Saturday, May 6, 2017

Spring Flowers, Diamonds, and Real Women in the 1930s

Isn't this April Cornell dress pretty? I can't quite afford April Cornell's prices so, when this was on sale, it was so 1930s, I was happy to buy it. It's not glamour photos for the movies 1930s either. It's real life 1930s style. That's what this post is about, mostly. 

It's also about my new diamond earrings and why I love fine jewelry. It will all fit together in its way. I promise. 

I knew my whole would fit right in in the spring and summer in the early to mid 1930s ...

... not so much in a fashion shoot, as in, say, a summer picnic with the family or synagogue, where real women ...

Dress: April Cornell; Shoes: Ingledew's ; Right hand ring: Effy; Earrings: bespoke from Era Designs; Platinum and diamond pinkie ring: was my grandmother's; Cape, sunglasses, brooch, necklace, and pinkie ring: vintage
... like me wore their prettiest spring and summer dresses. 

I know that my new, gold and diamond earrings might have been out of reach for most women at the time, but I also know that they complimented my dress (or my dress complimented them?) perfectly and, well, I really wanted to wear them!

I love them. I should. I designed them. Well, I designed them, yes, but with a great deal of help from the nice people at Era Designs, who impressed me in particular with their obvious delight in jewelry, and with their scrupulous adherence to their price estimate.

Some of you may recall that my no goodnik father died in a mysterious motorcycle accident about this time last year. He'd never done anything for his kids in his lifetime. I mean, not a single thing. He was content to abandon us in an abusive home, and let us be homeless teens when we managed to leave that "home". It never crossed his mind to rescue us. It never crossed his mind to help us financially or give us a safe refuge from abuse. 

So, naturally, when he died, I didn't expect an inheritance. Nonetheless, I got one, and a relatively substantial one at that, though he left fully 50% of his estate to a stranger. I guess doing nothing for anyone in your entire life leads to significant savings. 

I've put that money aside to help us buy a house some day, but I knew I had to do one special thing for myself with it. It didn't take me long to settle on making a pair of yellow gold, and diamond earrings. They're my reward for surviving my father. (When Smother dies, I'll need a tiara.)

I'm well-known among my friends for loving jewelry. I have a total vintage brooch fetish and own at least 200 of them. But, even more than brooches, I love really good quality, fine jewelry. Wearing it makes me feel better. I've always struggled to understand why this is but I think I'm starting to understand.

Wearing "real" jewelry actually makes me feel safer! Most people would say, "Ah, okay. I get that. It's an investment. You can resell it if you need to." But that's not what it's about. I'd never sell it! I love it too much. 

Instead, it's something about finally having my own money after all those years of earning money for my family. They made SO much money by selling my little body, but I never got to keep any of it. Not one single cent. Indeed, they often threatened me with starvation, homelessness, and death, if I raised a fuss. I'm quite sure those were not idle threats; after all, I witnessed the murder of another little trafficked girl.

When I did leave home, without familial support, I was achingly poor for over a decade. It's not pushing it to say that I was destitute. I worked so hard for so many years to be able to earn my own money. I got two degrees, and a teaching certificate; I got the job experience needed for an impressive resume in writing, teaching and editing; and I built a college teaching career that led to tenure. Finally, in my 30s, I had money. It was all mine and I could do with it what I wanted to do.

And, to my own surprise, what I wanted to do was buy pretty things for myself. I wanted fine jewelry. 

As a child, I was often naked. I was stripped and tossed to pedophiles like so much meat. Like an animal. Sometimes they kept me naked for days. Sometimes, I was so cold, I thought I would die. 

At some point, I started wearing rings that I'd never take off, even while being raped. That way, in my mind, I wasn't naked, not really. You can just see my rings on my left hand here; I'm about nine.

At 21, I got a tattoo (which you can see here), and was finally able to take off my rings at night. I had a mark on my body, on my upper thigh, that signaled that my body was now mine, never naked, never bare.

But jewelry also still has that same power for me. When Beau and I got engaged, I found myself very triggered. Parts of me felt that, by marrying him, I would now belong to him as I had belonged to those who had enslaved me in the past. It was very important to me to have an engagement ring, a sign from Beau that I never had to be naked like that again. 

And it was important to me that the ring be beautiful and of great quality. I wanted to know that he loved me so much that he knew I deserved not just to be clothed, but to be clothed in diamonds and gold. In a way, it's a child's way of thinking, I suppose, but I do have DID, so I think like a child more often than you'd suspect.

But fine jewelry makes me feel safe in other ways too. As a kid, I felt that it was very important to hide what comforted me. If my abusers knew what brought me comfort, they could tear it away from me. (Sometimes with horrific results, as with all the cats they killed.) If they knew what brought me comfort, they knew me, and so they could rape me, all of me. I could not let that happen so I was very secretive about what I liked. This included beauty.

