Tuesday, 6 September 2011

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

A WEDDING FEATURE

BY ROSALIND JANA OF Clothes, Camera and Coffee


My paternal grandma was married in the United States in the early 1960s. I don’t know the details but I do know the dress. It was white (surprise, surprise), with a fitted bodice, cascading skirt and a dramatic train, all constructed from yards and yards of delicate lace. Her husband matched in a white dinner jacket. The wedding photos are jubilant; her face joyful.
The usual destination for dresses such as hers is the back of the wardrobe –perhaps protected by dust covers – or folded carefully in tissue-lined trunks. The intricate embroidery or tulle layers will be rediscovered on special occasions, anniversaries perhaps, and one day might be tried on for size by a daughter. Sometimes, as with so many family heirlooms, the precious fabric might be lost or ruined.
However, none of these options apply to my grandma. I must start by explaining that she was a Czech refugee. Her family fled the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1948 with little more than the clothes they were wearing. This brutal change of scene, coupled with their experience of WWII, meant that my grandma (or my ‘Babi’ as I call her) was never wasteful. Every scrap of fabric had its home, every fragment of food its use.
Therefore after the wedding celebrations she was practical in her decision about the dress. It was purposefully put together to be taken apart again. The long lace train and other components of the dress were given to a seamstress, who cut and re-stitched it into useful items of clothing: a full length skirt, a pencil skirt, a sleeveless top and an A-line evening coat. They were still special garments of course, but vastly more useful than a gown only suited to formal balls.

Those four items of clothing were given to me when I last saw my ‘Babi’. The long tailored skirt was tried on for size. I realized that the material encircling me had eventually led to me being born. If my grandma hadn’t married and had two boys, one of whom was my father, then I wouldn’t be standing in my bedroom in a full length lace skirt...
These heirlooms are just a small part of the many clothes she has given me over the years: a red satin evening coat, a couture cocktail dress she bought in an NY thrift store for $20 in the fifties, a seventies blue nylon hooded robe. Each piece is passed to me with a story attached. Things from her days as a jobbing actress and others from her early married life.
Clothes have a unique ability to conjure the past. The threads that are seamed throughout these garments are like family, stitched together. In seeing and wearing my grandma’s skirt, I am embracing the good and testing times that marriage and life in general brought her – for anyone, these are dresses to have and to hold (and to hold on to).  

By Rosalind Jana (Clothes, Camera and Coffee)