Fashion. My head is filled with fashion. A-lines and ascots, cloches and collars, buckles and bows, sashes and swirls. House moves are like archeological expeditions into the core of your soul. And my own recent move has unearthed its own treasure trove of family photos, Vogue magazines, and enough carefully saved clothing to send one’s imagination dancing across styles and decades…
I come from a long family line of frugal fashionistas. Frugal out of necessity, fashionista as a form of aspirational expression. From them, I learned to dress to express where you wanted to go, who you wanted to be.
This went beyond dress for success: this was dress to manifest.
While all of my great-aunts could sew, embroider, knit, and crochet, each was trained to do so at a professional level. Hand-me-downs were never considered a hand-out, they were a design opportunity for this group of dressmakers and milliners. Over the decades, dresses and fabric travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, as well as down through generations. Change the buttons! Add a bow, sash, scarf! Remove the seams, salvage the fabric, reinvent!
As a dressmaker, my great-aunt Aunt Agnes could replicate a Vogue dress in a heartbeat, keeping any family member benefitting from her skills (like my mother in her early 20s and even me as a toddler) looking like they had just casually emerged from a Parisian photo shoot. As the baby who was always grabbing her pop-pearl choker necklace…and then the little girl watching, leaning against her dressing table as she carefully dabbed on Caron’s Nuit de Noel from art deco cut crystal perfume bottles…she was, to me, Coco Chanel personified, even before I knew who Coco Chanel was. I remember playing dress-up with her 1950s petticoats and slips, which were elegant enough to convince a five year-old she was a golden taffeta princess. As a young professional, I proudly wore her red Chanel-knock-off-box-jacket-style suit to meetings, knowing my mother had also worn it before me–at the same age–to her job.
While my fashion-influencing great aunts patterned me in the classical style, they could not inspire me to work wonders with their ever-present stash of notions and fabric scraps. In fact, one of my greatest life embarrassments was my own brief encounter with a sewing machine during sewing classes, summer of seventh grade. Mom had such high hopes: given the talent surrounding me, surely my DNA hid a repressed designer awaiting empowerment for expression. My genes did not. My own designer dress was a sack, my self-made shirt had crooked seams, and every creation I produced seemed to favor shades of brown. That summer’s Cape Cod vacation photos, in which I am wearing the fruits of my labors and sporting my new over-sized pink-framed prescription glasses, are quintessential tween horror show material.
To my further embarrassment, even my usually encouraging mother pronounced my sewing skills abysmal. She closed up and abandoned hope for the Singer sewing machine she had installed in my bedroom. Instead, she placed a 1930s Remington typewriter atop the abandoned sewing cabinet. And so began many sleepless household nights to follow, as the anticipated sewing machine’s whirl was replaced by my creativity’s clatter-song moving in a new direction…