Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In search of lost time in dress patterns


It occurred not as elegantly as Proust’s experience with the madeleine and a cup of tea and, because of an overpriced dress on Etsy.  It was gorgeous and desirable but so costly – and for vintage cotton!  I couldn’t pay that price or allow anyone else to pay it for me, so I would make something similar. While searching for a 70s pattern on the internet, I shockingly came across various patterns that I’d made as a young girl – and was plunged into nostalgia for the lost time and a few of those wonderful creations.  It seemed that one minute I had been in my teens and eager to 'grow up' and experience the perks that came with adulthood, such as driving and voting, and the next - well middle aged...  

During my teens, there were a lot of parties – and always another dress to make…my couturier attempts began with two years of mandatory sewing at secondary school, which I dropped as soon as I was able. I was the one usually having to unpick because my stitching was crooked and I found neither the projects nor the teacher inspiring.  There was an oven mitt that we had to quilt and embroider; a nightdress that included pin-tucks, lace and French seams – the materials all stored in a cardboard valise and kept in the class storeroom until the following week’s lesson. It was with delight, and without a second thought that I gave up the classes.

Jill, a school friend got me started on my own efforts through her intrepid adventures with the sewing machine.  I suppose one would call it ‘copying’ while another ‘inspiration’.  There was a full circle skirt in seersucker cotton and a lesson to choose one’s fabric carefully or at least read the pattern pocket instructions, as it was striped and thus the stripes were horizontal on the front but diagonal on the back of the skirt and not matching when made. A flared gored skirt in blue paisley followed, that was lovely but I hadn’t learned about interfacing and so the waistband was too bulky rather than stiff, as I had used the fabric as interfacing. I was learning and sewing on my father’s Singer treadle.  He was the one who sewed in the family, having been trained as a tailor.  I used pinking shears instead of over-locking.  Of course, swept in the current of my creations and the fun, I never stopped to consider that my dressing style and making my own clothes may have been considered uncool.

1975 -  Marlo Thomas was That Girl whom I'm sure I was trying not to be - her litheness and long flowing hair were definitely not me...Made in stretch jersey with an all over small floral motif and without the proper interfacing the seams around the d├ęcolletage kept unfurling to the right side of the fabric rather than sitting flat, which I found annoying. Perhaps it also had something to do with not having breasts to fill out the bodice. I was late to the school friend’s party, having arrived with Jill, whose dad had driven us. Unfortunately, Jill taught me about something else: ‘self-consciousness’ – an annoying habit of watching one’s self through another’s/ the other’s eyes. Self-consciousness almost killed me, as much as the petticoat, which kept sneaking past my dress length and made me feel dowdy.  I had never been kissed.   A year later although not yet seventeen, I would learn 'the truth' from boring Janis Ian that 'love was made for beauty queens' and girls like me would probably never be kissed.  However, my days were still innocently tempered by Sherbet's hit 'Summer Love', which promised that when the sun shone 'life was easy' and we could 'bye bye troubles goodbye'...  


1976 –  Kissing and finding love, was furthest from my mind, when one had ABBA and could dance the night and one’s teenage troubles away…There was, however, one form party for which Jill’s parents kindly loaned their garage, where the game of spinning the bottle found me left with Greg in the dark and his suggestion to noisily and simultaneously blow an air kiss at each other and pretend rather than do the actual dirty deed.  Much too much direction from the form teacher Mr Campbell to play silly games, and who also got us to write out those prying class assignments that made us think too much about ourselves rather than our grammar. Obviously what was missing was the marvelous disco ball…I threw caution to the wind and made myself a black uncut corduroy pant suit, with my initials embroidered in gold thread (kindly by my mother) on the front of the tunic in Laverne style, although it was Agnetha's style that I envied and tried to copy. ABBA's Arrival album cover also prompted many projects searching for the ideal jumpsuit.   

Tout les garcons et des filles de mon age was Francoise Hardy’s 1962 hit… Same theme of loner/when will I find me someone to love, in another langue sung with a group of French students, mostly whom were Mauritian like me, at the school’s Speech night.  My red gingham dress with its lace trimmings lent a French ‘accent’ though probably more appropriate for a table top dressing than a stage performance.  Our group's contribution rather summed up our French lessons – for the most part spent singing out of date pop songs rather than learning our conjugations. What could one expect from a Pommy teacher trying to teach French? 'Here's to you Mrs Robinson your students loved you more than you will know hey hey hey'... 

1977 – The school skirt/uniform rebellion.  Dumping the scratchy wool skirt I made a pinafore in heavy grey cotton broadcloth.  Wearing it underneath my jumper and blazer I didn't ruffle the principal's authoritarian feathers even though it was obvious it was not the pleated pin-striped school skirt. The school uniform rules were somewhat relaxed by then.  We’d even experimented with ‘free dress’ code one or two years prior.  But the following year, while donned in beige flares, and with the boy’s white shirt hanging out of my trousers and past my blazer, the royal blue and yellow striped tie knotted loosely around my neck peeking out underneath the boy's V-neck jumper (the shirt, tie and jumper I'd happily appropriated from my brother as he had left school), I was bailed up in the corridor by a teacher and accused of wearing ‘Annie Hall version of the school uniform’, and as prefect setting a bad example for the younger students. I shrugged and pleaded not guilty Mam as...I hadn't even seen the whiny albeit critically acclaimed Woody Allen film...but when I did, I had to admit the teacher had been right. Rejecting Diane Keaton's long flowing fair hair for a medium fro, I was setting the trend or at the very least on par with a trend setter...

1978 – The pant-suit in stretch jersey for my 18th birthday party.   Dubbed the party of the year by Jill, it was multi-generational, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts and uncles, school friends and teachers.  Under the disco lights in my pink pant-suit with hand sewn sequins and a band-aid on my arm (hiding a TB vaccine) for the first time I was centre stage (though not, as I shared the birthday with my uncle).  While I didn’t leave the dance floor, rumour had it that my brother spent the whole time making out with my friends outside. Though John Paul Young sang of love being in the air – I didn’t get to breathe any of it  (while my brother must have been greedily sucking it all in). Unperturbed, I fantasied of skipping barefoot and making cartwheels on the moors along with Kate Bush, as her alter ego Cathy deliriously sang her way towards Wuthering Heights and the arms of Heathcliffe. Love, as Emily Bronte would have us believe was only possible for the passionate protagonists in the realm of the supernatural.  My possible fate suggested by others in the school's year book: 'pavement artist'. I must say - that though I don't make use of the pastels or the pavements for drawing - one can describe my contemporary dress style as bohemian bag-lady.  


In search of lost time, I've realised what a marvelous friend I had in Jill - that girl who had the gall to tell me once that she became friends with me on that first day of secondary school only because I could read the time table.  Although we had our ups and downs during school (and after we left school) she was there to discuss music videos from Countdown and swap albums, and I gladly followed her home on those hot and restless afternoons that we wagged Economics classes. Along with her dad and later her boyfriend, she enabled me to be chauffeured to parties. More significantly, she inspired my girlish and seminal efforts in dress making, as well as, my self-expression through clothes. Wherever you are Jill - my heartfelt gratitude...