In my continuing discussion of fashion, I’m going to move back to myself for a moment, before going back in time. As my previous posts have indicated, I’m very interested in fashion, on both a personal and academic level. However, I don’t espouse a particular kind of style, either self-created or drawn from the many potential categories out there, from sweatpants-wearer to slick and stylish social type. Before I was so limited in my closet, thanks to the downsizing occasioned by my ‘Bama move, I tended to dress based on a combination of the day’s needs and whim. Thus, I had my professional work kit, in a few variations, and then everything from research slob sweats to dress-up floaty blouses and skirts as possibilities. Now, I simply wear the work kit or something very relaxed—no make-up, minimal jewelry, and as much comfort—all hail stretchy material—as possible.
As I think back through the generations, such a noncommittal attitude about style and inattention to both the niceties and pleasures of dress is not typical, although much of this had to do with changes in the social/economic meaning of dress and shifts in gender roles. As I’ve noted, my grandmother and great-aunt D. each had a distinct sense of style, one that was quite different from each other despite their sisterly bond. The latter always wore trousers, often pant suits, while my grandmother always wore dresses and stockings, the latter connected to a long foundation garment. I never asked about the earlier versions of the foundation garment, but I guess that the woman I saw in the pictures strolling through the streets of 20s Paris probably wore a garter belt to hold up her long, flesh-colored stockings when she danced the Black Bottom or the Charleston.
As a child, I found granny’s stockings fascinating on several levels. One was the fastening of the stockings: watching granny match the straps that fell from the foundation garment to the stockings so quickly, easily clicking the two together, although such ease was replaced by struggle as her hands, once so nimble, became stiff and slow with arthritis. I was also fascinated to watch her slide the stockings over her feet, her sad, damaged feet. I never learned what happened, but her feet looked as if someone had amputated her toes and glued them on higgledy-piggledy. How she ever walked on those feet, and walked so far and so often for so many years, is a mystery, but that she did so speaks to my grandmother’s abundant determination and strict self-will. My mother says that she loved shoes when she was young, and in those early pictures her tiny feet are encased in satin and shining leather, shoes with a gentle curve to the heel and little jewels at the sides of the straps. She gathered shoes when she was older, too, but mostly in the ever-elusive search for a pair of shoes that would help her poor feet.
Granny wore little jewelry or makeup: just a swipe of lipstick across her once-abundant lips and, possibly, a scarf, though never around her head. She also liked hats: she rarely went outside without one. The hats that I remember were, occasionally, unfortunate: mostly because the decades in which she purchased those hats—the late 60s and 70s—were not always particularly good years for hats. The one I remember most fully, perhaps because I found it somewhat unfathomable, was a blue polyester turban that in fabric, shape, and positioning on granny’s head was, at least in the critical eyes of a child, less than ideal. Of course, I was used to baseball caps and polyester or wool bobble hats, so what did I know? I must say that my grandmother had a wonderful face for hats—small, square, and piquant—and she managed to pull off even the most oddball hat, i.e. the turban, with aplomb.
The penchant for hat-wearing is, of course, very much a British thing. Just look at the Royal Family—some of whose hats are, one must admit, also somewhat unfortunate despite the RF’s sizable wardrobe budget and access to top designers. My granny’s spectrum of hats ranged from the everyday to the special occasion, from the cloche hats of her youth to that blue turban. The most memorable hat for which I have a picture is one my grandmother wore to a fancy dress party, at which she dressed up, fittingly given her love of gardening, as a rosebud. The picture is sepia-toned, but I imagine her in shades of pink and cream, from the gleam of her satin T-straps to the multiple layers of color in the overlapping petals of her dress. Atop her softly curling brown hair is an upside-down rosebud: the pale pink petals serving as a base for the elaborate curl of the stem as it reaches up, creating a floral exclamation mark above her head.
Not only was she thoughtful about her own dress, but my grandmother was fascinated by everyone else’s, and she would always give you the one-over, and share her opinion with you, as you entered the house. My mother remembers one occasion when she returned home on a break from college and granny, in her direct way, commented quite tartly on her clothing. I can attest that granny’s radar for what she perceived to be sloppy or unmodish dress was still in full working order by the time I hoved on the scene.
If my grandmother dressed like the stereotype of an English lady, albeit one whose wardrobe evolved from the formal dress and longer skirts of an Edwardian girlhood to flapper womanhood, and then into the tailoring and restrictions of war and post-war dress, great-aunt D. broke the mold. As I mentioned, D. always wore pants, often with a blazer. Suits looked wonderful on her slim, small frame, the occasional flounce of her blouses softening the strictly business nature of her wardrobe and framing her thin, angular face. It was no wonder she was so slim and streamlined, for she was always in motion. She was highly organized and she liked to organize others, and her suits let her do whatever she needed with ease. They were polyester blend suits—matching pants and blazers—rather outdated by the time I really remember her, but still sharp. Like granny she wore little, if any, jewelry—just a slim watch and a slash of bright lipstick on her thin mouth, the counter to granny’s abundance. She never wore hats, unlike granny, and she kept her short, gray-white curls cropped, all part of her no-nonsense approach. I don’t remember her ever critiquing my dress, though she too had a sharp, appraising glance when she decided to turn it on you. D. would often nap in the afternoon, lying on a low couch, fully clothed, with such stillness, her face so pale, that she looked like one of those Tudor effigies in the ancient gray-stone churches. Seeing her like that, I’d sometimes fear that her stillness, so profound, was almost supernatural, particularly as she had the uncanny ability to sense a noise or presence and leap up: crisp, alert, and ready to go on any adventure.
The attention to dress and its details shown by my grandmother and great-aunt also extended to my grandfather who was, in his own quiet way, both practical and elegant in his dress. Like most men of his generation, he always wore a hat, usually a Homburg, and often a full suit, though there are some pictures of him at the seaside in a white shirt and loose pants or even, braving the chill of the English seaside, shorts: long, of course, and probably a sensible brown. He was rumored to be a snappy dresser, particularly in his youth and often smoked a pipe, the smell of pipe tobacco lingering around him. According to my mother, he always had handkerchiefs—real ones of cotton and silk—ready for any emergency, perhaps smelling of lavender, as all of my granny’s handkerchiefs did.
I don’t remember my grandfather, who I last saw when I was between 3 and 4, though on some level I think I must, for I find the smell of a smoking pipe curiously comforting. Once, when my grandmother was cleaning up some old belongings, she found a coat that belonged to him. It was very plain—black or navy—and much too big for me when I put it on. As I stood before the mirror, I put my hands in the pockets and discovered that the plain coat concealed a surprise: velvet-lined pockets. The soft nap of the velvet rubbed against my skin: a small comfort, a hint of pleasure. I never knew the man, but that quiet coat with its velvet pockets told me, in its own way, volumes in the way that sometimes a piece of clothing, that a choice of fashion, can: conveying everything you need to know with just a glance, a touch, a whisper.