But now? Now I can fill my life with beauty, even beauty that others can see! What joy and freedom there is in that! My home is beautifully decorated. I wear beautiful clothes. And I bedeck my fingers and ears and neck and wrists with diamonds and gemstones and gold. No-one can take that away from me now.

There is also an unmistakable sensuality in fine jewelry. My body has been so terribly brutalized that sometimes I wish I didn't have a body at all. It hurts so much, all the time, that sometimes I think death would be preferable, just so I could shed "this mortal coil." But sensuality is nice. And bedecking my body with beauty is nice. It's a way to reclaim my body.

As for the design of the earrings themselves, I went with fantastic quality diamonds, but a simpler and plainer design than you might expect from me. I think I will add tiny accent diamonds in the top diamond shaped part of each earring, but it's important to keep them simple.

As with my wedding rings, the design was strongly influenced by both Edwardian ...

... and Art Deco styles: bezel set diamonds, millgrain, levels, stylized leaves, etc. But, as much as I adore these ornate designs, I wanted to create something with more versatility than these pieces, and, to me, that meant simplicity. 

That way, they go with virtually everything I wear, from jeans to really pretty dresses. In other words, I'll wear them a lot. There's no point in having diamond earrings if I'll only wear them a few times a year.

With this in mind, I also knew my earrings had to be yellow gold. I wear gold-toned jewelry far more often than silver-toned jewerly, partly because I just like it, but mostly because it goes so well with my autumnal colouring. It can even bring out the red highlights in my auburn hair. If/when I ever finally go grey, I'll probably start wearing more silver-toned jewelry but I can't imagine I'll ever lose my love of yellow gold. 

From my post, The Edwardian Brooch and Its Outfit
I did not set out to make my earrings match my wedding rings, but, clearly, I have my tastes and it just kind of ended up that way. (Note that I made the rings both white and yellow gold so they'd go with absolutely everything.) The theme in all these pieces is unmistakably drawn from nature

I often dress in harmony with nature. You many not realize it, but most of us do. Why else would we associate certain clothing colours and textures with each season? For example, unless a person is completely blind to style, they'd recognize my dress as a spring (and summer) dress. 

I particularly like this photo as it makes me look like I'm almost in camouflage and, even better, something about my hair and the tilt of my head ...

... makes me think of this famous photo of a young Virginia Woolf in 1905.

These allusions to literature, these harmonies with nature, somehow both thrill and comfort me. 

They make me feel like I'm not alone but am, instead, part of something larger, both in human history, and in nature itself. 

This welcome connection to history includes fashion history. And so we come back to the dress itself and its affinity with 1930s fashion.

It has that long, fluttery, floral prettiness about it so popular at the time. But, unlike this model, here, I'm not a willowy woman in her late teens or early 20s.

I'm not a fashion illustration. I'm not a "flawless" movie star. Nor am I rich enough to mimic one. Neither are you, I'm guessing. Who is?

Who ever was? 

But, gosh, don't you adore these women? Don't you adore them more than movie stars? I do! Do you think they're sisters? I think the 1st and 3rd one are for sure. I'm not sure about the one in the middle. 

Notice how their dresses ...

... are similar to mine? I'm more thrilled by a fashion convergence like this one ...

Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and others in the 1937 Stage Door. Note the two lose, floral dresses.
... than I am when I find old photos of models and movie stars wearing clothing like mine, although that's fun too, of course.

Now, as then, we often get our style ideas from the movies and magazines.

It's fun to pose like movie stars do.

It's fun to play at glamour.

Photo by Jack Delano
But it's more fun to just play. It's more fun to just relax and be ourselves and know that we can be great just the way we are. 

I'll bet these two, decidedly unglamorous people brought a great deal of joy and love and warmth into people's lives.

So of course I get vicarious joy in dressing like them (okay, like her). 

It's fun, and fun is important.

This photo is labelled: Mary Etta Barnum, Laura Dunn, Will, Gert Tique, and Dora McInly.
Of course, another great benefit of modelling my vintage looks on "real" women is that it allows me to see and emulate women of real size and, wait for it, real age, in a world that continues to do its best to erase us. It may sound odd, but I was so excited when I found this photo. Dora's dress looks a lot like mine (don't you wish you could see these in colour?), and Mary's body language reminds me of my own ...

Now before I talk about what specifically makes this dress so 1930s, I want to share a little victory with you. As you may know, light blue is one of my worst triggers. I won't go into the reasons but you can read all about them here. My comfort in, and even love of wearing this dress marks my first successful reclamation of light blue. I wear this dress a lot! Imagine that. It may seem like a small thing but it's not!

It's a victory. And I'm proud of it.

Both as someone with PTSD, and as someone with painful physical disability, if I've learned one thing, it's that we must celebrate our victories, however small they may seem to those who don't understand. 

Back to the dress. It's a particularly comfortable one. I can't quite figure out the April Cornell company but my guess is that they're quite popular with conservative religious women who have adopted the "modest dress" movement. Not only does this movement require that women cover a lot of skin, but it also requires that they wear clothes loose enough to conceal their figures. Just by chance, this is good news for the "plus size" fashion community. Where usually I need to order plus size clothing, this XXL dress is very roomy on me and I'm sure I could easily wear an XL too. 

