When I was a child I was only allowed to wear black once a year until I was 16 years old. There used to be rules about how children dressed. Were they spoken, or unspoken? Were they just my family’s rules? I don’t really know, I just understood them. I was reminded of this when my brother, who is four years younger than I am, recently posted a photo of me and my parents before he was born. He thought it was on Christmas. I took one look at the photo and knew he was dead wrong. I was wearing a navy smocked dress. The record needed to be corrected.
Before Kindergarten there were smocked dresses year-round with bloomers, pants that covered your underpants so no one could see them. Once you were in Kindergarten sailor dresses replaced smocking. I was expected to wear a dress everyday despite the fact I was a tomboy.
Easter and Christmas had their own wardrobes and were quite exciting. Easter hats were purchased weeks in advance and required a trip to Chicago for the purchase. A new sailor dress might also be worn with black patent leather shoes and white anklets with just the tiniest bit of lace on the top of the sock–which was to be folded down. The coat was a unisex navy sailor coat with an emblem on the sleeve. I say unisex because they were passed down from my boy cousins and the brass buttons could be buttoned on the left or the right. Very important to know which side to button on for your sex, which I had to be coached on. The outfit was finished with white gloves for a church.
The boys had their own rules. Wool short pants for every occasion through third grade. These were not shorts or pants they were “short pants” with built-in suspenders. Gray or navy, with a nice button-down shirt. The family still laughs about the super 8 movie of my brother’s first communion. My grandfather who was filming pans down the pew only showing the boys’ legs, all in long pants until you see my brother–in short pants! The only one! Apparently, all the other families did not know how to dress.
Christmas was the only time of year you could wear black as a child. A black velvet jumper, with one button on each shoulder and an inverted pleat down the middle, worn with a crisp white short sleeved blouse with puffy sleeves. This was also passed down, but only to the girl cousins! Again you wore your black patent leather shoes all shined up with vaseline for the occasion. This time of year you wore white tights to keep your legs warm, it was northern Illinois after all. This would be worn with a little veil at church and the white gloves. This was a Catholic Church before Vatican II and women and girls had to have their heads covered for some reason. I have a friend from a very large Irish Catholic family who tells the story of her mother pinning kleenex to her head when she lost her veil. God didn’t care if it was a veil or kleenex, he only cared that her head was covered.
The Christmas coats were their own kind of special. A red and green tartan plaid with matching stiff dark green velvet leggings and a very uncomfortable green velvet hat that was wired to stay over your ears. I remember this clearly as my mother tried to send me to Kindergarten in this adorable and highly uncomfortable outerwear one day. This was in the days when your five-year-oldfive year old child could walk blocks to school by herself. I was in the afternoon class and distinctly remember making it about seven houses until I turned around and demanded my snowsuit if I was to go to school that day. My first wardrobe rebellion. I won and wore my comfortable and warm, worn red snowsuit and rubber boots lined with the Wonder Bread bags that kept my feet dry.
I almost forgot about the best part of the Christmas outerwear. The muff. This white rabbit fur child-sized muff was the ultimate accessory. It was soft and comforting while being highly glamorous. This is probably why the dog ate it shortly after Christmas. I never liked that dog.
I’m pretty sure all the dresses and coats had to be purchased at Marshall Fields as my grandmother had lunch there every Thursday for most of her life. So it was “our store.” This was the department store of choice for the north shore of Chicago, it was part of the fabric of my grandmother’s life as her father had been a vice president in his early career.
All these manners and rituals came through my father’s family, not my mother’s as you would expect. My father’s mother, Virginia Smith Martin, was born into wealth and society. She lived in the first “high rise” on Lake Shore Drive with a second home in Lake Geneva and spent her winters in Palm Beach Florida. She attended boarding school, as well as a finishing school. Although their wealth was lost post-depression, good breeding and manners can never be lost.
My mother relates this all with one story. The very first time she made dinner for my father after the honeymoon. She sat down and he said, “ can you put your shoes on?” Incredulous she said, “why?” And he said, “I can’t eat if you are barefoot.” My mother was raised by parents who seemed around the country on a whim, but always living near a great golf course. This was a whole new world for her, but her mother-in-law and my father’s sisters took her in hand, passed down the expensive children’s clothes and the unwritten expectations.
This was the late 50s for my older cousins and the early 60s for me. So many rituals around clothing and manners were thrown out the window by the time my younger siblings were born in the 70s. They NEVER had to curtsey or bow when my parent’s friends came over! By then I was wearing black whenever I wanted, but still never put my elbows on, or sang at the table or chewed with my mouth open.
I will tell you one thing, my posture is better than the younger generations. “Beth, sit up straight,” said my father every single night at the dinner table.
The ’70s ushered in personal choice in my holiday wardrobe and seemed to usher out the norms around formal manners and rituals. I eventually had my own family, created my own more relaxed holidays, less church, more laughter. Sometimes I miss the order of it all.
Cue 2020, the year when traditions and rituals have been sidelined for safety.
This year I will forgo all rituals and ski on Christmas Day with two of my sons, wearing a practical and warm “snowsuit.” No weight or ritual or tradition, but a holiday to endure until life returns to “normal.” In 2021 we will all treasure our traditions and the opportunity to get dressed up again, maybe I’ll even invest in some black velvet and white gloves.
My wardrobe is now mostly black, with shades of gray. I’ve been accused of being scared of color, but maybe it’s just because it wasn’t allowed to wear black for so long, or maybe it just practical. I’m eternally grateful for manners, good posture, and having a heck of a curtsy and now wearing white gloves everyday makes good sense.