Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Lost City, the Found Dress, and my Beautiful Revenge

My original intent as I started this post was to show you some of my favourite retro, 1950s and 60s, fashion influences from television shows, both new and old. I will do that.

But, as I thought about how much this dress makes me feel like I'm time travelling to the 50s and early 60s, I found myself also writing about my increasing dismay as I watch my city transformed from what it was in the 1950s, to something rather monstrous and entirely unaffordable.

Then I also found myself writing about my abusive, beatnik father's venomous hatred of the 1950s and his bizarre belief that I somehow represented the 1950s values he so loathed. Fun!

In other words, as usual, this post is about pretty clothes and big ideas. 

My best guess is that my dress was made in about 1960 but please correct me if you think I'm mistaken. I think that fuller, shirtwaist dresses like mine were popular from about 1955 to 1965. Does that sound right to you? People sometimes think that I'm an expert on vintage style but, trust me, there are real experts out there and I always welcome their input. 

Shoes: Mod Cloth; Cane: from Stylish Canes; Barettes: Stylize; Dress, scarf, pinkie ring, brooch, sunglasses, and earrings: vintage
When I saw this dress on Etsy, I snapped it up immediately, with no waffling, and no contemplation. For one thing, it was in my size. I have a hard time finding vintage clothing in my size. I used to think that was because so few women are and were as big as me that such clothing simply doesn't exist. Some of my friends who sell vintage clothing quickly disavowed me of this erroneous belief. In fact, there are so many women my size (and larger) that great, vintage clothes for curvier women sell very quickly. Far from having an abnormal body type, I have, from a shopping perspective, a vexingly normal one. 

But, of course, it takes a lot more than a good fit to make me want to buy a dress. I just thought this dress was so pretty, and so authentically of its period, and, at $88 so reasonably priced, that I knew I'd kick myself if I didn't buy it. Plus, it was from a Canadian seller so the shipping would be cheaper and faster. 

I've been writing a lot about day/house dresses lately: comfortable, practical, cotton dresses that women wore around the house and running errands. I am constantly astonished by how pretty house dresses were, but I think my dress is a bit too pretty to have been a house dress. It is still clearly a day dress, not too fancy or dressy, not meant for a cocktail party or a night on the town. A woman could even wear this to her office job ...

Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale as Perry Mason and Della Ray
... as Perry Mason's secretary, Della Street, does above.

1956. From: http://earlbellmc.blogspot.ca/2012/08/uniquely-mac.html
Such dresses were also perfect for an afternoon picnic. Check out all the lovely day dresses on the women at this 1956 family reunion (and check out the super stylish, cat's eye glasses on the little girl on the right). They are practical, feminine, and attractive, all at once. No wonder lovers of vintage covet them! 

Of course, there are modern, practical, feminine, and attractive dresses today too and, I'm sure, some day, they too will be highly sought after by future lovers of vintage. I even own some of them and wear them often. But I feel much niftier in my vintage, pink day-dress than in modern day-dresses. It's no secret that I like to be different.

Circa 1956
Part of my passion for vintage derives from the simple fact that I enjoy the search. Sure, I could go down to the local mall and buy the latest trends quickly and easily, but where's the fun in that? (For the record, I hate malls so intensely that my friends now refuse to go to malls with me, knowing that, within five minutes, I'll be in such a foul mood, I'll be unrecognisable.)  

Third from left, in navy and white dress, Sorcha Cusack as Mrs. McCarthy, with extras, on the set of Father Brown
I also really enjoy the study involved in learning about vintage fashions. I've always enjoyed study, from Hebrew to art history, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to flour sac dresses. This is just another form of study, a really fun one.

One of the ways I conduct my "studies" of vintage fashion is by watching period dramas on television. One always has to be careful about period dramas, of course, since modern anachronisms are likely to sneak their way into them. Breast implants, modern eyebrow shaping, the wrong hair styles, contemporary undergarments creating the wrong silhouettes: these and other anachronisms are all pet peeves of mine. Don't even get me started on the Justin Bieber hair styles, and sausage curls on Game of Thrones! They bug me so much, I can't even watch it.

