In my last post, I discussed the conjunction of fashion and history, whether on a personal level or on a much larger, even global, level. In doing so, I considered what some of my early outfits meant to me and a few of the economic implications of fashion, from globalization to unions. In this post I’d like to go back a few generations, to my grandmother’s time, to consider not only the personal style of my grandmother and great-aunt, but what these women’s styles and fashion options have to say, in miniature, about western women’s development in the 20th century.
My grandmother was born near the beginning of that century, and my great-aunt a few years later. When they were born, Englishwomen couldn’t vote, and it wasn’t until they were in their twenties that they could dress in their best and walk to a polling station. It must have been a momentous occasion, and I only wish I had a picture of what they wore. In the earliest picture I have of my grandmother, a formal portrait, she is a small girl wearing a white dress, standing on ornate a wood and leather chair, and holding, rather improbably, a purse, which I suspect was loaned by the photographer to give her something to do. She has a small, square face, big brown eyes, and glossy brown hair and looks slightly wary, but game. I can’t remember if her hair is tied with one of the giant bows so popular in the period, but my great-aunt D. certainly wears one. She too stands on a chair, although she’s so tiny that you rather fear that she’ll fall off the next moment, though there is such authority in her stance, such a sense of rooted purpose, that I am sure she did not. She is dressed in a white frilly dress and, like her older sister, holds a purse. She has curly blonde hair, whose mass surrounds a thin, serious face.
This picture is the only time I have ever seen D. in a dress, though my mother assures me she wore skirts when she was younger. The D. I knew always wore pants, usually with a blazer, in contrast to my grandmother, who I never saw wear anything but dresses, though I’ve heard she did wear trousers from time to time. English women began wearing trousers in the 1930s, and the need for sturdy clothes for manual labor during World War II and post-war rationing of clothes hastened their adoption. D. wore trousers during World War II in her job as a volunteer ambulance driver in Yorkshire, a job for which she, organized, caring, and a superb driver, was more than prepared. Certainly trousers seem preferable in that cold Northern English weather, though both my grandmother and great-aunt were stout sorts, and I’m sure some wuthering winds would not have been sufficient to put them off their favored clothes.
In their fashion sense, as in so many other areas, Granny and Aunt D. were very different. They were a fine example of how sisters can not only be diverse in their appearance but also in multiple areas of their lives, while still maintaining a strong, occasionally-thorny, bond. Their bond despite, or perhaps really because of, their differences assured me a bit regarding my own relationship with my siblings. Our relations were not always harmonious, more so as we reached our teens and teenage testiness, our frustration brought on largely because we seemed to be such different people who were just thrown together by chance biology. Seeing and hearing Granny and Aunt D. together, I realized that our differences would not necessarily be a bar to life-long friendship, for Granny and Aunt D. were together to the end. Indeed, I realized that their occasional thorniness was in some ways not only natural, but integral to their intense relationship. I did love the irony of my mother working so hard to make my siblings and I get along and discourage us from the childishness of arguing in public when Granny and Aunt D. argued as much as they pleased, in public or private, and they were grown-ups.
The world into which Granny and D. were born was one in which women still wore long dresses, protecting their legs from any unwanted gaze, corsets still shaped the body, and hats and gloves were worn whenever one went out, particularly to a function of any kind. That world seems very distant now, when skirts can be any length, hats are rarely seen, and gloves only for snow days. Granny and D. once told me a wonderful story, one that encapsulates a time and fashion now long-gone. They both liked to dance, particularly my grandmother, and even when arthritis began to claim their hands and feet, they could show me the steps to the dances of the day, such as the wonderfully named Black Bottom. The story concerned a party they attended in Scotland. The party had a fine turnout, and the dancing was vigorous, so much so, they said, that the men had to remove their collars, which were soaked with sweat. For a girl who grew up in a world in which men’s collars were firmly affixed to their shirts, the thought of removable collars was bizarre, as much a part of the past as men wearing tights and codpieces. However, I was charmed by the image of those men, faces flushed, bodies turning and turning, tossing off their collars as they twirled my granny and great-aunt, laughing with joy, around, the collars flying off and out, gathering in heaps on the wooden dance floor.
As my grandmother reached her late teens and twenties, the radical shift to 20s style, the sleek modernity of the flapper, beckoned, and my grandmother and great-aunt bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, put on the T-straps and delicate Mary Janes I’d love to wear, and drank, smoked, and flirted with men with baggy trousers, wearing fedoras or trilbys, and slicked-back hair. There are some wonderful pictures of my grandmother rocking a cloche hat, the streamlined, face-hugging-style so popular in the period, as she strolls down a street in Paris with my grandfather. She is on her honeymoon, going to see Josephine Baker, famous for her banana skirt, and Maurice Chevalier, the urbane boulevardier in his straw boater, in the cabarets of Paris. I never understood the allure of the latter until I saw some of his late 20s/early 30s films in which, with rich, warm voice, and eyes with more than a glint of bacchanalian delight, he beckons to the ladies onscreen and the viewer off, not just charming, but seducing us all. [to be continued]