Where Did You Learn How to Dress?

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Do you remember when and from whom you learned how to dress? I don’t mean the actual act of dressing yourself. How to tell which shoe goes on which foot, or how to tie your shoelaces. That first bow was a triumph, wasn’t it? Or later how to put on nylons without poking a hole in them, and then fasten them to a garter belt. Seriously, putting on nylons was a skill. One that I never fully mastered because I didn’t do it very many times before the advent of pantyhose. And just thinking of garter belts makes me laugh.

No. I don’t mean how you learned to put on your clothes, but how you learned to choose what to put on. Where and from whom did you learn how to choose what to wear?

That question seems like a no-brainer. Of course we all learned how to dress, learned how to choose what to wear with what from our mums, right? Right?

But what if, like my mum, you had five younger brothers, the youngest two being just toddlers when you reached that crucial “need to know how to dress” age? What if your mum was too busy to offer fashion advice? Too exhausted to even think about the finer points of style. Exhausted from herding small children, running the house, and cooking for her large family, plus two hired men who worked for Grampy. I’m imagining the reception my mum might have received if she’d trundled downstairs one morning before school and asked Grammy if she should wear the red blouse or the blue one with this skirt. Ha. If you knew my grandmother, you’d be laughing too.

So what is a shy thirteen-year-old to do when she really, really needs to learn how to look perfect for school? Well, ask her two stylish older sisters, of course. Here’s a shot of my mum’s older sisters, below.

My two aunts looking chic in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in the 1940s.
My Aunts Marion on the left and Gwyneth on the right. Sometime in the 1940s.

Gwyneth, in the turban on the right, was always confident and stylish, my mum says. And when she graduated from high-school and moved to Montreal to work, even more so. I still own a beautiful leather clutch she had made for my grandmother, with Grammy’s initials on it. Grammy carried the small matching wallet that went inside, but she never used the clutch, and one year she gave it to me. You know, I never knew Grammy to carry a purse, only a wallet in her coat pocket. I imagine after so many years of raising kids, and not having time or energy to think about being fashionable, not to mention extra money to spend on clothes, she’d lost the habit of thinking beyond looking “presentable.”

That’s my mum’s eldest sister Marion, in the fur-collared coat, above. Marion was lovely. She had that inner something that made her always look just right. Mum says that went for her personality as well. For, while my Aunt Gwyneth had Grammy’s sharp wit, Marion was kindness personified. Mum says Marion was “a lady.” She died very young, and I’ve always wished I had known her. Partly because my grandmother said I looked like her. In fact, when I was growing up, Grammy used to call me Marion most of the time. And partly because I imagine her as the kindly aunt who would always have had time for a dreamy, overly-dramatic, perfectionistic niece.

That’s my mum below at age eighteen. She’d learned her style lessons well by that time, as evidenced in this picture. I love those striped pants with the shirt buttoned right to the top, and the short overcoat. Very right now, in fact. So however she learned how to dress, advice from her sisters, magazines, stylish friends, she’d soaked up fashion sense somewhere along the line. Or maybe it was just there all along, one of her natural gifts.

Mum looking stylish at eighteen. On Clarke Street in Fredericton, in the 1940s.
My mum looking chic in the 1940s.

I’m pretty sure that Mum was my first style tutor. In the “Yes, wear that blouse, but not those socks,” kind of advice before school each morning. She says she doesn’t remember delivering any style advice. Aside from the stressful yearly trip to try to find a bathing suit to fit me. Oh, the drama! I wrote about that here a couple of years ago, if you’re interested. Mum was a busy single mum with four kids, so I’m not surprised she doesn’t remember. Except, funnily enough, she does remember my asking. And asking. And whining, “What should I wear?”

I’m sure she was happy when I eventually discovered that my older sisters would be much more helpful. With two beautiful, teenage sisters who always wore the right clothes, how lucky was I? I remember watching what they wore, and how, more than actually asking for advice. And I remember their outfits as if they were my own. The summer of 1968 when she worked as a student nurse in Montreal, my sister Carolyn came home in August wearing a lime-green, sleeveless tent dress I’ll never forget. She looked so chic and grown-up. And she brought home for me a grey and white pinstriped mini-dress with a lace ruff at the neck. I was the best dressed girl in my grade seven class that fall.

And I remember the summer of 1970, when Mum, my step-father, step-brother, and I drove down to Moncton to see my sister Connie who’d been attending school there. Connie’s roommates had all left for home. And since she’d be heading back to Fredericton herself in a week, she asked if I wanted to stay with her until then. “But you don’t have any clothes, Susie,” my mum protested. “It’s okay Mum, she can wear stuff of mine,” Connie said. I gasped at my luck. “Can I wear the green bell-bottoms, and the matching green poncho with the cream fringe?” I’m smiling as I write this, and wishing I had a picture of me in that outfit. The pants were quite a bit baggy, okay, a lot baggy. But I thought I looked marvelous, in my big sister’s clothes.

