In my favorite photo of Grandma Curtis, she reclines gracefully on a plastic-covered glider, like a sapphire in a stone setting. She seems both at ease and out of place here on our Florida sun porch. My eyes are drawn to the dark leather gloves crossed regally in her lap. A deep blue cloche hat wraps sleekly around her jaw, balanced by a poof of feathers, a spray of netting opposite. I know, from summer vacations to her house up north, that, like many a Brit, her closet brimmed with hats, despite the reality that bridge club was the only social engagement on her calendar.
As I continue to stare at the deckle-edged photo I note her well-tailored suit, accented by a tasteful pearl and gold pin that match her earrings. Soft folds of a white crepe blouse, cuffs peeking from long suit sleeves, collar accented by what looks like brocade, add emphasis. A glimpse of the inside hem of the skirt, just below the knee, reveals that the suit is lined. Only the best for Lillian, who looks as if she’s traveled across time. She appears to be waiting for her carriage to take her to a weekend in the country when she’s actually holding court on a rare visit down south. No doubt I’m one of the grandchildren running wildly just beyond the screens, sweaty in t-shirts and shorts. Although a moment in time, it is always how I think of my mother’s mother, the one who seldom ventured into public in anything but sartorial splendor.
Wordlessly, since there was never a reason to talk about things, my grandmother and mother taught me the power of garments to create and transport.
Small town Lakewood, New Jersey, much less back porch Florida, wasn’t where Lillian ever wanted to be. Her true place was with the British aristocracy, even if only as an auxiliary. Grandma’s people were in service to European society’s nobility before her family crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. Though she ended up marrying a farmer’s son (her penance for youthful transgressions that left no other choice), and though he would go on to be Chief of Police of her small town, and her son mayor, life in this kingdom was too parochial for her tastes. Dissatisfied with her circumstances, she plied her talents as a dressmaker as conveyance to more suitable identities, however illusory. She would later use those skills to coax scholarship tuition from a patron to send her youngest daughter, my mother, to an elite all-girls’ boarding school an hour from home.
At St. Mary’s Hall, Mom’s hand-sewn plaid uniforms by day, and properly pleated skirts with tweedy jackets for after school, spoke of the classical education. In yearbook scrawls, classmates with fuzzy sweaters draped in pearls from Philly, DC, and Long Island teased, “Where oh where is Lakewood?” and wondered, “Do they even have a post office?” Despite her outsider status, Mom’s high school pursuits, as yearbook secretary and class treasurer, laid the groundwork for her flight to loftier places.
Upon graduation, Mom escaped school uniforms and the confines of Lakewood to a Times Square rooming house around the corner from Katherine Gibbs School. There she trained to be a quintessential professional secretary and got a glimpse into the possibilities that awaited the 1940s woman. Gibbs’ motto, “Stand above the crowd,” coupled with Mom’s small budget, warranted a carefully curated closet: square-shouldered suits with narrow hips and skirts in rich fabrics from Lord & Taylor. And shoes, lots of shoes. Sears, Roebuck & Co. was quick to hire a Gibbs girl, and Mom flourished in New York for a few years. She was thrilled with dollar-a-year raises and rum-and-Coke nights out with other twenty-somethings equally exhilarated by the dividends of newfound freedom.
Peering through albums, I wondered why the photos suddenly shifted, from big city styling to high-waisted trousers topped with crisp white shirts. As the end of her twenties approached, Mom spent Peter Pan days in playful pursuits at the Jersey shore and wooded yards of Lakewood, surrounded by her nephews that were close to her in age. She seemed to be living out the ambition she had described in her high school yearbook, “To do as little as possible.” For decades she held tight to the secret that had unexpectedly flung her back to her childhood home–an illegal abortion that followed an affair with a big-city cop who, it turned out, was married.
