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.

On Cats Running Across Highways, Imagining Stories, and Empathy

I saw a cat run across the highway today. White with multi-colored spots, it seemed to float above the asphalt, its legs moved so fast. I gasped, bracing myself against the dashboard, scared that it wouldn’t make it, that the Honda Civic almost neck and neck with our car would speed up. But it fled onto the shoulder, unharmed and disappeared into the trees at the edge of the road. What on earth was a cat doing in the median of a highway? I thought, But what courage it must have taken to make such a dash across three lanes of traffic.

We drove on, past little green mile markers counting down to the state line. Thirty minutes. Just thirty minutes until I can see my own three cats. They’ll be rolling on the kitchen floor in hunger for dry kibble and human affection. I’ll be able to pick them up in my arms, hugging them almost uncomfortably tight and then reprimand them for peeing on that section of the tiled kitchen floor. Twenty-nine minutes. Remember that time Pushkin slept on top of my legs, and I held my breath so that he’d stay? It worked until my leg twitched. Twenty-eight minutes. What about the time Pippa and my dad tried to take Max to the liquor store? Twenty seven minutes. Cats. Nineteen. Cats. Seven. Cats. Thirty seconds. Cats, cats, cats. The word almost lost its meaning, I repeated it so much.

It wasn’t until I was in the shower two hours later that I thought of the scene on the highway again.

I like stories, knowing how things came to be and how people or animals felt along the way. And when the story isn’t entirely evident, say the history of that vintage dress I bought–the one from the fifties with a poofy skirt, big black polka dots on white, and that low back–I just imagine it.

I see a young woman wearing it to a wedding where she dances and meets a nice boy. She wears it again when the two of them go to parties, and she wonders if he’ll notice that she’s worn it twice, three times, four. If he does, he doesn’t say anything. They get married, and she wears it at the first dinner party she hosts, trying desperately to pull off an image of domestic perfection. It works, and she smoothes an invisible crease, thanking the dress for the luck its brought her. Finally, it doesn’t fit anymore, and it gets jammed into the back corner of a closet, never to be seen again until her son gives it away last year. The woman who buys for the store spots it, and it ends up in a rack in a shop where I try it on, knowing that it’s a little to big, but too perfect to leave behind. It gets placed in my closet, lying dormant once again. A month later, I put it on to show my friends possible dresses for prom, but it still doesn’t fit, and there probably isn’t enough time for tailoring. But  Tal needs a dress, and it fits her beautiful. Her measurements match the woman’s who owned it first. She wears it, and her night is wonderful, just as much fun as the woman before. A week later she gives it back to me. And so on.

I can go on like this for a while particularly if I’m feeling somewhat poetic. So I got going on the story of that cat. It got longer and longer, concluding with it dying in a pile of leaves when it got leukemia at the age of eighteen. The water had long gotten cold, and I was sitting on the bath mat feeling a little bit silly about how sad I was over the future death of a cat I had only seen once.

Stories make me fall in love with people and things. I become full of compassion for something I don’t actually know. But because of the story I do know it in a way. My world of make-believe becomes real. The cat isn’t just a guess-what-I-saw story, it has a deeper meaning. It is alive and just as complex as the person I’m recounting the incident to.

I wish everyone saw people and things the way that I see that dress and the cat. Nothing has one characteristic. The citizens of the United States aren’t just a mass of fat people wearing their own flag on their shirts, they’re 307,006,550 individual people with histories and relationships, and that person or group you hate may have opposing political views or even engage in acts of terrorism, but they’re still a person who loves their family with as much passion as you. Imagining stories, even if you’re just reading someone else’s, inspires empathy. And the Lord knows the world needs more of that.

It’s late, and I know I’m rambling. I feel like this is going to be one of those posts that I’ll wake up tomorrow, read, and wonder, “What did I even mean?”

*My command of grammar is so embarrassingly poor. I just punctuate creatively based on the rhythm of the words in my head.