There’s an item of clothing I’ve been carrying around with me since I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s a blue lace fitted top from the early 1960s, fabric-covered buttons all the way up the back:
The buttons do work all the way up to the neckline, just not on this dress form (which has an entirely non-human shape). This top used to belong to my mother, and I wore it lots in my Madonna period, in the style of the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I won’t show you pictures of this and, well, suffice it to say I now think it was one of the (many) more questionable fashion trends of the mid-1980s.
When I first saw the Wardrobe Architect series by Sarai Mitnick I was struck by how much looking back in time is a part of defining one’s style. There’s looking back at the things I find inspiring. For example, specific garment styles like peasant blouses, folkwear-inspired skirts, 1930s-40s era wide-leg pants. And then there’s thinking of why I find these inspiring, looking back at moments in my life, my family’s history, old photographs, stories, and the history happening around us.
Sometimes it’s hard to tease out the reasons for things, and sometimes they jump right out at you. I’ve always felt best in folksy, vintage-inspired clothing. Look, this is me about 20 years ago, wearing a peasant blouse (what else?) that was a touch too big for me:
Partly, I think I have the kind of face that was “fashionable” in the early part of the 20th century so… it makes sense to me that I feel most comfortable in clothes that remind me of that era.
But I don’t think that’s all. For Christmas, my father’s gift was that he scanned a lot of old family photos and put them in an online album. I’ve been looking at that album a lot since then, my father found a bunch of photos that I’d never seen before. For example, this photo of his mother, my grandmother holding him when he was a baby, in the late 1940s, in their home in Budapest:
I never met her, she died when she was 42 (my age now, incidentally), when my father and his brother were just teenagers. I love this picture, she looks so happy to be holding her baby.
When my younger daughter was born, my grandmother’s face from other old photographs was one of the faces I saw in her. I love this about my children: that the faces, temperament, turns of thought, and movements of people who are gone live on in them. People also say my younger daughter looks very much like me (I only have this crummy iPhone selfie of the two of us together recently):
I can’t really tell if we do in fact look alike but I like the idea of this continuity in our faces.
According to family lore my grandmother had amazing style. Beautiful clothes, well-made, that she also knew how to wear. The apartment where my father grew up, which my grandfather kept in much the same style after her death, was also amazing. Full of warmth, grace, beautiful things, and conversation. I remember how being there made me feel a part of a larger world, and a grander life than most of us in Hungary got to experience. It was cosmopolitan.
I’ve been thinking this explains a part of my core style: things that connect people across time, across history and generations. Like folkwear, and styles we call classic. (That, and the fact that my face goes really well with 1930s-40s designs.)
But let’s get back to the little blue lace top.
There was another old photo in my father’s Christmas collection I saw there for the first time, with my mother wearing the blue lace top with the dress to which it belonged, dancing with my father at their high school senior ball (please excuse the bit of fluff over her face), in Budapest in the mid-1960s:
The dress under the lace top was made of a deep blue silk satin, and originally the lace and the satin matched perfectly in color. It was a Mediterranean blue or better yet, Adriatic-Sea-blue: I’ve never seen that color anywhere else in nature. I no longer have the dress but I remember how much my sister and I loved to put it on and prance around in it when we were little girls (which probably explains why the dress isn’t around anymore).
The workmanship on the little lace top still amazes me. None of the buttons are missing, there are no holes, no split seams, it’s a bit faded but otherwise still perfect. And I wore it a lot, and washed too, and now my older daughter wants it for herself (but I think I’ll save it for when she’s older and it actually fits her).
My mother’s mother made it. She also had incredible style but in a completely different way than my father’s mother. She was more folksy, using whatever was on hand to make things, always doing a million things at once. She sewed a lot of her family’s clothes, and while she was a good seamstress, what really interested her was being inventive and coming up with solutions to various design problems presented by the constraints of having very little money. She was very creative and talented, and an early upcycler (although back then people just called it using things…). It was upcycling by necessity, not philosophy, but my grandma reveled her ability to be creative in the face of limitations.
I started sewing partly because of the little blue lace top. I wanted to learn to sew like that, and be able to make something that lasts through generations. Something that endures in quality but also kind: you could still wear that top today, it never really went out of style. I suppose because being in style was not quite the point when my grandmother made it (and Cold War-era Hungary was probably rather behind on fashion trends anyway). She meant it to be beautiful, and to make my mother feel beautiful in it. I can’t help thinking that in that picture my mom looks like she felt beautiful. A classic piece, which is the kind of clothing that I feel best in.
But… I think that looking back to move forward in creative work has another aspect to it.
We have a large print of this photograph hanging on the wall of our living room:
It was taken on a ranch in North Dakota in 2005, at a cattle branding Andy and I went to on one of our first trips together. The calves have just been rounded up, and we’re standing on top of a butte (a hill) looking down at it, just high enough for a larger view and to get a sense of the landscape. The wide, free horizon took your breath away.
One of Andy’s photos from North Dakota in 2013 show something far less idyllic:
This weekend I found out that the same thing is happening on the ranch from 2005. Fracking. The entire landscape is pockmarked with these ugly fracking sites, and no one can do anything about it. It’s not happening by the choice of any landowner in North Dakota. They own the land where their farms and ranches are but they almost never own the mineral rights to their land, which the first owners who homesteaded there never sold. So they have no say in whether or not someone can come along and start fracking on their land, near their homes.
Fracking means so many awful things besides how ugly it is: it destroys the water table, contaminates everything around it, man towns spring up all over with workers piled into them (you can see Andy’s photo of one here) and people have to worry – for example – about the physical safety of their teenage daughters like they never had to before the fracking began, when it was all still the quiet, peaceful, wide and beautiful Great Plains.
It makes me want to cry.
There is nothing I can do to change things back to how they were in 2005. But I think it matters, just a little, to create something beautiful in the face of loss. We can’t bring back what was lost, of course, but we connect with it and deepen the meanings we attach to new things so that they don’t exist in a vacuum.
What does this have to do with my core wardrobe style? Well, it’s something like this. I like clothes that are somehow meaningful to me. Clothes I bought on a trip to a beautiful place, clothes made and worn by people I care about, clothes I make that remind me of the style of someone who is now gone but who was important in my family. Clothes that don’t exist in a vacuum, that is.