House Dress

I spent the majority of Sunday cleaning house and watering the yard, warring with the omnipresent Chinese elm seeds, and feeling virtuous. And I was properly dressed for the occasion—in a housedress. My grandma Sadie always wore a neat little flowered duster of a dress to do housework. It was practical, differentiated home from the outside world, and looked tidy. As I prefer unconstricted clothing—sometimes even drawstring pants are too much—I’m happy in my one piece items that range from classic housedress (snaps, pockets, puffy sleeves) to a colorful short caftan that works just as well.
My mother loathed the look. She hated Depression era fashion, particularly on me. We fought for years about my favorite dress—a black 1930’s styled cotton dress patterned with red cherries. She would have bodily ripped it off me if she’d dared. I wore it to college interviews against her imprecations—only to have interviewers say: what a cute dress! It was a cute dress, and flattering, and modest. In an era of micro mini skirts I have no idea what my mom was freaking out about. She just hated that it reminded her of her mother.
Before she died, my mom sent me a clipping of me receiving the first poetry award I ever acquired while wearing…the dress. In that photo, I recognize the girl I was, the woman I would become. My expression is pleased if bemused—I look happy if slightly confused by life. My hair is bad—lank and unstyled. My dress is sweet. This is how I will remain for the rest of my life—bad hair, good dress, nice smile, mixed attitude. My mother enclosed a note saying—I don’t know why I carried on about that dress.
I don’t know either. My grandma Sadie came from poverty and oppression in the Ukraine to Boston. She was a seamstress, a union organizer, and a woman who loved clothes. She could crochet and trim a hat and judge a garment by its seams. She had a beautiful heavily embroidered silk kimono that never fit any of us as she was well under five feet tall. My mother also loved clothes. But I think she was ashamed of her roots in some way—she disliked the handmade, and the fashions of her childhood.
My paternal grandmother Esther also loved clothes and wore brilliant brocades and rich fabrics and patterns as her family ascended the social ladder. From her my sisters and I inherited a love of massage,hot springs and exercise. Influenced by the European physical culture movement, she did calisthenics naked and swam in the ocean every day. When I went to massage school, my father was as upset as my mother had been over the dress. “It’s all Esther’s fault,” he said.
My parents wanted to be modern, assimilated, American. But the counterculture—and cultural style itself—brought back everything from Swedish massage to shoulder pads.
Thank you grandmothers for your influence and sense of style.

4 thoughts on “House Dress

  1. I want to see a picture of that dress! I am exactly the same and love feeling like I do not have to impress anyone.

  2. I really truly sincerely (!) enjoyed this, especially the description of you in the photo which I can totally envision. … Thank you. -Marie

  3. The reason why the silk kimono was too long for everyone is because kimono wearing short Japanese women pull them up to make a deep fold at the waist.
    You can see this just below the obi… Mystery solved… Wear kimono whenever possible…

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