems we have so much to relate to! I appreciate your comments on my blog, and could not wait to find your post on your grandmother, hence my late comment here. Women have a way of inspiring each other, and I have certainly taken something from your history and journey with your grandmamma, hoping to honour my late grandmother's style heritage again soon in another post! Nice blog dear!
    FF

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