Monday, January 25, 2010

And what she wore

It’s just a dark brown shawl, not that old, but when I wrap it about me I settle into history and become my great-great grandmother. 

The only full length photograph I have of Martha Elizabeth Johnson Spillman Watson is one composed in her middle-age. She’s standing on the steps of the tidy, white frame, gingerbread-trim house that is now the Hickman County Museum.

Nunny--as they called her-- endured the Civil War, a first husband who didn’t come home, a second marriage pierced by deaths of two small sons, and years of widowhood beginning in her forties.Yet on a snowy day during the Great Depression, she chose her attire, walked to her front steps, and regally posed for a picture postcard.

She still had her spirit. She cared what she wore.

Clothes delight me--for this reason and a hundred more. As a five-year-old I’d snuggle against my own grandmother and interrupt her stories to say, “and what she wore was...” I was the costume designer to her tales of young Tina and wild carpet rides . A few years older I scratched out pencil drawings--sophisticates in flaring shirtwaists, cinched belts, and sling-back heels.  I was a grown up woman with freedom to design and choose.

The only woman in my family to openly celebrate her wardrobe was my great Aunt Sadie, who fed my growing addiction. From the Hudson’s a few blocks from her Detroit balcony came a scarlet bathing suit edged with a running trim of tiny white balls, a Spanish skirt and peasant blouse, the cowboy boots I'd broadly hinted for.  She loved red and I'm sure that's what she was wearing in this photo as she sailed across Lake Michigan. But I remember her best--the age I am now--in a creamy white wool suit, beige stilettos, dark hair caught in a French roll.  Sadie understood understatement.

My first wearable design was a skirt stitched from one of my brother’s cloth diapers. It fit  like an bandage. More attempts would follow, with quiet encouragement and tutoring from Frances who lived up the hill, and unsupressed eye-rolling from Mom. In my teens I sewed sleeveless summer pants-dress that flared from the waist into rippling sail-like legs. The project worked, but my plan for a debut at church was blocked. “No,” my mother said. “No. Period.”

Taboos of the early sixties became the norm in no time. I wore gypsy pairings like a peacock's plume-- navy with avocado, purple paisley with ruffles, fringe and macrame all floating on a bare and over-tanned midriff.  I sailed toward college in a sea of beaded bracelets, frayed jeans, and undulating tie dyes.  My hair grew past my shoulders, fragile and stick straight, but still I ironed it. Near high school graduation my friend Cherry pierced my ears against an ice cube and I wore delicate silver hoops in full view of my father, knowing it would be far easier to receive forgiveness than permission.

As a college student and young wife my standards matured. Instead of memorizing French (a move I would regret) I once again took up sewing. In September I  sashayed to class in orange: flared slacks and a floor-length vest of double-knit, worn over a matching Cossack shirt. In January, The French Lieutenant’s Woman billowed forth in an indigo cape, down 3rd Street in Louisville and across campus for classes in design. A happy time, me and my creations.

After college, a turning point. Newly degreed, we U-hauled  to a town perfect for raising two sons, perfect for Garden Club, Country Club. Perfect for wealthy farmers' wives feasting on barbecue.  Perfect for library cards and church choir. A tacit dress code reigned for young wives, and I complied with a silent submission reserved for Southern girls. I stirred up corn pudding, dopped off Matt and Kent at school,  accepted a part-time writing job, endured.

Deliverance came in the form of a neighbor. Mary Parker –older than my mother–-served me tea and spoke of Europe. She showed me hidden seams of her Chanel-style coat, read with me the silky Braille of an oriental rug, the draping hand of a length of foulard, the hand-tied fagoting of a linen napkin.  Her kitchen curtains were a tailor’s dream--stripes joined invisibly, windowpane plaids in architectural alignment. And all so crisply  pressed to looked like origami.

She talked with me, and her four-room cottage sang with joie de vivre

And so my sense of self emerged,  its organdy presence unfolding and tentatively taking flight: the day we wore the hats to Keeneland, the floral gardening jacket, tea stained into antiquity at the kitchen sink. A disastrous black-tie dinner, bearable then and  in retrospect thanks to a photograph of what I wore: vintage black lace with butterfly sleeves, found in a box in Mom's attic..

Days brightened more with the next relocation A waving line of laundry  welcomed me from across the yard, and soon the laundress followed.  Barb appeared in my kitchen for coffee, sympathy, and instant bonding in the form of what she wore, what she sewed, and what she dared to hang on the line outdoors. Outlasting subsequent moves and marriages, Barb keeps the taupe silk we bought in Montmartre, shopkeeper muttering and fuming as he converted sixteen yards to meters. Like us,  it's undivided,  the bold yardage of life. 

Lately I’ve culled.  Out, out, damn spots, damned prints and animal skins. Out candy pinks, unruly reds. Out, trendy things, spied on a rainy day. But boots can stay until they fall apart. The black skirts stay, and all things taupe, the jeans that fit, ascending stack of black t-shirts. The bracelets, one for every day. And one last remnant of my hippie stage–I’m sorry, Dad-- I've kept my silver loops.

Mary Parker, long dead, still lingers in my wardrobe: a crisp white shirt, purchased for the feel of the fabric alone; a camel-tan coat found at the consignment shop.  Not my hue, but so perfectly detailed that I returned twice to look and finally brought it home. My Sadie-shoes, unwearable. Red leather clutch, Key West.

Some pieces should be discarded but I just don't have the heart. Others give me a nameless sense of security. One or two are gloriously impractical, and,  like the silk Barb keeps in storage, trail with me from house to house-- the fabric of our  halcyon days, our hearts. And what we wore.

1 comment: