52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 24: Clothes..maketh the woman?


Blue chiffon with a satin underlay and the top hand-beaded by my mother.

The topic for Week 24 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is Clothes. What types of clothes did you wear as a child? What was “in fashion” and did your style compare?

When I was a child my mother sewed all my clothes and she was a very good seamstress…there was nothing second-rate about the appearance of the finished garment. When I was about 12 (I think), I attended a Singer sewing class in Fortitude Valley where I learned to sew to a pattern and with Mum’s supervision I became quite competent. I know the class was during the August school holidays (we only had three terms then), and so I associate the class with the Ekka and ripe strawberries. During the class I made a lilac dress with a gathered skirt…not something I enjoyed making with all the hand-gathering that was required and meticulous adherence to the seam width and a straight sewing-line. I think that was the dress that I wore with an aqua mohair knitted bolero jacket. Mum really did not think that purple and blue were a serendipitous combination but I’ve always loved them –perhaps early feminist leanings? She was adamant that I wouldn’t/couldn’t wear it to Midnight Mass for Easter that year….but I did 😉

When I was a young girl (maybe 12-ish??), rope petticoats were in fashion, to boost the swirl of your gathered skirt. The alternative was a layered net petticoat which had the same effect…mine was pink with a pink satin edging. I remember I had a blue skirt with white polka dots and a red umbrella appliquéd on it at this time. I seem to recall I wore it bowling, but is that an illusion? Then there was the phase where skirts had braces with embroidered ribbon on them –very “dirndl”/Austrian, but really a quite unattractive fashion.

Whenever I needed a new winter coat, every couple of years or so, Mum would make one up for me in woolen fabric though now it’s hard to believe it was necessary in a sub-tropical climate. I remember as a teenager being very pleased with a grey-blue suit that Mum made which had a pale grey “fur” collar.  Of course gloves, stockings, handbag, matching shoes, and hat were all part of a woman’s attire in those days for any going-out event.

When we would go for holidays to the beach it was de rigueur to have a beach over-shirt made, complete with bobble trim. Was it fashionable? I have no idea…it was just what we did.

Another strange phenomenon for any American readers is that I wore a uniform daily for all my school life, as well as to Guides on Saturdays. There simply wasn’t the need for a wide range of clothes on a daily basis. In high school a compulsory part of the uniform were the gloves and hat, and heaven help any young woman seen in public without them. There was the merest flicker of time before the Principal heard about it and the offender was called into order.

I don’t think I had a store-bought dress until I was in my mid/late teens and we bought a dress in patriotic red, white & blue with a white collar. How I loved that dress which would have been a nightmare to sew with all the stripes needing to be aligned. I used to wear it to ballroom dancing classes regularly. Another dress element that was popular at the time was a zip down the front of the dress –this was the 1960s. The guys at Wrightson’s Dance Studios thought it hilarious to (try to) pull the zip down. However I wasn’t well brought up for nothing –I’d preempted them with a pin across the zip so their “evil” plan was averted. A skirt cut on the bias was also a great one for dancing the jive.

Which in turn reminds me that those stories about nuns and patent leather shoes are true….they did tell you the boys would use the reflection to look up your skirt 😉

This dress I made was an early maxi-length and I really liked how it turned out.

Prior to Vatican II it was also typical for women and girls to wear hats to Mass, and I remember one in particular with gathered net on it…sounds repulsive but it wasn’t all that bad. Subsequently mantillas became acceptable and women/girls would wear one of these in lieu of a hat. By the time I married hats rather than veils were (theoretically at least) acceptable for the bride to wear. Giving the timeline away, our wedding photos are stereotypical in that even the mothers of the happy couple had incredibly short skirts. I was lucky to be tall and thin with long legs when the mini-skirt was in vogue: it wasn’t always an attractive option.  I remember when Jean Shrimpton (not Twiggy, whoops) wore a micro-mini (aka Hello Officer!) to the Melbourne Cup –what consternation it caused even though she looked great!

Mum also made my formal and semi-formal outfits for the school dances and one included a myriad of beading far more complex than my wedding dress which she also made….I was going through a “plain” phase. My favourite-ever was a Vogue-pattern ball frock that I wore to the Science Ball in first year university. In pink lamé (?) fabric, cut away shoulders, and an unusual skirt style, it is still top of the pops for me.

I repeated much of this sewing behaviour when my daughters were born, though Mum also sewed for them. Admittedly we were living where bought clothes were hard to come by, but training and habits die hard. I’m not sure that the darling daughters were always enamoured by this habit as sewing was never a passion for me and could send me into a right tizz. Why oh why did I choose velvet for one daughter’s formal then repeat my stupidity with my youngest’s Audrey Hepburn-lookalike gown.

My photo this week is of our middle daughter’s baptism, in our house in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, on our eldest daughter’s second birthday. While paisley was absolutely all the rage at the time, my daughters cringe when they see this photo! And here it is again just to haunt them.

Paisley Peril -is that small girl laughing at us? Even the white tie had a paisley pattern.

When I look at photos of them, or me, I remember the fabric, the dress, the event and the pattern. The ice skating costumes, the childhood dresses, the formal gowns and everything in between: I’ve often wished I’d kept leftover fabric swatches as I think they’d have made a nice quilt with a story attached to each….assuming I did quilting!

Minis, maxis, cork soles, platforms, wineglass heels, boots, sandals, scoop necks, empire, drop-waist, pencil skirts, rope petticoats, net petticoats, gypsy skirts, braces with embroidery, lace collars, paisley, flowers (fabrics and hair), shawls, Nehru jackets, straight-leg, bell bottoms, pashminas, pastels, reds, purples, oranges, crochet ponchos: in fashion/out of fashion/back in again. How does anyone keep up with it all? As the decades pass there’s a prevailing sense of déjà vu. I’m not really into fashion but it’s a revelation to think back over the various fashion styles and favourite outfits.

Thank heavens I now live in the relaxed Tropics where most of the year, the prevailing criteria are whether your clothes are cool and comfortable! Mind you it dropped to 16 this morning and long sleeves and trousers were required…I know, don’t laugh.

6 thoughts on “52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 24: Clothes..maketh the woman?

  1. What memories of rope petticoats and net under skirts! I sometimes wore both together, much to my mother’s dismay… and what about the Bridget Bardot look… checked dresses, broderie lace insert at the neckline and puffed sleeves with a lace trim? We thought we were so cool… and pantsuits, crimplene shifts, mu muus… maybe today’s fashions aren’t so bad after all. 🙂

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