Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Dress

Life puts interesting things in your path.  Some are objects, inherently fascinating.

Objects from family add a level of connection and investment, and in a way, responsibility for the owner.

Many times, these objects will appeal to a romantic notion of "would have, could have"--had you been alive at the right time / had the right talent / in the right place, the object could have been yours.  Used by you, worn by you, admired by you.

However, some objects are removed from your sensibilities, and only your love of history, your sense of human hand, your willingness to step inside another mind, your realization that something exists in front of you that, given the right attention, will allow you not only to understand the object more, but also give you a fresh view onto yourself.

So, you dare go open up.

And find a way inside.


I am but one of my Nana's six granddaughters.  Nana was a saver, a collector, a provisioner...not exactly a hoarder, but certainly someone who held on to things.  Hence, at the end of her life, the basement of her modest two-bedroom bungalow, in which at one time there were--let's see, husband, two kids, wife of third kid, father--two kids and four adults living.  Plus the eight dogs.  And some cats, I think, but they were what we would call "outdoor" cats, though that distinction made not a lot of sense at the time.  The house, suffice to say, was full.  And much life was lived there.

The magic of being a collector, a treasurer, an appreciator of objects and artifacts, was that life as the granddaughter of this woman yielded many interesting somethings.  A chunky comic book...a tea cup from the war...a woven fishing creel...a costume jewelry  Toward the end of the ten year period over which she was slowly handing out things, I put together that she was slowly doling out to all of her granddaughters, according to a system which somewhat related to who their parent (which of her children) they descended from, but also some sense she had of what you would treasure.

I do not know why, in the end, I was chosen to get her mother's wedding dress.  I had not married conventionally, I was not the daughter of her daughter, and I was among the most tomboyish of her granddaughters.  I did not sew, though my other grandmother and my mother did, and perhaps that plus the fact that her mother was a seamstress played into her conclusion.  Perhaps because I had cooed at the detailing of my father's baptismal gown--an object which should be noted was not again used for her son's children, or by her son's children's children.

Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that we shared favorite colors.  Or somehow, in some way, the fact that I shared her husband's stubborn streak.  Or maybe she had given all of the other of her mother's significant objects to the other girls, and this was what remained for me.

A wedding dress.

I am truly amazed at the details of the handwork.  Handwork which I have never attempted, mind you, but which I learned about thanks to a treasure given to me by a friend from the basement of a house he moved into.  (Once again, from the damp depths...)  A turn of the century how-to book on tatting and needlework.  Which also came with two pamphlets I prize to this day, "How to Dance and When to Dance" and "The Dangers of the Slave Trade in the City."  But this book, this odd combination of Victorian typeface and photographs, and its details instructions on how to tat and crewel and all sorts of sub categories for making certain sorts of empty space in fabric, or how to add raised shapes.

 My Nana, it turned out, liked to embroider.  As did my Grandmother.  My Nana was fond of the empty spaces kind of work, the stuff you would do at the edge of tea towels.  My Grandmother liked the crewel work, the kind of stuff that made things bumply.

You may have inferred I learned neither.

I stare at this wedding dress, and try to understand it by the hand that made it.  A hand that was not the hand of my Great Grandmother, but a dress touched by the hand of my Great Grandmother as she committed to the man that would sew back together the nipples my Nana's baby bottles, even though Nana was supposed to be too old for them, these objects that my Great Grandparents would not have had as the accoutrement of their youth.

Each generation touches something new, something old.  Whether or not they are aware they are doing so.

I try to be aware.

So, because I fear too much contact from my actual hand upon this fragile, 100 year old garment, I touch it with my eyes.

I note the changes in texture, the kind of dexterity to create, the kind of feel it must have had.

I imagine the body inside, other eyes seeing, joy, apprehension, welcome.  It is never me I imagine in this dress.  I know that some people would.  In fact, I have done so with other pieces of clothing.  Part of it is the era; I never fancied myself Victorian or Edwardian.  

But part of it, I think, is I feel there is someone else in that dress.  Still.  My Nana had stored it as her mother had, and pulled it from the crypt that was a modest bungalow's fruit and coal cellar, carefully packed away in a box.  She had never fully examined it, she said.  She was, from a curatorial point of view, afraid to expose it to light.

I'm trying.  To examine it.  To expose it to light, which is the information our eyes use.

Because, here, my eyes are my hands.

I'm trying.

It is interesting, feeling with your eyes.  Putting on clothes which do not fit.  Knowing that you could never be this, but someone needed to be this so that you could be here now, feeling without touching. 

