One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how I became interested in historical fashion and it’s pretty easy for me to answer… my Grandmother started it all.
I was born in San Francisco. My mother came to stay with her in-laws while my father was away for work, a decision they both agreed on since my mother was eight months pregnant and would otherwise be alone when the time came for my grand entrance to the world.
My grandparents were lovely people. Both were artists; the walls of their home were covered with the most wonderful paintings elegantly framed and some lighted, enhancing the rich oils layered onto canvases. The home itself was sublime. A nod to the quiet pale San Francisco fog, the upholstery wrapped in fabric the color of cream. Sheer elegance.
As far as Grandmothers go she was by no means typical. I think people would have referred to her as a ‘young grandmother’ not in terms of her age but just by the way she presented herself to the world.
Her true Irish heritage disclosed when she walked into a room. You noticed the red hair first, followed by the pale complexion with a dispersion of freckles, a hint to her sassy sense of humor hidden further by her refined style. She dressed grandly, even to walk her beloved silver poodle who she named Jocko, a gift to her from my grandfather to celebrate my birth. I know…. Doesn’t everyone gift a new puppy when they become a grandparent for the first time? Sounds crazy, but actually it was perfectly logical. I would not grow up in San Francisco, but rather spend many years living throughout the world and I think my grandfather knew how sad it was for her to see me go and so Jocko was the salve to help sooth her heart.
It didn’t matter to her if we called home a small village in a foreign country halfway around the world, she would come for visits and I was thrilled. Retrieving her from the airport was an event.
Those were the days when people dressed to travel. Picture what we would now refer to as the ‘Mad Men’ era, when men wore suits more often than not and women wouldn’t have been caught dead with a handbag not matching their shoes. I can still see her this day, descending the stairs which had been rolled up to the exit door on the side of the fuselage of a Pan American airplane parked on the tarmac and then walking toward us.
If it were a windy day she would have her hair contained beneath a silk scarf and when she hugged me my cheek would be tickled by the fur trim on the collar of her coat which was infused with the fragrance of Chanel No5.
When I was a little girl I loved to help her unpack her luggage, each piece part of a matching set marked beneath the handle with her triple L monogram. LLL. She had the most wonderful clothes and she talked about clothing with me often. I was a seven year old that knew you had to hand wash a cashmere sweater. Woolite, cold water, gently squeeze out the water, and then lay flat to dry.
She talked of fabrics, silks, wool, rayon, pima cotton for blouses in summer. Using the outer line of my dungarees as an example she taught me a French seam. She was a seamstress, not just a shopper and that made all the difference in her wardrobe. She understood construction techniques and loved the workmanship that went into beautiful clothing. My grandmother taught me that couture was not about a label, not about fashion, but all about style and the way garments fit.
I think the most remarkable thing about my grandmother’s style was that although her look was considered classic she always stayed current.
When I was a teenager I lived with my family in northern Japan and it had been several years since I had seen my Grandparents. This time we flew to San Francisco to visit them. My Grandmother took one look at me, pulled me aside and proclaimed I was dowdy and not at all hip (this was in the early 70’s) and she was going to help me recover from fashion neglect. She did, with the help of her Singer sewing machine and I, right alongside her, was transformed.