Still, a well-researched period drama is vintage fashion gold; and, let's face it, the BBC is the best at creating these. One of my current favourites is Father Brown, which is absolutely delicious in its period details. Wouldn't it be fun to be a costume designer for a show like this?

I think being a set designer for such shows would be equally delicious.

Mrs. McCarthy, Father Brown, and Lady Felicia
Something as simple as a tea set can really make a show. Despite the fact that it's light blue, my least favourite, most triggering colour in the whole world, this tea set has completely won me over. I swoon every time I see it.

Notice too that the furniture in this kitchen is not all perfectly matched. After all, this a priest's home and honest priests were not wealthy men. Thus, Father Brown's décor is a bit of a hodge-podge. Good set designers think of things like that.

Details matter ...

Lady Felicia has a spot of tea.
... like just the right teacup paired with just the right brooch ...

... or my wonderful, pink, Sherman brooch.

See how it gleams in the sunlight? It's so pretty! It seems prettier still when I recall that I paid only $16 for it! Popular in the 1950s, Sherman wreath brooches have particularly wonderful sparkle and shine. Because of this, they usually sell upwards of $60 online and in upscale vintage shops.

Check out these over-the-top, pink clip-on earrings. I went so crazy buying jewelry from Chronically Vintage that she sent me a few little bonus gifts with my order, including these earrings. How sweet was that? 

Do you like my new-to-me ring? It's not from the 50s or the 60s but it goes well with the dress and has very special meaning to me. More about that later.

I also added the detail of this gossamer scarf because, well, just look at it! Even though I love it, I might not pair it with this dress in the future, as the pinks don't really match; the scarf is much peachier than the dress.

Scarves were also popular in the 50s and I'm constantly trying to find ways to wear them. I never feel like I get it right. For instance, how the heck does one keep a scarf from slipping off or out of one's hair? I clipped mine in place but I wasn't satisfied with that. If you have any tips, do let me know!

Joanna Page as Lily Enderbury on Breathless
And, speaking of details, I even recently got some cats eye glasses like Lily Enderbury's on the depressing but visually beautiful television show, Breathless, set in the 1960s.

See? This is just a sneak peek. You'll see more of these in a future post (probably about my grandmother). I didn't yet own them when Beau and I took the photos for this post ...

... so I wore similarly shaped sunglasses instead.

Lily Enderbury is one of my current fashion heroes.

One could do a lot worse than look like her. She's lovely!

I coveted virtually everything she (and others) wore on the show, despite the bleak plot. We so very seldom get to see plump women portrayed as beautifully attractive on television that it feels really special when we do.

1963. From: http://www.larrya.us/bookb.html
You know I'm a strong proponent of vintage, "stout" fashion, "stout" being the term for "plus size" in the past.

Unlike vintage fashion shots in, say, Vogue magazine, vintage, stout fashion is actually attainable for real women, or those lucky enough to have curves anyway, and we're more likely to find examples of that in old family photos ...

Centre: Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery, but I'm interested in the outfits worn by the extras on either side her
... and my beloved, BBC, period dramas. Check out the woman in the yellow dress to the left of Miss Marple. What a great outfit!

Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple
If you've read any of the Miss Marple novels (and I've read them all several times), you know she loves gardening in her large yard.

So I felt I must include a mock gardening shot of my shapely bum as I bend to smell a flower. It's too silly to leave out. Plus, I'm going to talk a lot more about gardens later in this post.

Let's have fun with our curves, ladies. Beau decided to literally lie down on the sidewalk for this shot and he got me laughing so much, I nearly fell over.

A little tipsy for tea. This photo is in several online articles about conga lines but I can't find its original source. Can you?
Fun loving gals have fun with their curves!

