As a child, in the 1970’s, I wore calico dresses. In my school photo from first grade, I’m wearing a pink calico dress with puffed shoulders. There are tiny white daisies with yellow eyes and green stems scattered liberally through the pink. My long blonde hair is up in pigtails and I am smiling broadly. For my second grade photo, my choice was a yellow calico with a black floral wreath print and a red zig-zag ribbon trim. My hair and my smile are almost identical to the previous year’s. By the time I reached third grade, some teeth had fallen out, so the smile is different. I chose to wear my hair down that year, but it is still very long, straight, and golden. I’m wearing a store-bought shirt: an Oxford-style off-white cotton/polyester blend with small bunches of maroon and navy flowers printed throughout. But over the shirt is a calico jumper, this time a black fabric with white flowers and a white zig-zag ribbon trim. My younger sister was also often dressed in calico, while my brother frequently wore hand-knit sweaters during the winter months and hand-sewn trousers year-round.
I’m not completely sure why my mom so often made our clothes by hand, but I have a couple of ideas. Mom has always appreciated quality. Inexpensive ready-made clothes are often not made with care, and I suspect that Mom felt that for the price she was paying for ready-made clothes, she could buy fabric, and make something that would be both more beautiful and more durable. Then there was the counterculture aspect. My mom had moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania with my dad when I was about four years old. Vermont was a popular relocation destination for out-of-state hippies in the 1970’s, but my dad has told me that my parents chose Vermont not so much for political reasons as for the outdoor activities, especially sailing and skiing. My mom and dad weren’t true hippies– they didn’t attend antiwar marches or music festivals, and they didn’t regularly use illegal drugs (the previous all being prerequisites for a “true hippie” according to my personal definition)—but they did identify to a certain extent with the values the hippie movement represented. Sewing clothes is “hippy” in the same way that canning is “hippy,” and my mom was a master of the Ball jar as well as the Singer. My parents split up not long after arriving in Vermont. When I was seven, my mom married my first stepfather. For the wedding, my mom wore a long red calico dress, with a yellow calico inset in the front, that tied with a wide sash at the back to the wedding.
I was familiar with the process of clothing production. The first step of clothes-making was to find a pattern. Mom would take us down to Busy Fingers, the small fabric shop on the street perpendicular to Main Street in our small village. Rather than go through patterns one by one, Mom would flip through the huge pattern catalogues, all arranged on top of the large metal filing cabinets that held the patterns themselves. Each pattern in the catalogue was illustrated by a model wearing the finished article. Mom favoured Simplicity patterns, but sometimes opted for Butterick. Then came the fabric choice. The bolts of fabric were stacked tightly together, and each stack was at least five bolts high. Mom usually chose cotton calico, but sometimes splashed out on corduroy. The fabric was rolled out, measured, and cut. I marvelled at the skill with which the clerk wielded her big, sharp scissors. Mom would sometimes consult with the shop assistant about the pattern or the fabric while the fabric was being prepared. Then came the best bit: decoration. Mom would bring the cut and folded fabric over to the button or ribbon section, and we would look through the options together, holding the buttons or ribbon over the fabric to see how well they matched. If it were a particularly dark day, Mom would take the fabric and the short list selection closer to the store window, for the natural light. We would consult together, Mom no doubt steering us towards the more appropriate possibilities, and then finalize our decoration choice. Mom would pick up thread if she needed it, and we would take the parcel home.
When Mom actually began working on a sewing project, I learned quickly that it was best to leave her alone. She would spread the fabric out on the dining table, cut the thin pattern paper as directed, then place it carefully on top of the fabric. Sometimes she used a tool that looked like a wheel to make marks on the wrong side of the fabric, which always seemed magical to me. If I was very lucky, I would be given a chance to make a mark myself. When the time came to sew, there would be a fair amount of swearing when the thread broke or the needle jammed. I would want to get close to the buzz of the machine and the heat of its powerful lamp, but Mom would shoo me away. After a couple of days, Mom would hold up a new dress for me or my sister, or new trousers for my brother.