Approaching thirty, Mom could no longer resist the conventional wisdom that marriage equaled worth. When a handsome merchant seaman proposed, friends advised, “You’d better say ‘yes.’ You may not get another chance.” She knew time was up. Packing swimsuits, trousers, and tailored shirts for attic storage, she shopped for a New York wedding gown, and a Singer sewing machine to take her into the next act of her life.
Even after succumbing to societal pressures to be married with children, and her subsequent exile to South Texas, Mom whirred away on her Singer, creating clothes for the picture of a perfect 50s family. Handmade matching Simplicity pattern A-lines splashed with bright fruits and florals, beanie-topped uniforms to match Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s specifications, and Easter outfits with matching accessories were the highlights of our lives. Through clothes, we could at least look like a blissful Leave It To Beaver family, even with an absent seafaring father and a mother who abhorred parenting. There was a certain ecstasy in a well-made ensemble.
Dreaming of my own future in those childhood days of Catholic school, deep in the heart of Texas, I imagined myself in entirely different ensembles, ones that would better suit my budding affinities. Stiff black gabardine sweeping from head to toe, face framed by wimple, rosary beads clicking inside billowing sleeves. On the other hand, I could also appreciate the flare of a good suede-fringed skirt, topped by a snap-buttoned shirt and rawhide vest and crowned by a Stetson. (Cowgirl was my back-up plan if the nun thing didn’t work out.) New surroundings would soon open my eyes to a more expansive array of fashion statements. By then sewing had also become a part of my life.
As I entered my teen years, our move from Texas to the Florida Gulf Coast, and from Catholic to public junior high, introduced me to a kaleidoscope of peers. My gang of eight bonded over outsider status as we turned our noses up at the country club elite, who turned up their noses at us. With British-born Valerie among us, we saw ourselves as 60s Rockers along a continuum ending in Mod. For the girls, the look started with long, often-ironed, hair swinging as we walked, and for the boys, with Beatle mops that disgraced their parents. (There were rumors that Terry’s father tied him to the bed to take the scissors to his hair.) Motorcycles were the prop that set us apart. Exhaust pipe burns on our calves branded us as the outlaws we craved to be.
But props weren’t enough. Luckily, home economics gave us the proving ground to further mark our status. Best friend Valerie and I set out to sew distinctively tough apparel, with a nod towards cool. When vinyl zebra was nowhere to be found among fabric store bolts, we wandered the aisles of Maas Brothers’ Bed and Bath department where we found our look among the vinyl shower curtains. Butterick designs became matching Carnaby-esque plastic mini-skirts, completed with sleek black tights and turtlenecks. When we strode into homeroom side-by-side a week later, heads turned. (Like Grandma Curtis, I was too cool to do ordinary things in ordinary ways.) Though my mother never agreed with my taste, I like to think she respected my styling.
But, like my mother, and with no words spoken to contradict, I’d gotten the societal dispatch that marriage to a man was the prerequisite to building a life. Soon sidelined by a too-young wedding to a Florida good-old-boy, with neither money nor time for adornments, garbs and getups took a temporary backseat. Like my grandmother, I used sewing pragmatically, making bespoke clothes for childhood friends on my Mom’s borrowed Singer to boost my young husband’s meager salary.
It was only when my teen marriage reached its logical conclusion and my two sons went to live with their father, that I once again turned to clothes as an escape, this time from my failures as wife and mother. Time spent doing was so much easier than time spent being, especially with people who reminded me of what I was missing. Even better was time spent imagining myself as someone else. And clothes, in the form of costumes, again became the vehicle.
This time around there was no space for regal elegance or cool hipness. I now needed apparel to match the fierce feminist identity that I was embracing. Viking War Maiden fit the bill. The Society for Creative Anachronism, with its devotion to recreating the Middle Ages, tugged on both the trickster and nerd in me and I became Rhora Goldring, if only on the weekends.
“Mom, I need a medieval banquet gown for next month’s feast.” I’d blurt out, as I rushed into her apartment with an eagerness that would accept no challenge.
“What in the world is that and how do you plan to do it? she’d ask, hands on hips.