When my self-esteem is high, I'm one of those gals. 

And my self-esteem in pretty high in this dress. 

Nancy Carroll as Lady Felicia Montague and Sorcha Cusack as Mrs. McCarthy on Father Brown
I hope Mrs. McCarthy's is in her dress. I think it's so pretty.

Nancy Carroll as Lady Felicia Montague
Don't get me wrong. I'm not disinterested in slender fashion. Beau can attest to the annoying fact that, when we're watching Father Brown, I frequently press pause to get a good look at Lady Felicia's outfits, especially the little details like her opalescent earrings in every imaginable shade. I have a pair just like these in orange.

But I'm often equally excited about Mrs. McCarthy's outfits. After all, though she is larger than I am, her outfits give me a better sense of what will suit me than Lady Felicia's do.

And this dress suits me! It makes me feel very pretty. I think it nicely flatters my figure from the front ...

... and from the back. It's a little bit big on me but that's good because that's more comfortable. Woven cotton provides no stretch so it absolutely must be worn a bit loose. I've been wearing knit cotton for years, and I'd forgotten the comfort of cool, crisp, woven cotton. Even before I was disabled, I didn't iron -- ever. 

But Beau does, quite happily. I even bought a high-end steamer so he can quickly steam stuff before we go out. He claims it's fun! This has opened a whole new world of fabric options for me.

Good cut in a clothing item is wonderful and important. It ensures that the fabric will lie correctly on the body. I love the unusual neckline on this dress, and the flared skirt. I could wear this with a crinoline and it would look really spiffing.

But, in my focus on style and cut, I've often overlooked fabric and prints in the past. How could I have done that? The fabric used in this dress is so cool! Gingham and flowers? It's like perfection within perfection. And both gingham and small floral patterns are making comebacks this year, so that's a bonus.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy
I'm liking this resurgence of gingham dresses with clever detailing ...

... like this little embellished pocket on my dress. Doesn't it just want a hankie and a little change purse in it?

I also think this pink really flatters my skin. It took me till I was in my 40s to grasp that pale colours near my pale face are not, after all, a no-no. To the contrary, they can quite transform my parlour to a becoming glow.

On another note, see those two white dots on the right side of my chin? That's light glittering up onto my face from my brooch. That thing throws light all over the place, like diamonds.

So, yes, I feel very pretty in my dress. But, because it's vintage, from a time several years before my birth, this dress also feels like time travel.

In the last several years, I've been watching my beloved city grow so quickly, it feels transformed, and not in a good way. Old houses are being gentrified and resold for more than any normal person can afford. That's if the houses aren't knocked down entirely and replaced with towering condo buildings or "multifamily dwellings," also insanely overpriced. Last week, two houses were knocked down within a block of me. That's what it's like these days.

The aim is urban density, which we're told is good for the environment, but many of us feel it's being done irresponsibly, without a proper respect for what our city once was, and what many of us think it should still be. And there is no justification for the prices of homes here now -- none.

The above is a photo of our downtown in the 1950s, when my dress was made.

That same downtown now looks like this! Ouch!

Down by the bay, it used to look like this.

Now it looks like this! It's becoming increasingly difficult to see the mountains, the amazing, wonderful, spectacular mountains that define our city. I cannot see how any of this is a good thing. I am not exaggerating when I say that it's breaking my heart.

At night, I find myself literally dreaming about the 1950s, right here. You know I don't idolize the 50s (or any era) at all.

Photo by the fantastic Fred Herzog whom I still see taking photographs today!
But I do miss the open spaces that were still here when I moved here as a child in 1976. It still felt like a big small town, if that makes sense. Not anymore! If they still exist at all, old houses like these, and even larger, nicer ones, are either being torn down or sold for insane prices. You can't get a house, any house, for less than $1.2 million! Ours would cost even more than that.