“Done!” she would announce with pleasure. “Now it’s just the hem. Try this on.”
If the dress was for me, I would drop whatever I was doing and change on the spot. I loved the hemming. For a few minutes, the dress and I would have Mom’s undivided attention. When she bent down to start pinning, I liked to look at her wavy brown hair and watch her manage the brightly-coloured pins she had stuck in her mouth for easy access. When she had gotten the hem the length she wanted, I would disrobe again immediately and put my previous outfit back on. After a bit more buzzing from the machine, and possibly a bit more profanity, my dress would be finished.
By the time I reached fifth grade, Mom was single again, working two jobs to make ends meet, and struggling personally. For nearly my entire fifth-grade school year, I wore a store-bought pumpkin-orange sweatshirt that had a picture of Snoopy dancing ecstatically on the front. On the back, in black capital letters at least three inches tall each, the motto “To live is to dance, to dance is to live” was emblazoned. I have occasionally wondered if my prolonged exposure to that quote may explain my drive to ensure that both of my children can dance.
Mom met the man who would become my second stepfather when I was in sixth grade. Just before I started seventh grade, we moved into Steve’s large house. Our financial situation improved, and Mom began to take us shopping more frequently for ready-made clothes. I had just started junior high when Mom took me for the first time to Harry’s department store on the Barre-Montpelier Road to look for jeans. It was an ill-fated errand. We found the jeans department at the back of the cavernous store, and I headed straight for the Bonjour jeans.
“I want a pair of these,” I proclaimed, holding up a pair for Mom to see. The most popular girls at school wore Bonjour. They were deep blue denim and had generous fancy orange swirls of embroidery on the back pockets.
“No. Those cost way too much money, and the pockets look ridiculous,” Mom countered.
“But Tanya wears Bonjour! I love them! These are the jeans I want!”
“We are not getting Bonjour. Let’s look over here, these look good.” Mom fingered a pile of generic jeans with plain pockets. “These are also much more reasonable.”
“I don’t like those. I want Bonjour. I don’t want any other jeans.”
“You are not getting Bonjour.”
I felt the sharp sting of disappointment. My cheeks flared red, my eyes watered, and I stormed out of the jeans section in a huff. After some cooling-down time, Mom retrieved me from where I was sulking in the shoe department. “How about Levi’s,” she asked. “Levi’s are good basic jeans.”
This was in the late seventies, before Levi’s had become an empire. I knew there were some girls at school who wore Levi’s. We found a pair of orange tag Levi’s that fit, and I ended up wearing Levi’s throughout most of junior high and high school (and well into adulthood, for that matter).
But I didn’t always wear jeans. In eighth grade I had my “red” phase. I had found a pair of red overalls that I thought were fabulous, and I wanted to wear them all the time, preferably with red tops underneath. That style lasted several months. In high school, I was swayed by the Flashdance craze that was sweeping the nation. For me, it was a welcome return to the oversized sweatshirt look that I had been so fond of in fifth grade. But in high school, the idea was to have the sweatshirt falling off at least one or perhaps even both shoulders. To achieve this, the ribbed neck needed to be cut out. My best Flashdance sweatshirt was a faded dark blue and had the Interlochen School of Music’s logo on the front. I wore it on top of a white ribbed tank top. The look was completed with jeans—by that time pinstripe jeans were all the rage—and, this being Vermont, hiking boots.
Although I experimented with different “fashions,” which may be rather a generous term in my case, I mostly resented the necessity of clothes. As a sophomore in high school I decided I would like to own a motorcycle. I somehow acquired a poster of a black Honda Nighthawk 650CC that I put up on the wall of my bedroom. My dream was to start a nude motorcycle club. That wouldn’t have worked well in Vermont in the winter, but I found the idea compelling. Around that same time I took a summer job as a full-service gas station attendant at a very bare-bones Gulf in my hometown in Vermont. The mechanics who worked in the garage there wore blue chambray coveralls with their name stitched in red in a white oval sewn above their left chest pocket. I wondered if perhaps I should try to get into the vocational school mechanic program so that I too could wear a blue coverall every day. It was never a very realistic option for me as I am spatially challenged—as an adult it took me two years of occasional use to learn how to correctly assemble our food processor. But even now part of me wishes I could have followed that career path (steady income, outdoor work, and of course, the uniform).
