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.
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.
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?