Cloth Tales

After spending much time with my sister cleaning out our mom's attic in upper 90-degree heat, I have learned a few things.  One is that no one should ever try to clean out an attic in upper 90-degree heat with a mask, gloves, hat, and a disposable coverall from Home Depot originally made for a 7-foot man with legs that are 4 feet long.  The second is that some of the most precious memories have involved clothes.

Nothing brings your memory back to past times as holding a piece of clothing.  A lot of the clothing we found in the attic was not preserved correctly, so it had to be thrown out, unfortunately.  But on the other hand, we found some things in good condition.

We found my bridal veil, for instance. This was not an expensive designer veil.  It was a very simple, short veil that my pastor's wife gave me for our wedding day in 1974.  (She had worn it in her own wedding.)  My gown had been made by a gracious lady who attended our church, and as I had no veil, my pastor's wife let me use hers.  I am definitely taking that back to Maine.

We also found a delicate pink baby dress made out of the sheerest cotton.  I am almost certain I have a picture of me in this dress, so it's going too.  Do you remember back when all girls wore dresses for years and years?  My kids can't believe I never had a pair of jeans until I had to buy a pair for camp one year, and they find it hard to believe that blue jeans, that ubiquitous school uniform of today, were banned at our high school.  Even simple pants on girls were banned at East High until we had an exceptionally cold winter, and the principal or school board or whoever was in charge of fashion rules  relented on the pants ban (you might remember that short skirts were the style then....brrr!).  When I stroked the baby dress, it brought back memories of a time when not only girls wore dresses, but women wore gloves and hats.  It's hard today to imagine what used to be considered minimal appropriate attire with which to be seen in public.

We found the famous dark blue Mr. John's hat.  From Wikipedia:
According to the New York Times, "in the 1940s and 1950s, the name Mr. John was as famous in the world of hats as Christian Dior was in the realm of haute couture."  Mr. John's most famous work was his millinery for Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind [2]. With a long association with Hollywood and Broadway, his hats were much in demand. [3]

A famous anecdote about Mr. John goes that a woman came into his shop in urgent need of a hat. He built one up right on her head, but she balked when he named his price. He then disassembled the pieces and handed them to her. "That's $3.59," he said, "You make it." 

Joy and I grew up with the story of the Mr. John hat.  Apparently Mother had won it in a contest and it was the first thing she had ever won.  She adored that hat.  It was revered and worn with a bit of pride and lots of awe.  I think she always stood up a little straighter when she wore that hat.  Well, last week, Joy and I found the Mr. John hat in a plastic bag in the attic along with some other hats.   It was the Velveteen Rabbit of hats, left to its untimely demise, incognizant, I hope, of its former glory and status.   At first, Joy said, "No, the Mr. John hat is in its original hatbox in a closet downstairs."  But I peered inside that blue hat in the attic, I could see the "Mr. John" label, and I knew an impostor was hiding in that precious hatbox in the closet, which sadly proved to be true.  The Mr. John hat, the original symbol of Mother's unbelievable luck and the item which made Mother a fashion icon in her social circle, was indeed the one in the plastic bag.  With great regret, the Mr. John hat was trashed.  It still lives in family home movies, adorning one of the most precious heads in the world.  You can't miss it - it's the head of the lady with the wide smile, preening for the camera.

We also found The Wedding Dress.  Despite its name, this was not a gown for a bride; this was a dress Mother wore to all the family weddings since 1989.   I had made it for her to wear to my sister's wedding in May of that year.  It was pale turquoise with satin base and lace overlay, and Mom looked lovely in it.  So when Ed and I got "remarried" in a 20th-anniversary ceremony in 1994, Mom wore it again.  Then she wore it for our daughter Rachel's wedding in 2002.  That is why we call it The Wedding Dress.  It holds special significance for Rachel, since it was made by me and worn by her grandmother at her wedding, and after a call to Rachel confirmed she wanted to keep it, I packed it for a trip to Maine.

The last thing we had to decide was what suit jackets of Daddy's we wanted to keep.  Mom gave away most of Dad's clothes after he died, but there were a few suit jackets in the attic in remarkably good condition.  Dad practically lived in suits, as he worked in a bank and was a choir director and leader at church.  Ed jokes that even when Dad mowed the lawn in a short-sleeve cotton shirt, Ed still pictured him out there in the yard in a suit, because he so rarely saw him in anything else; Ed's eyes could not resolve the apparent dichotomy.  I chose one jacket for Rachel and one for Matt.  We miss our Dad so much, and it was good to touch his suit jackets and reminisce.

You can't clean out an attic without memories washing over you, and you can't touch a piece of special clothing without honoring the wearer.  In the end, it is just pieces of cottons, laces, netting, wool, interfacing - but their significance goes beyond their fiber contents.  They are pieces of history - our history.   And there is a reason why "story" is a part of that word.