Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Joy of Clothes

Lately I have been scanning and cleaning up old photographs. I have a huge, huge pile of them -- my mother took a lot of photos of me and got reprints done for both my grandmothers. I now have all three sets of prints. And so I am sorting, throwing away duplicates and retouching as I go, balancing the light, taking out the dust and scratches, trying to put dates and places on record. And as I do this, I am reminiscing a lot and thinking about the differences between how I was dressed and trained as a little girl in the forties and fifties and how Little Suff is being brought up.

Here's a pair of photos that are telling. I always had a Sunday Best outfit. It was called that. I wore it to church. I got a new outfit for Easter, with a coat and hat if Easter came early or just the dress if it fell later in the spring. In the photo on the right, Easter was late and I have a straw hat and smocked dress, the later having been made by my mother. I was five or six, I think, which would make the year '47 or '48.. In the snap on the left I was, perhaps, eleven, so 1953. Since I was older, I had graduated to a suit for church, also made by my mother. I remember the hat vividly. It was woven fabric, slippery, and had a horrible habit of slipping forward over my nose if I bent my head. You will note the socks and with the Mary Jane strap shoes. More about socks later. When I wore these clothes, my behaviour was supposed to match. I had to sit like a little lady (exact quote!), not run and, most important, stay clean and neat. Not my favourite things to do.

My mother made almost all of my clothes, in fact, until I started high school. Including my winter coats and leggings. The proper thing for little girls to wear in winter with their coats was long white woolen stockings, held up by a garter belt. I rebelled. No way was I wearing those stockings. They itched and the garters popped off and they wrinkled. My mother, who had also suffered with similar stockings, relented and made me pull up trousers or leggings to wear with my coats. I was the envy of all my friends. I also had a snow suit, also wool and made by my mother, knit when I was very small and sewn as I got older. This outfit was for playing only -- skating or making snow forts. It was not worn otherwise, any more than the dungarees that I was allowed to play in could be worn away from home. If we were even going to buy groceries, I wore a skirt and my coat and leggings. And my mother changed her dress, put on her second best coat and hat (best was for Church) and gloves.
In the photo above, I am five (1947) and have just graduated from hats with itchy chin straps. That's my Easter hat with just an elastic. On the right it's 1951 and I am nine. I loved this coat because of the hood. It was fawn coloured wool and the velveteen trim and leggings were dark brown. For once, I am not mugging for the camera, either.

In summer I wore cotton dresses. When I was eight my parents bought a summer cottage and at the cottage I was allowed to wear shorts (!). My mother made the halter top (she had one that matched). But the shorts were purchased! On my feet are cotton and rubber 'sand shoes' which I had to wear unless I was actually swimming. I am, perhaps, ten in the shorts and top shot and eight in the other. The dress I am wearing on the right was my summer Brownie costume, that I wore to go to Brownie camp. It was pale green and had a matching hat which was fastened on with a bobby pin. The accessory is my aunt's cat, whom I adored. My mother thought that the regulation fabric she had to use to make the dress was shoddy.
Definitely not shoddy was my red velvet Christmas dress. It was real silk velvet, not velveteen, and had, as you can see, a lace collar which detached. I adored that dress and didn't even mind the 'don't get dirty' injunctions that came with it, as any spots I got on it had to be cleaned off with naptha and then the dress didn't smell so nice.

What's the point of all this narcissisism? Well, not a lot really, except to say, horray for rip stop nylon and Goretex and permapress and cotton knit and velcro and a world in which a Little Stuff can wear tough play clothes when she wants to and girly, whirly skirts when she wants to and wool stockings and garter belts are in museums.
Where I will someday join them. In my pantsuit and wind jacket, I hope. And without a hat.


  1. the YD (with scabbed knees and holey socks)Friday, March 14, 2008 4:05:00 am

    keep the duplicated - I want them!!! Of course - you could add a first generation tale of smocked dresses, matching coats, and a daughter that always wanted to wear pink (and was denied, poor thing) and one for whom any nice outfit was an impending disaster.


  2. I LOVED these pictures, Mary. That coat is/was spectacular.

  3. ha ha - YD said just what I thought... "won't your daughters want those duplicates?"

    loved these photos and your recollections. they will make the pictures even more valuable to your girls.

  4. My mother-in-law is about your age but still believes in the fashion rules she followed as a child. She has never owned a pair of jeans, I've never seen her in khakis, and I don't think she owns a coat that isn't wool. She wears "Barbara Bush" suits to church and all "dress up" events such as baby showers and even children's birthday parties. She once remarked to my husband, 'does Laura ever wear skirts?' and my husband has made it known to me that his mother thinks "jeans are for children." Consequently, I always wear pants to her house--often jeans--because I know she thinks it's inappropriate.

    What is particularly funny about my mother-in-law's "rules" is that her 90 year old mother is a pretty hip dresser who believes in a good mix of style and comfort (and almost always wears pants!)