I’d come armed with a stack of books from the local library filled with etchings of feudal times, pages marked for quick persuasion. Though my mother and I seldom found common ground, she understood the value of the right outfit to create worlds. Eyebrows knitted in skepticism, my mother became my silent accomplice. Together we’d search the hefty McCall catalogue for styles that, with a cut up the front, a sleeve substitution, a hat borrowed from the costume section, coupled with opulent fabrics, could become a floor length, black brocade, Byzantine gown with a gold lame underdress. Pearl-like strands and intricate crocheted trim bordered the hem where I’d embroider in pseudo-runic lettering, “Let he who is without fear engage Rhora the Viking in love and war.” The billowing wool cape in a shade of heathered purple skimmed the floor and left me feeling majestically powerful, as my mother looked on with pride at the needlework. There was magic in that cape for both of us.
Medieval feasting and fighting filled my weekdays, and dancing filled my weeknights. Mirror ball revolving, lights flashing, dance floors spacious at nine, brimming by 10 pm with beautiful boys, spurred my inner diva and provided a place to transform energy from sorrow and anger to dramatic whirls across the floor. There everyone was a queen, with the help of carefully placed glittered sparkles and flourishes.
Again, without questions, seamstress mom sewed garbs made-to-order. A shimmery hot-pink shirt with satin ribbons in every hue as sleeves was a team effort. As she carefully pinned ribbons to arm-hole, my ten-year-old son looked on, challenging, “Do you know how ridiculous you’ll look, Mom?” With sequin-embellished Danskins topped by jersey skirts cut from hem to waist, I could do Flamenco-like twirls to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. These were the passport that transformed me into disco queen. Mouth set, Mom would shake her head as I regaled her with tales of the night life. I’d like to think part of her harkened back to her own frivolous days-of-play when she was the same age. I hoped never to retreat as she’d had to do.
Disco days done, Mom was again by my side two years later when I packed for the next stop on my journey. As I loaded my battered Dodge Dart for a move to the Windy City, we carefully tucked the wool skirts she’d sewn into a corner of the trunk. “One last thing,” she said, as she handed me her prized possession, a camel-hair coat from the New York days. “I think you were meant to be in a big city,” Mom muttered, in a rare moment of recognition. I would later wonder if she’d been talking to me, or herself.
Now I’m at the same over-65 age that my Grandma was on that long-ago day on the Florida porch. She lived to see me decked out in a few more identities before leaving this life. There was the gauzy nightgown worn for the womyn’s festival commitment ceremony to my life-partner some 35 years ago. Flowing skirts, beaded jewelry, rainbows, and tattooed cleavage helped convey the lesbian behind the femme people saw, while designer suits provided an authoritative edge in chairing university faculty meetings.
A snapshot of me today might capture me amidst fellow senior citizens dressed for our Zumba Gold class. Most are outfitted with an eye to comfort, in cargo shorts, sweat- and yoga-pants, topped with t-shirts reminding us of their passions: Take Back the Night, Hope, Women’s March, Go Green. While I too appreciate comfort, I’d like to believe I can combine that with a bit of a fashion statement. As I walk into the cinder-block rec center, the instructor, a young personal trainer, whispers behind her hand. “Do you have a different pair of leggings for every day of the week?” she whispers as she sees me each week sporting my red and black, blue flowered, rainbow jester or tie-dyed work out gear. I know that those leggings will carry me to a world of high energy leaping and stretching, and link me back to my birthright of costuming.
For a moment I imagine my mother and Grandma Curtis watching me. Neither says a word, though Mom offers me a subtle, almost imperceptible, nod. They could never have imagined the places I’ve gone and the sights I’ve seen wrapped in their fabric legacy.
Pat Hulsebosch writes about culture and identity in a never-boring life of teaching and learning. With roots in the South, she now lives in the DC Metro area with her wife Lynda but is fortunate to have family and friends across the U.S. who give her a convenient excuse to travel frequently.
© 2020, Pat Hulsebosch