Mostly, they're torn down and replaced by ugly behemoths and towers, each condo also selling for over $1,000,000.

I know this is the fate of our house if we can't find a way to buy it soon. My recent, unexpected inheritance might make that possible but probably not. The price of a nice house anywhere else on this continent (with the possible exception of New York and Toronto), is a mere down payment on a run-down house here.

You probably noticed that I like to pose in front of older buildings in my neighbourhood (well, "older" by west coast standards anyway). It's not just because I like the way they look.

It's also because I want to photograph them (and their gardens) before they're torn down.

If you love something, you cherish it even more when you know it will soon be gone. 

Not only will we lose all these great houses, but we'll lose their yards too. When I first moved to this neighbourhood in 1990, it was known as a poor part of town, largely working class, and Italian. Many of the yards were almost entirely taken up with what used to be called "kitchen gardens," bursting with food: grapes, figs, beans, tomatoes, and, yes, pretty flowers. Those days are almost gone.

Rogue raspberries and fennel in our yard. The raspberries are so sweet, they taste like jam.
Our home was built in 1949 and the yard still bears the vestiges of great love and what was once an abundance of food. Tomato plants, blueberries, raspberries, kale, and fennel spring up out of nowhere each spring. 

Just some of the flowers in our back yard
And the flowers! We don't even know what some of them are but, now that we're here, giving a little love to the land again, those flowers, and a few we planted on our own, are thriving.

Who wants to lose all that? 

A male goldfinch at our feeder, in full, mating season yellow 
Our next door neighbour, an old Chinese lady who has lived there since the 1960s, is an amazing gardener. Those are her lilacs you see below the goldfinch. She fancies flowers and grows them in great, but carefully controlled abundance. The garden is her life, but it's getting harder and harder for her to tend it. When her husband was still alive, he was in charge of growing all the vegetables. The garden was his life too. He died about a year and a half ago. He had a heart attack but thought he was just a little ill, and continued to work in his beloved garden for three days -- and then he was gone.

It is painfully clear that realtors are waiting like vultures for our neighbour to die. Her yard is a large one. So is ours. Together, our two plots of land would combine to create three lots. The realtors want to sweep in, buy both our houses, knock them down, bulldoze the yards, and build three, monolithic, multifamily dwellings with no yards whatsoever. We're renters. There is nothing we can do to stop them unless we can find some way to buy our house, and soon, but, at $1,500,000, that's a dream, only a dream.

A female Northern Flicker at our feeders. Isn't she spectacular?
And it's not just about human lives. Where will all the birds go? What about all the other little critters, the raccoons, the skunks, the coyotes, and, yes, even the rats? Every time a yard is ripped apart, habitat goes with it. Has this no value?

Garden "fashion" has changed over the last 20 years. Now, most yards are of the "English" variety, a little bit wild and overgrown and very beautiful. 

But do you remember those old, tailored gardens, where everything had its place in little, stoned-in sections? My neighbour still does that. 

The remnants of those mid-century gardens can still be found here and there. I don't really fancy them but, suddenly, as they disappear, I respect them. And, of course, they match my dress. They add to the feeling of time travel.

As usual, it's not that I actually want to time travel. The various, abusive hippies who raised me filled me with tales of how repressive and horrible the 50s were. I don't doubt that. But I can still appreciate that which was good and lament the loss. The loss of open space in the city centre is well worth lamenting.

My father was raised in an upper, middle-class, Jewish neighbourhood in New York and always spoke of the 1950s with a venom bordering on mania. Indeed, I often felt that he lived his entire life in opposition to that stifling period, as if he was stuck in an endless teenage rebellion rather than living his life on his own terms. This led to a lot of immature, selfish behaviour, including a loathing of marriage and monogamy so intense that he abandoned his own children to a home so dangerous, it left me physically disabled for life.