I didn’t always rely on my sisters for fashion inspiration. Soon enough I started looking at fashion magazines, especially Seventeen, and Miss Chatelaine. And television. I’d out-grown Marsha Brady and Laurie Partridge, but Peggy Lipton in The Mod Squad was an early seventies fashion icon for me. And 1971 was the year that our uber-cool, bachelor Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau married Margaret, his young, hippy-chic, flower-child bride. She who favoured bare feet and jeans over frumpy dresses. I remember my sister Carolyn and I watching her being interviewed on television not long after she became the Prime Minister’s wife. All the scandal and her wild-child “antics”, as they were termed, were yet to happen. It’s easy to dismiss her influence now in hindsight. But back then she wore jeans, and sat on the lawn of 24 Sussex, so casual, so with it, and …well… we thought she was wonderful.

I guess it was watching girls and women I knew, and those I didn’t know but admired, wearing fashion and looking just right, that taught me how to dress. Taught me what “just right” meant. That bell-bottoms looked best with a slim-fitting top. Or that short hemlines and high necks looked chic, but not cheap. That midi-skirts and peasant tops worn with knee-high boots looked modern, and not as if we’d just stepped off the set of Bonanza. I couldn’t have articulated the difference, then, between an outfit that looked just right, and one that looked wrong. But I knew the difference.

I had a conversation with my mum this afternoon, while I was writing this post, making sure that I had my family facts right. I mentioned that Grammy probably had never had time to give her fashion advice. And she said, “no not usually.” And I think she didn’t want me to give my grandmother short shrift here. For she recalled the time Grammy made her a beautiful vest and matching pleated skirt that she loved. She said how surprised she was then. And now she wonders how her mother ever found the time to do that.

And after I hung up, Mum’s story reminded me of that scene in Anne of Green Gables where soft-hearted Matthew asks Mrs. Lynde to make Anne a dress with puffed sleeves for Christmas. A dress Anne had dreamed of, but thought she’d never own. And afterwards Marilla relents a bit on her strict dressmaking rules, allowing the odd ruffle and puff. Partly because she doesn’t want to be shown up by Mrs. Lynde again. And partly because she loves Anne, but she’s grown used to being stiff and unbending, short of temper and sharp of tongue, and she has to learn to be a bit softer.

The role that clothes play in our lives has always fascinated me. How important they are to us, how we learn to express ourselves through our clothes. The styles we adopt as much as anything else showing who we are, and how we’re changing. Mum couldn’t put her finger today on how she learned how to dress, what to wear and what not to wear. She said she must have soaked it up, through osmosis.

But I still think that her two older sisters must have played a role in her evolving fashion sense, just like my two older sisters did. With a little help from our very busy mums.

How about you, my friends? Can you put your finger on how you learned to dress? Who or what helped you develop your fashion sense?

Linking up this week with: Visible Monday#IwillwearwhatIlikeThursday Favourite Things#ShareAllLinkup

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32 thoughts on “Where Did You Learn How to Dress?”

  1. Your aunts are beautiful, and Gwyneth exudes confidence. I love the story of the clutch.
    When I was around 7 or 8, my dad (Mr. You-Can’t-Wear-Too-Much-Plaid) gave me a dress: deep green, some kind of silky polyester, with a long pointy collar (it was the ’60s), voluminous, flowing sleeves that gathered into extra-long cuffs. The cuffs and the front had pearl buttons. I felt like royalty in that dress. He picked it out himself; it wasn’t my mom’s taste at all. She was decidedly mousy, in the shadow of her glamorous sisters, except for a stretch in the ’50s, where she was gorgeous and stylish and a touch bohemian. Then the kids came, and she gave up.
    When I was 16, I got an after-school job at a bank, typing in people’s address changes for their credit cards. (Great job!) I rode the bus with two secretaries for a law firm near the bank. They always were perfect, so stylish. I mentally catalogued everything about them. Three years later, I got a job as a proofreader at that very law firm, and then I took my cues from the lady lawyers.

    1. I love that story about your father choosing the dress, reminds me of the Anne/Matthew dress story. Older girls who looked chic were always on my radar as well when I was younger. Now it’s mostly younger women who look chic.:)

  2. I kept a calendar all four years of high school of what I wore everyday. I would randomly rotate every outfit every thirty days so I didn’t wear the same thing within the month. We had a dress code, no pants or shorts. Skirts could be no shorter than 3 inches above the knee. The first day of school girls were met at the entrance with the female teachers holding rulers to make sure of those 3 inches. A few girls were sent home to change. We all got around that by wearing elastic waist skirts. Hems were going up and down all day. This was 1970 after all. Every girl followed the teen magazines even Cosmopolitan for dresses suitable for school so that was our fashion education then. College and first jobs followed and I still read Glamour and Cosmopolitan as well as whatever well dressed woman happened by. Now I look for stylish comfort. Some fashion names, I like Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch, but always tailored classics that will last for years.

