by Loyce Braun (April 2013)
The Ebell Costume Collection is a record of what women wore over the history of the Ebell, and of the occasions and the limitations that determined their choices. It is hard to look at an elaborate day ensemble of the 1850s with its tiny waist, complex boning and overlapping layers of hooks and eyes and laces without imagining both the beauty and the constraints of the wearer. The unconstructed fluid lines of a short chiffon overdress of the 1920s is a vivid reminder of the sense of freedom and new possibility that women had begun to achieve. The white lawn dresses of the early 1900s and the bias cut sensuality of the clingy satin gowns of the 30s evoke imaginative stories of the women who wore them. Fortunately for us, some of our members answered the call to share some of their fashion memories with us, in honor of the Ebell Costume Collection.
Melba Provost: Fashion Triumph
Remember the movie Arsenic and Old Lace? Anything to do with lace, I like. When a favorite, beautiful niece wed at the Grand Dame Ebell, Auntie Melba was a hostess and needed something special to wear. First, I thought of searching through the stacks of fabrics in the attic of the Windsor Blvd. home where we grew up. Most all of the female family members – except myself – were seamstresses, but that wouldn’t help. Next I considered wearing something “vintage” as I was going to be communing with guests throughout the royal and elegant first floor rooms of the Ebell. The wedding was more than 25 years ago and I was not then a member!
I finally located and purchased a “clean by hand only” vintage tea-length dress made with 100-year-old lace, that trailed in tiers from the neckline to the bustline down to the hipline to below the knee, ending at the calf. Tulle was used to raise the shoulders slightly, and spills of lace fell midway down the arms. The lace was from Maison Antoine, Brussels. The New York designer, Louise Verschueren, I had never heard of! The color was ivory and champagne spills would go unnoticed. My afterthought was that I would be able to move around without the seams of lace unraveling but I would surely need to stay away as far as possible from the ruby wines.
This vintage dress will never be thrown out of my closet! Now I must go and meet Earl Robert Crawley of Grantham and his lovely Countess Cora at Downton Abbey, and may period clothing live on!
Phoebe Beasley: You Are What You Wear…Or Are You?
We’ve all made judgments about people based solely on what they were wearing when we met them. I’ve received my share of these preconceived notions, being a professional artist who spends a great deal of time at public functions not wanting to look like I just dragged myself out of the bottom of a paint bucket. In the minds of a few, I don’t look or dress like what an artist is supposed to look or dress like, therefore, I can’t be an artist at all, let alone a serious artist!
Perhaps it’s my midcentury-midwestern upbringing that won’t allow me to look like an unmade bed in public.
Some years ago, I was at a Thanksgiving weekend at the home of Maya Angelou. It was my first meeting with singers/songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. After dinner Valerie let me know that she had admired my pieces which had been hanging in Maya’s home for many years, and imagined that I was old and short, sporting dreadlocks and wearing a muumuu and flip-flops. As she described me, however, here I was wearing designer clothes and looking like something out of Vogue. A disconnect for sure.
Later Oprah Winfrey hosted a 10-day cruise to the Caribbean in honor of Maya Angelou’s birthday with fashion dictates such as formals every night, a hat for Easter Sunday, and an all-white attire day. Only Nick and Valerie brought more suitcases than my fiancé and me! Wow! For those of us who love getting dressed up and spending precious moments with people we enjoy, the cruise was the most memorable adventure ever!
Shirlee Taylor Haizlip: Affection Recall
My mother loved fashion and my Dad loved to select her clothes. She also held onto two or three items from every decade in which she lived from 1912 to 2008. She held onto her size 8-10 figure as well.
For her gala 75th birthday, my two sisters and I, our two foster sisters and my two daughters searched the closets and attic and retrieved and modeled the fashions of her life accompanied by dialogue and music appropriate to each era. Brought to vivid life again were a long navy blue taffeta skirt edged in a flounce paired with an ivory silk high-necked blouse with dozens of self-covered buttons on the sleeves and back. My daughter bounded out with a cocoa silk flapper dress with a sailor collar, followed by a pale blue tweed 1930s suit with mouton collar and cuffs. The ‘40s produced a favorite that everyone wanted to model – a ruched red velvet evening dress with bewitching two-inch shoulder straps.
The favorite of the evening were the mother-of-the bride dresses she wore to my sister’s wedding and mine. My sister’s wedding dress was a blush pink, cap-sleeve dress with an overskirt, worn with an ostrich feather hat and long white gloves. My Dad, the minister who married us both, chose my mother’s outfit – a seafoam dotted Swiss worn with a wide-brimmed hat a la Audrey Hepburn. For my mother it was a night to remember. For my sisters and me, it was the beginning of scheming to see who would get which dress. For all of us, it recalled one of the many ways our father showed his devotion to our mother.
Suzanne Chase: Tea Dances and Other Family Memories
My Mother had been a popular guest at the afternoon teas at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. Her “tea dancing dresses” were discovered in a family trunk. They were, or rather, I should say, are, swirly chiffon cut on the bias in the manner of the 1920s. I resurrected two to wear to my children’s weddings, and to other auspicious occasions such as my 60th wedding anniversary on the Queen Victoria. Mother was tall and slender. The tall was fine, the slender needed a little adjustment. She used to say her dance partners could put an arm around her and tuck their hand into their vest pocket at the same time.
My children and almost all of my eight grandsons were christened in the three-century-old christening dress carefully saved through the years. It had its beginning with my aunt in 1889, my mother in 1899, on to me in the 1930s, to my children in the ‘60s and to my last grandchild in the 2000s. Our names are embroidered on the hem.
The above aunt went to finishing school in Washington D.C. and I am still the proud caretaker of the dress in which she was presented to President Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt!
Along with the above, I can also still wear my Grandmother’s wedding dress, and have done so for one of our Christmas pictures. She was born just before the Civil War.
My earliest fashion memory is a dazzling moment at age five when my mother presented me with a ruffled white dress she made for me. My Mom was a brilliant artist with needle and thread. She made the most beautiful dresses for me and my sister, setting a standard for me in public school – my teachers and all the other little girls marveled at my styles.
Home and school photo albums show groups of average looking-kids with one “dressed to kill” – me. The ribbons in my curly hair topped off the presentation. By high school, I was trapped in the mold of a “Fashionista.” Trendy clothes filled my closet in those formative years and then I discovered a new look. Classic designs entered my life and I even began to notice vintage designers.
I still love clothes today. I wouldn’t think of venturing out with a T-shirt and sweats. Blame my Mom.
Susan Roberts: All My Own Work
I sewed this creation for myself about 40 years ago. After all that time, I still wonder what caused me to imagine it, let alone sew it. But I’m holding onto it-it might be difficult to find something like it when I really need it.
This story is a testament to the fact that honesty is the best policy. I was making great strides bringing my prom gown from imagination to fruition. But then I decided that I desperately needed seed pearls on the flowers. I came clean with my homeroom teacher and told her that I’d need to take a day off to get the job done. She said she understood completely and let me ditch school for a day to attach the pearls to the flowers.
When my first husband (Doug is my second husband, but my best, so far) announced that he didn’t dig my pink ski outfit anymore, my mind immediately raced to self preservation. I decided he should buy me a new ski outfit and two season tickets to the Steelers home games on our joint credit card. And as a conciliatory gesture, I made sure the bonus team photo signed by the players given to season ticket holders was sent to him.