The added tragedy for me was that he associated a lot of things with the 1950s that really had nothing to do with them -- like femininity. He hated anything or anyone feminine. They reminded him of his mother who, I'm told, cared more about appearances than authenticity. Like me, she had a love of fashion and fine jewelry. He often told me that he hated her -- and he often told me that I reminded him of her. You can imagine how well he responded to my style blog: not well, not well at all!

He could not dissociate his hatred of his mother, and all things 1950s, from femininity itself. He wouldn't even date a woman who wore lipstick! Simply in the way I move, let alone the way I choose to dress, I am and have always been extremely feminine. To him, I was mainstream, conformist, part of the evil from which he spent his entire life running.

Nor could he, with his degree in fine arts, recognize that fashion can be a form of art and self-expression. It was, and therefore I was, simply materialistic, shallow, and indicative of all that he loathed about the mainstream.

My father died recently and, to my great surprise, left me some money. The money will stay in the bank until I have a really good reason to spend it (like, say, on a down payment on a house), but I did buy one special little thing for myself with it: a very pretty, very feminine, ruby ring. He would have hated that, and that's exactly why I did it. I wanted something incredibly feminine, in the colour of power and anger: red. Thus the ring. In fact, the rubies are just a little bit pink, like raspberries. Oh my goodness, he would have hated that even more!

I get my revenge on those who abused me in strange ways. This is one of them.

So, I turn my back on my father and my past, just as he turned his back on me and his past. But, unlike him, I embrace the good that came of both. Unlike him, I can't live my life in black and white, in bad and good. Nor can I live my life in shades of grey. No, I'm living my life in glorious, 1950s, Technicolor pink.

So there!

(I'm sharing this with Sydney Fashion Hunter, Tina's Pink FridayRachel the HatFashion Should Be Fun, Adri Lately, It's All Fine, Spy Girl, Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Style Crone, and Happiness at Mid-Life.)


  1. Thank you for the post. There's much I'd love to comment on, but for the moment, I'll just answer a question you asked early in your post: silk scarves are a pain to keep on. As someone who always wears a head covering and enjoys vintage fashion, I can say that keeping then on is always a pain. Tying them really tighT can work if you don't have slippery hair like mine, otherwise layering them with "stickier" headbands or scarves in fabrics like cotton helps immensely. Also clips and velvet headbands often called "wig grips" do wonders! Love the dress and the scarf!

    1. Thanks for the advice. I thought I just lacked some mysterious scarf skill passed down from mother to daughter... if the mother wasn't a hippie. Do you always wear a head covering for religious reasons or just as a personal preference? I'm Jewish and wish women still wore head scarves at synagogue. It's just no longer done in more liberal shuls.

    2. I just took a gander at your blog on dressing modestly. My, aren't you an interesting human being! I like a lot of things about modest dressing but not for the reasons many politically and religiously conservative women do. I just find them becoming. I also like to see my value in more than the shape of my body. My maternal line converted to Quakerism (from Judaism and my father is Jewish) around 1850 and I was raised in that, so modest dressing is nothing new to me. But I never thought of or heard of it referred to as modest. Rather, I heard it referred to as 'humble' and 'simple.' This meant that it was less about covering the body and more about avoiding flashiness. I still struggle with guilt about my love of bright colours and sparkly baubles. Covering my body? Fine. Wearing dull greys, blacks, whites, and the occasional dark blue, and no jewellery? No way!

      For a good read on Quaker grey and simple dress, check out the (ironically) beautifully illustrated, children's book, Thee Hannah.

  2. Beautiful and bittersweet, and as always complex and profound and very honest post, Charlotte. Life is like that, very often. You look adorable in your pink outfit. And I love your taste in jewelry - all the pieces are intricate, interesting to look at, and yes, extra feminine. I think I understand what you mean about big small town. Seattle still remains, in many parts, this big small town, and Tacoma even more so, and that is why I love living here. I realized about myself that I am not really a villager nor a city person, and suburbs are not my cup of tea either. I am a small town person who loves having an opportunity to visit theaters, symphony, antique shops and quirky farmer markets, and that's what we have here in abundance. But I think some day, I'd like to move to a smaller place farther from the city, maybe on a peninsula or island...