Towards the end of my high school years, my mom began to sew again. For an occasion I can no longer recall—perhaps a school dance—Mom spent countless hours creating an outfit I adored. The fabric was black, heavier and smoother than most calicos, and had a big floral print with pinks and greens. The top she made was a fitted, lined, button-front camisole with thin straps, and the skirt had countless pleats at the top, then widened below. The set fit me like a glove, having been made precisely to my measurements, and I felt immensely attractive when wearing it.
After leaving home, I attempted briefly to develop a personal style, before admitting defeat in my late twenties. When I became a mother, in my thirties, dressing became even more difficult because of the near-certainty of stains of one sort or another. I took to wearing solid-coloured knit tees, short or long-sleeved depending on the season, and jeans. Almost all my clothes came from Uniqlo, the low-cost Japanese retailer that specializes in basics. My disassociation from fashion was partly financial, but that can’t completely explain it. I have a friend who is also on a budget yet manages to exude a strong sense of style despite the lack of designer labels in her wardrobe. The difference is, my friend actually likes to shop, whereas my eyes glaze over and half of my brain seems to shut down as soon as I enter a clothing store.
A Danish boy joined my son’s class when Sam was in his second year of primary school in England. Olaf was the oldest of four children; his youngest sister was well under a year old. I would see the mom standing in the infant playground in the morning. She was very thin, and she had a clear sense of style. She favoured a pair of silver boots that she liked to wear with a short denim skirt. Olaf had to wear the school uniform, but his three younger siblings all wore interesting clothes of good quality, sometimes hand-sewn.
My husband is Swedish, and we have lived in Sweden for several years. Because I can speak Swedish, I also can understand Danish to a certain extent. I feel a Scandinavian connection with anyone from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or to a lesser extent, Finland. I would have liked to approach the new mom to tell her that I had lived in Sweden, but I felt that anyone who wore silver boots would have no interest in talking to someone who bought new shoes only when absolutely necessary, so I didn’t introduce myself. Then the Danish mom turned up in the lobby outside my daughter Nina’s preschool ballet class. Her third child, a girl who was a bit younger than Nina, refused to enter the class without her mom, so after some heated discussion in Danish, the mom, her second son, and her baby daughter all traipsed after the girl into the studio. The following week they were back, and the daughter protested again, with the same result. The week after that, it was clear that the mother was losing patience. After a stand-off, the mom compromised and left her son, who was no more than six, in charge of the baby in the lobby while she accompanied her recalcitrant daughter into the lesson. The studio was in one of the rooms in a church close to my son’s school, so the lobby had several pews in it where the moms and dads would sit while they waited for their children. The lobby was often crowded and people tended to choose the same seats week after week. The Danish mom had adopted a table right across from my regular pew, so I was no more than four feet away from her son. He glanced at me shyly after his mom walked away with his sister, and I smiled as kindly as I could at him.
The baby woke up halfway through the ballet lesson. She began to cry, tentatively at first, and then more insistently. The boy attempted to comfort her, but to no avail. He looked at me sheepishly.
“You’ll need to get your mom,” I said to him, as slowly and clearly as I could. I had never heard the boy speak any English. “I’ll look after the baby for a minute, you go tell your mom you need her.” I pointed to the studio. He did as I suggested, and I jiggled the baby’s buggy and cooed at her.
The Danish woman came out, flustered. “Thank you,” she said to me, lifting the baby to her shoulder and patting her on the back. “My daughter doesn’t want to go in by herself.”
“That must be tricky, especially with your other children in tow. Did she dance in Denmark, or is this the first time she’s taken ballet lessons?”
“No, she danced in Denmark. I don’t know why she’s having such trouble. She was never like this in Denmark.”
“Well, it’s a new place, and a new language. I’m sure it’s hard for her.”
