Thursday, 6 October 2011
Something Old, Something New
My paternal grandma was married in the United States in the late 1950s. I don’t know the details but I do know the dress. It was white (surprise, surprise), with a fitted bodice, cascading skirt and a dramatic train, all constructed from yards and yards of delicate lace. Her husband matched in a white dinner jacket. The wedding photos are jubilant; their faces joyful.
The usual destination for a dress such as hers is the back of the wardrobe –perhaps protected by dust covers – or folded carefully in a tissue-lined trunk. The intricate embroidery or tulle layers might be rediscovered on special occasions, anniversaries perhaps, and one day might be tried on for size by a daughter. Sometimes, as with so many family heirlooms, the precious fabric might be lost or ruined.
However, none of these options apply to my grandma. I must start by explaining that she was a Czech refugee. Her family fled the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1948 with little more than the clothes they were wearing. This brutal change of scene, coupled with their experience of WWII, meant that my grandma (or my ‘Babi’ as I call her) was never wasteful. Every scrap of fabric had its home, all leftover food its use.
Therefore after the wedding celebrations she was practical in her decision about the dress. It was purposefully put together to be taken apart again. The long lace train and other components of the dress were given to a seamstress, who cut and re-stitched it into useful items of clothing: a full length skirt, a pencil skirt, a sleeveless top and an A-line evening coat. They were still special garments of course, but vastly more useful than a gown only suited to formal balls.
Those four items of clothing were given to me when I last saw my ‘Babi’. The long tailored skirt was tried on for size. I realized that the material encircling me had eventually led to me being born. If my grandma hadn’t married and had two boys, one of whom was my father, then I wouldn’t be standing in my bedroom in a full length lace skirt...
Sadly I never knew my grandfather because he died before they had been married a decade, leaving my ‘Babi’ to bring up those two young sons on her own. She had lost the great love of her life (and it would take her until the age of sixty to find love like that again). She moved to London, taking her clothes and memories with her.
Death is not finite. It cannot be fitted neatly into one of many boxes and stored away in the spare room under a pile of coat hangers. Just because more than forty years have passed, it does not mean that the memory of my grandfather has diminished for those who knew him. Instead, her home has come to represent a jumble of times – different lives laid out, one on top of the other, like layers of tissue paper. When my family visit London, to fill the place with noise and the smell of cooking, there are still small reminders. If I go into my dad’s old room and lie down then I can see his scribbled teenage writing on the underside of a shelf. A wedding album sits among other family photos, and it represents the best of times.
My grandma has gradually given me many clothes that I consider heirlooms: a red satin evening coat, a couture cocktail dress she bought in an NY thrift store for $20 in the fifties, a seventies blue nylon hooded robe. Each piece arrives with a story attached.
The threads that are seamed throughout these garments are like family, stitched together. In seeing and wearing my grandma’s skirt, I am embracing the good and testing times that marriage and life in general brought her – for anyone, these are dresses to have and to hold (and to hold on to).
In the first look I added a yellow crocheted top bought from a charity in shop in Bristol (I love all the St Peter's Hospice ones there!), alongside a white silk sash and shoes from ebay.
For the second I styled it with the the same silk sash (in my hair) and a green sixties fringed top from a vintage market. The clutch bag is my mum's and the belt was second hand. The necklace in both shots was for my birthday.
Finally, I was extremely happy to be asked to be Motif Mag's covergirl for their latest issue. Do take a look at this free, quarterly, online magazine.