  3. There is no doubt that it was my mother who taught me the basics of what elegance and style was all about…her closet was a mystical place of beautiful garments made of fabrics that looked and felt luscious. Her clothing was coordinated to a fault and always worn with accessories that matched yet added that extra bit of allure….today I fear that the majority of people have lost ‘the art of dressing’ as my mother used to call it. She could also pull off casual attire with aplomb and I looked up to her tremendously. She died when I was almost 11 and then it was fashion magazines that took over ‘giving advice’. However to this day my mother’s influence is still there and is still strong…elegant, classic cut clothing that can be worn for more than a season or two. Loved reading the stories of the women in your life that left lasting impressions of fashion…beautiful role models each in their own way!

  4. Like you, I grew up in a rural community and our version of high fashion came from whatever we could admire and (probably not) afford in Eaton’s or Simpson’s catalogues. In 1965 at the age of 17 I moved to Toronto to start work at Bell Telephone and lived in Willard Hall, a downtown girls’ residence, like a dorm for working girls where I lived for two years, from 1965 to 67. Imagine the shock and joy of being exposed to all the new sixties styles walking down Yonge Street and in Yorkville Village. About 300 girls lived at Willard Hall and that’s where I was first exposed to Sasoon haircuts and even hair colouring, mini-skirts, extreme makeup and the general explosion in fashion. For a small-town girl now earning her own money, it was nirvana. I still rely largely on street fashion for my inspiration – and sites such as High Heels in the Wilderness, of course.

  5. What a evocative post, Sue. So touching in many ways and it certainly made me sit back and think about how I learned about dressing as an expression of who I (thought) I was at any given period of my life.
    My mother was undoubtedly a strong influence. She was not stylish in the sense of always having many beautiful clothes (no money for that), but she was always, always very neatly put together. She never wore pants/trousers (she recounted arguments with Lady so-and-so of the St John’s Ambulance Service–her superior–about wearing them when she was an ambulance driver during the Blitz). Her outstanding sewing abilities meant that her clothes, even house-dresses, were always beautifully made (she made all our clothing) and she had that special eye for choosing fabrics and colour combinations; knowing instinctively what would work with various patterns. We had a great deal of fun going to local fabric stores, walking up and down the aisles to eye/touch fabrics and then sitting with Vogue pattern books to select just the right combination. Even now, 50 years later, I realize that many of the things she made for me would still be fashionable–classic clothes, well-fitted and in beautiful fabrics.
    Thanks for encouraging a brief trip down memory lane.

    1. Thanks, Mary. My mum could not afford nice clothes as a single parent. But she had a friend who sent her lovely things every year. I still remember some of those outfits.

  6. Wendy from York

    From my mum I learnt about fabric quality & good fit . She had very few clothes but I still remember her three best dresses for the local ‘ dinner dances ‘ of the 1950s . ( also she always carried a little china cup on rail journeys as she couldn’t bear drinking tea from paper or plastic cups . I always thought that was rather classy ). She was one of fourteen children , so not much money about, but her mum recognised quality too . In her 80s & 90s my gran loved trawling round the junk shops finding treasures & I still have silk scarves she gave me . Later icons were Mary Quant , Cathy McGowan ( tv presenter ) , Jean Muir ( designer ) & not forgetting Margaret Howell . Great pics of your mum & aunties . Perhaps there is a stylish gene .

    1. Love that china cup story. I don’t like tea from a paper cup either. Don’t know if there is a stylish gene in our family… but there’s definitely a bit of tea snobbery that’s been passed on:)

  7. “Seventeen” magazine was my bible! And I wish that I had kept every copy; my granddaughters would love it. “You actually wore your skirts that short, Mammaw?” Yes, I did!

  8. I can’t remember too much overt advice from my mum. She had a certain sense of style but it was more conservative than my preferences. I recall a newspaper column every Tuesday written by a former model that gave very clear advice about clothes, how to put outfits together and how to take a trend and make it work for you, or not ?. I can still remember eagerly anticipating that column each week and devouring the advice. Magazines, both local and international ones, like Seventeen, were other useful tools.

  9. Such a great topic! And your mom is beautiful.

    Hmmm… Let’s see. Seventeen Magazine had a hand. (This makes me smile.) My grandmother had a hand indirectly (she had stunning style). But it was going to France at 15, living with French families, that changed everything for me.

