Twenty-three years ago, after seeing an afternoon client, I made my way to the fabric store to browse through the selection of swing-season fabrics. These to me were fabrics that might see one through Spring and Summer, of the colour temperature suitable for those burgeoning, bright and longer days. “Saturated, jewel colours” I kept in mind as I parked my Toyota Landcruiser a block from the fabric store.
It was the beginning of February, which up North meant sunny cold days, hoarfrost on the trees, with a hint of the promise of lengthening days and hence the arrival of Spring. Third Avenue was slick with ice. The berms at the side of the parking spaces had much reduced due to alternating days of warm and cool. A habitual hangover from driving lessons more than twenty years before, I turned the front wheels of the truck toward the edge of the sidewalk, disembarked and walked in my mukluks up the block to the only fabric store in town. The sky toward the west had a warm glow. It promised another clear and gorgeous winter day for tomorrow. The street was mostly deserted of pedestrians, and on my brief walk I ruminated over just exactly what I wanted to buy.
I had earlier determined that I wanted to make two dresses to serve as a sort of formal uniform for dress-up occasions. I hated the selection available at the local dress shops. They had nothing to suit my austere taste. I liked clothing which skimmed my body loosely, allowed for free movement, a certain modesty, simple details, well made, of beautiful colours. No elaborately opulent patterns for this simple middle-aged woman, Thank You. I also like materials which were of good quality and had good weight and drape.
This was a tough call for a Northern City, where most of the stores had the recent styles on hand, but little of classic nature which might outlast the switching diktats of the fashion world. The closest one could come to acquiring this kind of clothing was to find a skilled dress and pattern-maker, cloth of good quality and have something tailor made. I didn’t have a lot of money to hire this chore out, so decided to wing it, buy and alter a pattern, myself, and do the cutting, fitting and sewing over a period of months.
Once I entered the fabric store, I headed directly to the pattern section. I liked Burda patterns at this time, and spent some time browsing the selection of dress patterns available. The right design presented itself, fortunately, and it promised to be one which could be altered in different ways, as a sort of variation on sleeve lenght, neck detail and skirt length. It was classic, subtly constructed and attractively austere. It just needed the cloth of the correct weight and drape and colour.
It took me less than 5 minutes to find the correct cloth. Beautiful mid to light-weight rayon, solid coloured in the most delicious jewel colours. I stood and drooled over the colour selection, playing with the drape and the sizing in the fabrics. In the end a marvellous Winsor Blue solid and what might be called a Grass Green solid were the ones I selected, hauled up to the cutting counter and presented for measuring into the needed lenghts. I also found some muslin which I bought in the same amount. I needed to make a muslin variation to practice altering and revising the pattern before committing it into the final versions. Then found some thread and zippers, interfacing, buttons and seam binding to match both colours of cloth.
I was so thrilled to have this project to begin working on. Rumpole and Renaissance Man were treated to a fashion parade of me, flouncing about, bedecked in the two fabrics. The Grass Green fabric was for a dress to be worn for weddings, engagements, bridal and baby showers, and the Winsor Blue was to be made into a dress to serve for more emotionally somber occasions – funerals, memorial services, retirement parties, partner dinners. I figured to have my formal dress needs looked after for the next fifteen years.
Diagnosis and treatment for Leukemia (AML) intervened and put stop to my sewing plans. However, two years later, after we relocated back to the Lower Mainland, on a sunny February morning, I pulled out the pattern and the muslin and coloured fabrics. I took and noted my measurements with my Anyu’s help, and began cutting and constructing the muslin version of the “dress”. Lots of pinning, unpinning, altering, basting and pulling of stitches – until a pale facsimile of the dress took form. And – it fit and flowed and draped beautifully, reassuring that the making of the Green Dress would result in a successful Garment – one which would have an extended and valued life.
By the end of March, the dress was complete, with an inside worked by hand to be as beautiful as from the outside. It gave me enormous pleasure to work the unseen parts of the dress, and the pleasure of hand-stitching a beautiful edging repeated in the observation of the same. The dress, finally hemmed and pressed, was beautiful. It hung from my shoulders gracefully; draped over my poitrine modestly; flowed with movement and its hem was a perfect edge.
The following summer I wore that green dress to two weddings; the following fall to a memorial service. Every year for the next fifteen years, that Green Dress took me to many weddings, christenings ,bridal and baby showers, summer trips to the theatre.
I always felt like a million dollars in it. I dressed it up with inherited jewelry, scarves and costume jewelry from second-hand stores, shawls and a variety of shoes to suit the occasion.
Finally, last year ,my body had changed enough in its conformation that the dress no longer looked so great on me. My breasts had settled to a lower part of my torso, and the fit of the Green dress no longer seemed the same. The fine handwork I had done on the unseen side of the dress had held up well during the many years it was worn. The cloth also had maintained well, and still hadn’t broken down to seem old. I took the dress down to the Salvation Army Store, hoping that some younger woman might see in it a labour of love and good use, with still some useful wear in it. It had served me well, as the only Spring, Summer and early Fall dress that I owned and wore for well over a decade. I loved that dress, and then released it.
The beautiful Winsor Blue material I made into a cullotte and blouse outfit. That lasted me for fifteen summers, before being relegated to the resale aisle of the Salvation Army Store.
I have always felt that clothing was to serve as a beautiful second skin; that it should be comfortable enough to forget while wearing; that it make us add colour and pattern to the world in the manner of butterflies and; that they should be made beautifully and last a long time. The Green Dress saw me through a period of my life – from the age of a young matron of 43 to an older woman of 60. it was time to let it go, and for me to find a new uniform more appropriate to my current chronological age and my ageing physical appearance.
Now I am on the hunt for a pattern and colour of a dress to make as a uniform to last me into my mid seventies. This is my February and March Challenge this year. And I look forward, with the help of Rumpole this time, to construct this new all-purpose dress.
I figure owning two dresses in thirty years is an accomplishment of a modest sort.