Yet feeling.

all photos are by and property of the author, taken while wearing blue jeans, a pashmina, and vintage Mitsouko edc.  Which just this day, this very wearing, for the very first time after many many tries, makes sense.  Turns out it does not screech every.single.time.


Heidi said...

I can see that I need to start reading your blog. Beautiful! And I love the way you worked in the word PARURE. :-)

Ines said...

This was such a lovely trip into your family's history. Thank you for the photos and the story.
I do wish there was a photo of the whole dress though. :)

ScentScelf said...


You noticed that, did you? ;) Yup, I'm building a little neuro-web for "parure." With or without the capital letter at the start. :)

Welcome. Glad you'll be coming back.

ScentScelf said...


I'm glad you enjoyed traipsing along.

As for the full picture...I took one, but I don't like it. And I think I know why; I am still in the proverbial "blind person with hands on one part of the elephant" phase of my relationship with this garment. I can assemble some bigger parts, but am not quite ready to label the whole.

Maybe I'll need to come back with the dress entire?

Joan said...

This dress is gorgeous. The kind of gorgeous that people don't make for stores, and that people don't make on their own because they buy less gorgeous dresses in stores. I'd be honored to be related to somebody who made that dress.

I sew a little bit. Design a little bit more. Hope to make formal attire someday...inspirations like these are wonderful!

Ines said...

I was thinking that might be the case with the picture of the entire dress.
Well, if you manage to capture it adequately, I'm all for you coming back with it. :)

Marina said...

Something so fragile and delicate about it, looks exquisite!

Josephine said...

I loved this post and I'm just getting back to let you know.

My grandmother was a master of all types of handwork and seeing this dress reminded me of her. Cherished pieces of her work lie still in my cedar chest. Each time I see them, I am in awe.

This dress is fabulous and you are so fortunate to have it. I can also imagine the occasion and the love and care that went into the making and wearing of the dress.

Your post - and the accompanying pictures - was a lovely way to end a crazy week. Thanks.

ScentScelf said...


Isn't it something? For me, it is one of those things that is "not me," but I can still see all of the ways it is beautiful. And I feel lucky to have it in my posession.

What a lovely thought that perhaps it would inspire someone who actually *can* use their hands to create in this way! Thank you for that. :)

ScentScelf said...

Ines, it will be interesting to see when (perhaps "if"?) I can. :)

Marina, indeed. I get nervous whenever I take it out.

ScentScelf said...

Josephine, thanks for coming back to say so. And I am glad to have contributed something positive to your week.

I, too, have pieces in a cedar chest. It is interesting to me that what I have are a few partially done projects. I'm sure there is some musing to be done over *that.*

I think I shall never cease to be fascinated by handiwork from the past, done or not done. Or undone, for that matter.

Dot and Lil said...

That is a truly outstanding and breathtaking garment! What a piece of history, what a testament to the importance of handcraft. I am in love with the detailing, the seams, the tiny bits of sweetness. What a beautifully written post, too!

Suzanne said...

Beautifully photographed, beautifully written! The way you had the photos cascading down the page, with just details of the dress, I felt like I was watching the dress being carefully put whom, I'm not sure. The spirit of your great grandmother, perhaps?

ScentScelf said...

Dot and Lil,

Isn't it, though? I like to visit it from time to time, just to contemplate all of that.

Thanks for stopping by, and your kind words. I peeked at your website--speaking of handmade... :)

ScentScelf said...


It was a fun trip to take; contemplative, but quietly happy. Your description of your experience put a smile on my face; thanks for coming along. :)

Vanessa said...

Wow, that level of seamstressness(?) is humbling, as someone who can just about sew on a button, but wouldn't even trust herself to turn up trousers.

I was another one who wondered about the whole garment, though I am enjoying its parts. I shall think of it as the dressmaking equivalent of that figure of speech I dimly remember from Latin classes (though I believe it is Greek) - synecdoche.

ScentScelf said...


I am a fan of tape, myself, when it comes to those pesky hems. There's got to be a reason it's a big seller at the fabric store. Other than my patronage, that is.

"Synedoche" would be an excellent way to approach the dress...and come to think of it, my habit of putting things together. If one wishes to bother to contemplate that. Which, of course, I might be prone to do.

Yet hopefully do not demand that you do.

But appreciate it when you try.

More clear mud for you, there, all in pieces. Here, here's some of that hemming tape to hold it all together... :)