    That’s when I realized I DIDN’T know how to dress!

    Fortunately, more back-and-forth to Paris in my late teens and into my 20s took care of that.

    ?

    1. I think growing up in Fredericton, staid as it was, impressed me with the idea that one had to look decent, and “done” to be out in public. Remember summer gloves?

  10. Oh! And all those Glamour Magazine “do’s” and “don’ts” — and movies with “style role models” like Pamela Tiffin, Suzanne Pleshette, Angie Dickinson — little tops and pencil skirts!

  11. Oh my! Haven’t thought about those influences for a long time! A grade school teacher, Miss Oikawa, was undoubtedly a big influence. Not only did she look like me but she had the most beautiful clothes – I used to see her being fitted at the tailor! Even in small town northwestern Ontario! Going to Winnipeg to shop was the best! My aunt in Montreal was a fashion designer who wrote about her business trips to New York to see the latest fashions! Glamorous! Something handmade from her at Christmas was the best! She taught me to sew one summer & I often sewed throughout high school & university. Imagine coeds wearing dresses & suits & heels to lecture & the library! Hair in a flip’ Devoured Seventeen & Glamour. Then came the summer of love & push up bras & bikini panties & mini skirts & hot pants! Not at all like our parents! As a high school teacher in the early 70’s, l worried how high my skirts could be – fashionable and/or modest! I still love clothes. Miss dressing for work. Unfortunately spend a lot of time in jeans, but remember & love the glory days! ❤️ Suji

  12. I don’t think I really learned much about how to dress from my mother – not being a fan of emerald and navy together, matching shoes and bags faithfully, always wearing make-up when out, but she did teach me that it is important to iron stuff properly, especially shirts. Magazines, films (esp 1950’s Hitchcock, I will admit, and with a nod to both Audrey H and Grace K) informed my style. I do recall being absolutely stymied by the sight of the Baroness in The Sound of Music (aged 8) because I thought she was The Last Word in Elegance. Still do. Probably leaving home when 19 was the most important element and moving to London. Whole new worlds opening up. I don’t think my style has changed much, just been refined and distilled and I now have a word for it, rather than groping in the sartorial dark. Pared back monos. Well, three words, then.

  13. Maria O'Grady

    My mother was also a fashionista of the 40″s , I do love the styles of the 40’s and my mothers style was impeccable!
    I learned from her , to be classy and leave somethings to the imagination, ie not too tight or too short. I also learned from my 6 older sisters .One of the benefits of being the youngest , I was the last to leave the house for high-school as the others were off to work. I could rob their closets, and carefully put things back on hangers before they got home from work. I did get “caught” a few times , with a couple of stains that the 16 yr old SHOULD HAVE looked after before returning to the closet.
    Now at the age of 52, I miss my mothers keen sense , she passed away last yr at 95 , but never lost her sense of style. I still have my sisters to rely on!

  14. I’m not certain I ever really learned how to dress!! I went through grade school and high school dressed exclusively in uniforms. Days at home were in a meager assortment of pants and shirts. Summertime at least allowed me to get colorful shorts and tops. My mother dressed as though she didn’t care. Did she? I guess I’ll never know. I headed off to college and exchanged school uniforms for jeans, T shirts and men’s flannel shirts. And earth shoes!! It wasn’t until I entered government service that I began to actually shop. Wanting to be sure I was recognized as a ‘professional’ (this was late 70’s-early 80’s and professional women were few and far between), I wore skirt suits (later pantsuits) with pretty silk blouses. I did indulge a new-found love for shoes. An attire credo I continued until I retired. Now that I’m working for myself, I have to learn how to dress differently, but well. Thanks to you, other bloggers and fashion magazines, I just might get a handle on this!

  15. I’d have to write an entire blogpost to respond to this — what a wonderful and evocative and inviting essay you’ve written and what splendid responses you’ve elicited. I will say that creative frugality figured large in my style education. My mother, like yours, had older stylish sisters, and my grandmother, my aunts, and my mom were all very good at whipping up their own creations. But I’m the oldest of a very large family and my (very boring but democratising) school uniform was the mainstay of my wardrobe ’til mid-teens. My mom was queen of the rummage sales and taught us valuable skills for plucking good pieces from heaps of dross. . . .

    1. It seems like we’ve lost the art of “whipping” anything up. When I was a kid, my mum used to “run up” a couple of light sleeveless summer shifts each year. Then wear them with little scarves she’d bought and a cardigans. We’d dig out my sister’s old clothes from the cedar chest and see how they could be altered for me. I guess thrift-shop shopping is kind of the same thing.

  16. Like Frances, I’d have to write a whole post! I will say that my blog taught me a lot, and revealed to me how I’d learned what I already knew. I love the photos of your family, they are such stylish women, you can see it.

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