French Grandmothers, Vintage Clothing, and Me

There has been much excitement in our house this evening.

First, my father is spending more time winning than losing when playing FIFA, leading to a drastic decrease in the amount of cursing coming from the family room. (Darling Pippa, we did a fantastic job with his Christmas present this year.)

But mostly it’s because I have new–or should I say old–clothes, and I’ve been enthustiastically been playing dress-up for hours.

It would be one thing to just post a picture of the clothes and shout, “Hey! Look! I have more fancy vintage! And this is a terrible iPhone picture of me wearing it!” But everything is so much more exciting when the back-story gets told, so here is the very long-winded explanation:

My mémé, grand-tantes, and grandmémé are/were the sorts of women who wear custom clothes made in Paris and London and dress for dinner. They believe in elegance, class, and criticizing, in French, seven-year-olds who can’t scoop up their peas without getting a few on the tablecloth. Tee-shirts belonging to thirteen-year-old must be steamed if they get wrinkly in a duffel bag, and you’d have to be insane to think about so much as going to the bathroom before making your bed. They can also tell from over twenty feet whether or not you’ve used hospital corners. (Not that I’ve leaned any of this from experience, of course) chafes at the rigidity, but I enjoy it immensely. They amuse me and annoy me, but they’re like no one else I’ve ever met, and I love them dearly for it.

Their wardrobes are amazing–a wonderful collection of fashion from the 1920s onward. There are woolen coats from the forties, sleek cocktail dresses from the sixties, and long Laura Ashley skirts from the eighties. There are more clip-on earrings than you can imagine and one of my grand-tantes, Yvette (Amusingly, all of the women are either Yvette, Victoire, or Camilla, which leads to much confusion, though this generation seems to have thankfully broken from that tradition), will happily supply you with the story of how every item of her outfit was selected, if you so much as mention liking her shoes. (I can tell you about most of her pairs of black pants, thanks to an off-hand comment I made three years ago while we were sailing. It was a fascinating forty-five minutes, I assure you.)

And occasionally, I get given some of their clothing. When I was younger, there were children’s clothes: Merimekko frocks and dresses with matching bows.

Poor Natasha. Pippa was overenthusiastic about that cat when she was little. To be fair, though, I was probably the one who directed her to hold the cat and pose for this picture.

Anyone who has ever been forced to wear big bows like these, will surely be able to commiserate over how much they would tug at your hair, often ripping it out, but still manage to slip down to your ears at least twice during the meal.

Pippa, our cousins, and I are professionals at amusing ourselves at parties intended for adults. At this one, I believe we hid under a table and tried to decide who was wearing the best shoes. Well, that, and making funny faces at the photographer.

And, of course, who doesn’t let their six-year-old wear a hat from the twenties, fur, and a sixties cocktail dress, pinned up so that it won’t drag on the ground?

Isn't she glamourous?

It’s odd what you often remember from events. I’m quite forgetful when it comes to food, but I will remember the clothes. I can tell you in great detail what it felt like to wear that pink dress in the first photograph, just how stiff the fabric was, starched so profusely so that it would be impossible for me to wrinkle during the car ride, and the way that the back of the dress stood straight up on its own when I sat.

Cecelia is forever mentioning the way that I can recall what other people were wearing, and I have to consciously remind myself not mention the last time somebody was wearing something, so that I don’t make them uncomfortable.

But back to my mother’s side of the family and clothing.

Around the time that I was fourteen, I really started to appreciate fashion. It was interesting and exciting and not something designed for kids’ dress-up parties or boring events.

Old clothing has stories. Dresses get worn to dinners where husbands are met or while traveling across Greece to study architecture. Maybe it was what one of them was wearing when World War II ended or when the USA won the hockey gold metal in the 1980 Olympics. When I put on some of their clothing, I feel like like I’m becoming part of a history that doesn’t just begin and end with traveling from a factory to a store to my dresser.

Unfortunately, I am the smallest female, both in height and in width. My mémé is nearly six feet, and an eight-inch height difference is quite a bit. But I’m handy with a sewing kit or–in a pinch–safety pins, so I’d happily wear whatever was given to me.

Perhaps whatever is a bit of a strong word in this case, as there is a puce green velvet blazer, which I have no idea how to wear. And my mother also refuses to let me leave the house if it looks like I’m wearing a “costume,” a rule that I am forever trying to disobey.

I mean, I understand that wearing a calico prairie-style dress from the seventies isn’t really grocery shopping attire and wearing a white Puritan-style bonnet with it makes me look like the Amish met Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it’s not like I’m baring my midrift or wearing a lime green wig (both ideas I had for school outfits when I was ten). And maybe wearing a felt hat to babysit a six-year-old is a little much as well.

But isn’t clothing about having fun? I love wearing flannel nightgowns that come up to my chin and down to my ankles or gingham matching pajamas to bed and skirts from the fifties to school!

Sadly, I have heard, “You are not leaving the house until you look normal,” too many times to count, and Pippa loves laughing at me when I decide to pretend that it’s a different decade. And when I am intentionally dressing up for an event, I tend to go overboard with trying to make things look period (cue 1940s victory rolls for a dance marathon that took about two hours to perfect.) Then, of course, there was the theme day in middle school when I decided that it would be hilarious to dress up like the 1880s instead of the 1980s, because “no one specified what century!” and everyone laughed at me for wearing petticoats I had fashioned out of white eyelet peasant skirts.

So when my mother announced that she had some new clothing for me from her latest trip down south, I practically squealed. And by practically squealed, I mean that I got very excited. I prefer to leave squealing to pigs and easily excited Justin Beiber fans (I get the feeling that they’d be the squealing type).

Of course, my mémé had not only carefully re-ironed everything after it had come back from the cleaners, but had also packed it with tissue paper in sealed bags, so as to keep it as neat as possible.

I now have the most amazing cream colored white blouse, with beautiful lace detailing, and a long flowered dress with a Peter Pan collar and a sash. Plus, my mémé is also sending two coats from the forties and another hat! I’m a very, very, very happy girl. My mother promised that I could finally get some of my other vintage skirts taken in, as most of them are around a size six and I’m a double zero, so my wardrobe will be expanding even more!

I wanted to get proper photographs of all of the outfits I put together, but both digital cameras were dead. Instead, enjoy a terrible picture my Dad took with my iPhone. You can’t see any of the detailing on the blouse, the interesting waist on the skirt, or my shoes, but it’s better than nothing. You can also tell that I am busy trying to give my father instructions while he’s taking the picture, hence the strange expression.

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As always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

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7 thoughts on “French Grandmothers, Vintage Clothing, and Me

  1. You look so ladylike,feminine and pretty in your vintage clothes. A wonderful look for you. Why be normal when you dress? If you’re not embarrassed, why should your mom be? After all, didn’t she teach you to be your own person and not worry about what other’s think?

      • I think you misunderstood what I meant. Our parents teach us to be individuals and for us not to pay attention to what other people think. I didn’t mean not pay attention to what our mom’s think! We should pay attention! But sometimes they send us mixed messages and that’s when we should respectfully ask questions.

    • Thank you!

      She certainly loves for me to be creative and unique, she’s just not a fan of me looking it’s Halloween in February. That outfit I was wearing in the picture would fly, but if I were to fasten the shirt up to my chin and wear it with a broach, the way it was originally designed, that would probably cross the line.

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