midpoint (2006-46)

Accept no substitutes

Wearable History

by Stephanie Piper

Paging through a Christmas catalog, I saw it: a glitzy, expensive gift for a little girl with absolutely no imagination.

It was a ready-made set of costumes in which to play the time-honored game of “dress-up.” For $250, you can buy a tacky-looking trunk containing a ballerina outfit, a polyester ball gown and a fake fur shrug.

This has to have been designed by the people who tell 3-year-olds there is no Santa Claus. It’s hard to imagine a more calculated way of stifling fantasy.

Don’t they understand that dress-up has rules? The clothes you put on are first of all old . They have history. They smell of moth balls and attics and old perfume.

And they have stories in their folds and pockets. When my sister and I were little, the coveted dress-up dress was a white evening gown my mother wore to a college formal. It had a lace bodice and a long, full skirt and an organdy petticoat. Each time one of us put it on, she would tell us about that dance—the corsage our father sent, the wonderful orchestra, the carriage ride through Central Park.

There was a pair of pumps we fought over regularly. They were maroon suede, with open toes and the teetering, high platforms of the 1940s. My mother wore them during her wartime career as a reporter for the Hattiesburg American , trudging up and down the streets of Camp Shelby, Miss., in search of breaking news. We practiced walking in them, careening off walls and imagining the day when we would own such elegant, grown-up shoes and follow in her bold footsteps.

But the pièce de résistance was the fur piece: two mink pelts, complete with pointy heads and beady glass eyes. Draped over the shoulder of a tweed suit, it was once the height of post-war fashion. By the time we got them, the minks were slightly the worse for wear; I can still see the rubbed places on their glossy fur. But we loved them. They were mysterious. They had been worn before either of us were born.

Not many clothes went to the Salvation Army. Tired cocktail dresses came directly to us, still fragrant with my mother’s Arpege. We greeted imaginary guests in the front hall and trailed off to glamorous parties, trailing rumpled satin stoles. We played office clad in 1950s silk shirtwaist dresses and broken strings of faux pearls, and took the pretend train to the city in battered velvet hats trimmed with net veils.   

The mother of sons, I have not saved many of my old clothes. Little boys dress up in improvised superhero costumes and occasionally in their father’s old suits. There wasn’t much call for full-length organza. But in the back of my closet are a few relics: a black and red wool with silver buttons that was my high-school favorite; a long paisley silk I wore the Christmas my first child was born. I can’t give them up, somehow. There is history in those dresses, old boyfriends and Beatles songs, holiday dinners and innocence and hope.

I think of our new granddaughter, now just three weeks old. It will be a while before she pokes into attic trunks and cupboards in search of antique finery, but I look forward to presenting her with my hoard of  treasures. There will be no prepackaged dress-up set for that little girl. My legacy to her will be the one I received: real pieces of the real past.