    I love your sense of humor and the way you redefine what fashion for women used to be. I very much think that people were smaller, and therefor all I see in shops are small size vintage fashion. What you say makes sense. Whatever plus size vintage dresses are left, are sold our fast. I just don't really check them frequently. I am happy with modern take on vintage styles, so far.

    I might have told you before, Beate is a great expert on vintage fashion, and 1950s is her favorite period. I am sure she could help you to identify what era your dress is from. There are other fantastic vintage lovers around too, I hope they will comment.

    Sending you my warmest wishes and hugs, my sweet friend.

    1. "Bittersweet." I learned that word when I was around 10 and it was a revelation to me: so this was the word I'd been looking for to describe my perpetual emotional state. Sad that I felt that way at such a young age but you know why I did.

      I think I'm a Canadian city kind of a person, though I gather Seattle is similar. Well, actually, I think I'm a right here kind of a person.

      I think there actually were a lot of larger women in the past, just as there are today. When I search people's online family photos, there are always curvier women, especially if they're over a certain age, like me. And never forget that women used to wear girdles and corsets. I've seen some bizarre measurements on vintage dresses that only make sense if the woman was wearing some pretty powerful foundation garments.

      I'm in touch with a lot of vintage lovers online and am now following Beaten too. Thanks.

  3. The housing prices shocked me... Come over here, you'll buy a house like that in a charming neighborhood for a fraction of the price.

    1. I know, but I so love my city and my neighbourhood. I'm here to stay.

  4. Dear Charlotte, I'm glad you link up to tinaspinkfriday ! this post is so amazing ♥️. You look great in this wonderfull vintage dress. I think 60 too. So sweet stuff and in good size and condition. I need Pluszize and it's hard to find good dresses.
    Many thinks to say, but its difficult for me in englisch.
    Wish you an nice weekend, I follow your blog, it's amazing. Tina

    1. Thanks for all the compliments. I think you did quite well in English. I taught ESL for many many years, so I know!

      I find that most nice "plus size" clothing is online, not in actual shops. That annoys me, though it works well with my disability: shopping in stores is very painful for me.

      Keep reading my blog! So glad you enjoy it.

  5. What a pretty dress and I love that you have a pink wall to go with it too!

    Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you soon!


    1. Thanks, Alice. That pink wall has been a great backdrop for a few of my outfits. Who could resist?

  6. This is the first post of yours I've read and I'm blown away by your writing. I loved the 50's style lesson and your old photos make me want to dig through the ones I have that were my parents' and grandparents'. You sound like an amazing woman to have come through your dark times with such a strong sense of self worth. Thank you sharing your story and adding your post to Up, Down, All-Around.


    1. It makes me feel really good to hear that you like my writing. I've always wanted to be a writer and now, more than ever, I feel like I am, in my own small way. As for my self-worth, that's an ongoing struggle for me; my self-esteem is "up, down, and all-around!"

      I'd love to see your parents' and grandparents' clothes on your blog. Go for it!

  7. I can see why you love that pink dress! It looks wonderful on you.

    We keep hearing (on the east coast) about BC housing prices. They blow me away completely. I hope you find a way to have a home of your own there.

    1. Isn't the dress great? I love it. I need to wear it again soon, don't I?

      Our housing prices here are insane. I hear that Trudeau is working to find a way to fix that but I'll believe it when I see it. The main reason I want to own a house is so that the owners can't sell it out from beneath us. I want to settle somewhere, plan a garden, know we're doing to stay. You just can't do that here if you don't own. I literally have nightmares about our house being knocked down. I had coffee yesterday with a senior friend on a very low, fixed income, and she's incredibly stressed about her apartment building being sold and having nowhere to go.