“Yes, but I can’t do this every week, follow her in. I tell her, if she won’t go in by herself next time, that’s it, we quit ballet.”
I thought of the daughter. She was elfin, with freckles, nearly-white hair, and searching blue eyes.
“Would it help if she had my daughter as a buddy? Nina has heard a lot of Swedish, which isn’t too far from Danish, because her dad speaks Swedish to her.”
“Her father is Swedish?”
“Yes, and I’ve lived in Sweden, so I can understand a little bit of Danish too.”
The mom looked surprised. “I had no idea. I’m Sigrid, this is Axel, the baby is Katrine, and it’s Britta in the ballet lesson.”
“I’m Beth. Nice to meet you,” I said. Axel grinned at me. Katrine had calmed down and was taking in her surroundings. “Really, let me introduce my daughter to Britta after the lesson, and we’ll see if that helps.”
“I try anything, and nice for Britta to meet someone.”
The girls came out en masse, then sifted themselves by parent or carer. When both Nina and Britta had found us, I spoke to Nina.
“Nina, this is Britta. Britta is from Denmark, which is really close to Sweden.”
“Oh! Sweden! That’s where Pappa is from!” Nina exclaimed, jumping in place. Britta stared at her, wrinkling her eyes ever-so-slightly with amusement. She said nothing.
“Right, and Pappa speaks Swedish, which is sort of like Danish.”
“I speak Swedish!” Nina volunteered. This was a bit of an exaggeration, but she did understand a good deal and could say a few words.
“Yes, you do,” I agreed, wanting to encourage rather than discourage her. “Anyway, Britta’s mommy can’t keep going in to the ballet lesson with Britta. She needs to be out here to look after Britta’s brother and baby sister.”
I looked at Britta to see if she was listening. She was. “So,” I said, turning back to Nina, “Will you be Britta’s buddy, and help Britta to go into the lesson without her mommy next time?”
“Yes! I’ll be her buddy!” Nina went and stood next to Britta. “I’m your buddy now!”
I smiled. Nina’s capacity for enthusiasm often causes my heart to overflow with love for her. Britta gazed at Nina as from a great distance. Slowly she seemed to come mentally closer, and her light blue eyes began to sparkle just slightly. Then Nina and Britta gave each other a hug, and my daughter found her first best friend. Had I not found myself in close quarters with Sigrid, and had it not been so apparent that she could use a helping hand, I would have let Sigrid’s superior sense of style prevent me from speaking to her. We would have all missed out on what developed into a strong, if unconventional, friendship between our two families.
People judge other people, and they make choices about what sorts of relationships are possible based on those assessments. You hear it about job interviews all the time: the decision is made within the first thirty seconds of meeting the candidate. I am sure that just as I deemed myself unworthy of friendship with Sigrid at first based on her silver boots, other people are crossing me off their lists based on my clothing choices. To think that I could stop comparing myself to others, or that others could avoid comparing themselves to me, is delusional. What I can do, however, is be aware, and recognize when I have put people into boxes based on superficialities. And I can hope that other people will do the same.
Nina came home with a reading book about fame a couple weeks ago. In the adorable way that young children have of turning their parents into heroes, she pointed excitedly to a picture of Simon Cowell in the middle of the book. “Mom, Mom, look! He’s wearing your jeans!”
I laughed. “Hmm, they look a lot like my jeans, don’t they?” Nina, being six, would have no idea that my jeans came from Uniqlo while Simon’s were likely Seven For All Mankind.
“They are your jeans!” Nina insisted.
“They certainly are very similar. Wow, so Simon Cowell and I have something in common!”
Nina, satisfied, continued leafing through her book. And perhaps she was right, in a way. Even if our lifestyles are greatly dissimilar, maybe Simon Cowell and I are more alike than different at the end of the day.
Some day I hope to learn to sew. I also hope to be able to afford to buy fabric that I love. If and when that day comes, I plan to figure out just what sort of fashion I actually like, and make myself well-fitting clothes that reflect that knowledge. For now, I will content myself with knowing that Simon Cowell and I have the same jeans.