Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Relearning the Past

When my paternal grandmother passed away in 2007, it fell to me to go through her clothes. At under 5 feet tall, my grandmother was far too small for any of her other grandchildren to have any use for her closet contents. Let me just say, I felt very privileged.

I do not know how to describe my grandmother's style to you, but I'm going to try. Think leopard print couches, bleach blond beehive, red velvet flocked wallpaper, deep red shag carpet, half-shirts, teeeeeny tiny shorts, terry-cloth strapless pantsuits, little tank tops with nautical themes, burgundy velvet evening dresses, high high heels, fake fur coats, cigarettes, Manhattens, and coffee. Get the picture? An awesome mix of EllaMae from Beverly Hillbillies, Dolly Parton, and French bordello. I LOVE it!

This isn't too far off. Just add a beauty mark above her lip.
I've stated before just how much I love the memory aspect of inheritance and vintage. That what you inherit or find in the thrift store has a story and a person (or a few people) who have lived part of their lives in these clothes, or using these patterns.

My grandmother did not have a lot of contact with us growing up. After about the fourth kid, we never seemed to see her. She was a mystery recluse, who never managed to make it to big family events even though her husband always seemed to. I'd like to think I *almost* got her out to my wedding.

However, I have over the years learned more and more about her. Though she barely saw us, she often talked to my father daily at work. And having to do a project on my family history, I was able to learn more about her childhood. She was very hesitant to share much, but my understanding is that she and her family went through a great deal of hardship in rural Virginia. Her father left the family when she was very young, leaving her mother to care for a large brood of children on her own. Her brother died very young, tragically. She married young, divorced young, and often struggled to make ends meet and find happiness. Things improved when she remarried an amazing man, who was able to support them well. But she still struggled, finding unhappiness still followed her.

When I inherited my grandmother's clothes, I was super smitten by her amazing style sense. It was always apparent that her appearance meant a great deal to her. My father often said that aging was very difficult for her, as she had put so much value in her appearance.

This pair of pants was one of the pieces that I took home. They fit me really well, and I always loved the wide-leg style even if I am short.  I was tickled to learn that they were from Frederick's of Hollywood, as it perpetuated that glamorous yet slightly trashy mystique that I imposed upon my grandmother.

I never wore them, because the seams were coming out, and I needed to resew them.

Chameleon branding
In resewing them this past week, after a year of pursuing sewing more seriously, I quickly realized something very important. These pants were handmade. They were not from Frederick's of Hollywood. I had earlier realized that some of the velvet dresses I inherited were handmade, but my greedy little eyes never actually looked at these pants seriously. I just saw nice pants, saw a tag, and thought "gotta keep them".

hand-stitched seams, after the first one came out
Instead, what I now see is the story of my grandmother: a woman aspiring to convey glamour on limited means. Hand sewing clothes, reinforcing seams multiple times over the years, and putting brand-name tags in her work so others see her as she wants to be seen. Not as she truly was: a resourceful woman who grew up without a lot. A woman who constantly strived to feel like she fit in and was desirable, by heavily relying upon how she looked.

No, she wanted others to see her as the epitome of glamour, of financial stability. A good life. Not the hard one she came from. Maybe that was another reason why we barely saw her in later years: it was just too hard to feel confident when you felt tired and unattractive. When you couldn't be sure that you could hide that you were just you.

I wish she realized just how amazing she really was.


  1. These pants look great on you. How fortunate you were to inherit them from your grandmother.

  2. That's an amazing story. I think she would have liked to have known that you sew and refashion clothes too. Hope you kept the label in the trousers!

  3. oww so lovely to know more about family.. thanks for sharing.. and the jeans looks great