Sometimes these scraps of memory are woven together with fabric. The final way to understand the characters of those we never knew is through looking at what they wore. My (still alive but remarkably changed) 93 year old great-grandma favoured Jaeger cardigans and dainty shoes – many of which came from charity shops in later years. My other maternal great-grandma (and great-aunts) owned a large variety of hats, gloves, scarves and bags – typical of what women of their generation wouldn’t leave the house without. And my paternal grandad, who died when my dad was little? Although we have photo evidence of him as a ‘dapper young chap’ in three piece suits or slacks, I know him specifically through a few objects dotted around our house. The first is a Stanford vest; a relic from his college days. Then there are the white rimmed fifties sunglasses – so big that I feel like a child playing dress up again, as the frames slip down my nose. And finally, hanging on a hook in the hall, I can see a straw fedora that wouldn’t look out of place on the Sartorialist.
Wearing (or even just owning) clothes that belonged to various relatives is the ultimate recycling – not only are the garments being re-used and re-discovered (where they might otherwise have been dumped), but these items can also be given a new type of life. Our own stories are added to the ones that went before them. “If these walls could talk...” is an over used phrase. However, I wonder if a more interesting saying might be “If these clothes could talk”. What we wear accompanies us all day long and our clothes are party to whatever we do or say.
Sometimes I feel as though every item my grandma has given me should have a label stitched into it, detailing its history. “This couture dress was bought in a thrift store, and worn when I was a jobbing actress in New York”, or, “I brought this sixties flower brooch with me when I moved to London”. We could scribble our own additions on to each label – “I used the seventies patchwork floppy hat to keep the sun off my face during a family picnic”.
So, in memory of my family members who are no longer with us or who do not enjoy the health they once did, here are three outfits styled (almost) exclusively with pieces from the past – handed down from great-grandmas, grandparents, aunts and cousins three times removed.
The second has a floral dress hand-made by one of my maternal great-grandmas (she of the hats and gloves), worn under a black lace bodice that was owned by another great-grandma. The two great-grandmas on my mother’s side did not get on, and therefore it’s quite bittersweet that I am pairing their clothes together. In addition, this black lace strapless top has been worn and styled by four generations on my mother’s side – having been made by my great-grandma, who gave it to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to her daughter (my mum), who wore it, stored it, and one day found it had been appropriated by her daughter – me!
I am also wearing a velvet choker and a little belt that both belonged to a paternal great-grandma. The wedges are not family owned (but second hand from ebay), as my feet are much too big to be stuffed into vintage shoes.
The third look was very circus inspired – especially in the colour palette. The white blouse was my great-grandma’s, and the black trousers were my maternal granddad’s. I had to cinch them in with a sash, as the waistline was somewhat larger than mine – however, I love the voluminous look of the legs. The red satin evening coat worn over the top belonged to my paternal great-grandma. Most of her clothes were donated to an American theatre wardrobe department (sob), but this is one of the few pieces I have been lucky enough to receive. The brooch at the neck is Christian Dior, and was from my maternal great-grandma (along with the pearl clutch). The shoes are second hand.
All three outfits have elements of red running through them, which wasn’t planned, but seems appropriate. If we go back once again to the symbolism of colours, then red stands for courage and valour - two qualities that saturate various family stories. However, it also represents anger, which is just as apt. There have been fiery arguments, harsh words and great sadness. However here red is tempered with white; the sign of peace and serenity. Hopefully there is a dash of that in the family mix too.
I will be on holiday as of friday, and so my next post will be pre-scheduled for the middle of the following week. I have been really busy, so will announce the giveaway in that, after using a random generator - everyone's answers were too good (thoughtful, funny, reflective) for me to make a rational decision! This will gave the winner plenty of time to contact me with an address before I get back.