The roominess of the dress is further enhanced by its "self tie waist." These were super popular in the 1990s and are absolutely wonderful for those of us with chronic pain conditions that can be exacerbated by tight waists. They're not very popular anymore, but April Cornell still makes them by the bushel full. Because these ties are attached with buttons, you can even remove them entirely.

I don't know how popular self-tie waists were in the 1930s but they seem to have at least existed, though I don't know if they was just for maternity dresses or not. If you know, do tell me. I'm curious.

At any rate, with my bad back, endometriosis, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), I am more than happy to be able to adjust the waist line according to my pain levels on any given day. 

Moving up on the body a little, I deliberately chose to wear a minimizing bra with this dress, though I doubt I'll do it again. I didn't think it was very flattering. 

I did it because I know that a lot of women in the 20s and 30s didn't wear bras at all. Bras were a recent invention and favoured by the young. I really want to know more about all these older, braless women. Did they once wear corsets and set their bodies free in old age, or did they always eschew the painful restrictions of corsets? 

It is true that forgoing bras can make the older body look bigger around the middle (especially, I'm guessing, if that older body has borne and nursed babies) ... 

... but whatever. 

Lately, to continue to receive disability payments, my insurance company has yet again been forcing me to jump through a series of time-consuming, humiliating, and emotionally draining hoops. As a result, my anxiety has been much higher and my IBS has been so bad for the past month or two that I think my belly is actually shrinking a bit - for all the wrong reasons. Sure, I'd like a smaller belly, but not if it means running back and forth to the bathroom all day, feeling ill in my tummy all the time, and not being able to even look at a vegetable without feeling sicker. 

Weight gain in middle and old age can be a sign of good health ...

... and having enough money for food, something that was not always guaranteed in the 1930s.

This is why I felt a bit guilty wearing diamonds with this outfit when I knew they would have been completely out of reach of many, even most women at the time. They must have been accessible to some women though, since my pinkie ring was my grandmother's engagement ring in 1936. She came from a farming family, became a nurse, and married a carpenter; they weren't rich but they were obviously doing okay if they could afford this ring (and college educations).

At any rate, Beau pointed out that poor women in the 30s would be damned proud to find that their great grandaughters not only owned such finery, but paid for it themselves, with money they earned in their careers. Good point, Beau.

This Art Deco necklace, on the other hand, would have been much more affordable because it's a costume piece, not real. With its geometric shapes ... 

An Art Deco door or elevator panel
I think it's in keeping with most people's ideas of Art Deco.

A panel at the Chanin building, probably my favourite building in all of Manhattan.
But Art Deco did also make use of some lovely florals and curvilinear shapes inspired by nature. 

It's possible that the geometry of this necklace clashes with the florals of the dress, but the colours of the pearls are a perfect match. Can you believe I got this necklace for $10?

On to the sunglasses. When styling a 1920s or 1930s outfit, if you want to wear sunglasses, round ones are your only real option. I now have three pair: white, burgundy, and black.

So I'm 30s stylin'!

As long as they don't make me look like I'm a 1960s hippie, I'm good.

Bette Davis. I wish I'd had this photo when I did my post on 1920s and 30s sailor fashion!
If they were good enough for Bette Davis, they're sure as heck good enough for me. 

I think this is a Foncie's Photo but I'm not sure.
And now, all the way down to the shoes. As I've often pointed out before, wearing oxfords with skirts and dresses was perfectly acceptable for decades. This is great news for me, since my disability prevents me from wearing heels and ballet flats (which hurt my back by constantly slipping off my heels).

Naturally, then, I wore a pair of my own oxfords. 

I was in good company.

I thought the blue and tan went well with my dress. What do you think? 

They're actually tri-coloured: blue and two different, creamy tans.

They've got blue on the backs too! In other words, they're pretty spiffing shoes. For a long time, my most popular post was one which featured these shoes.

The darker blue went with my cape, which I needed as the sun went down.

If you read my blog much, you know this cape well, so I won't dwell on it.

To bring the colours of the dress to the cape, I added a dear little brooch that I suspect is from the 1940s but I'm not sure. The little bit of light blue in it made me think twice before buying it, though it was only a few dollars. That's how badly light blue triggers me

But my victory is in the dress, and it matches the dress, so I went for it. 

And that's it. 

That's the story of my victory earrings and my victory dress. 

Join me next time when the topic will be... Who knows? Whatever strikes my fancy.

(I'm sharing this with Not Dead Yet, Style Nudge, Elegantly Dressed and Stylish, and Not Dressed As Lamb.)


  1. I do love 1930's dresses, and this is such a wonderful one. And what you've written here about jewelry - how gold and diamond jewelry makes you feel safe, and is a way to "reclaim" your body - is very moving. The earrings you designed are simply stunning! xox


    1. I wasn't sure if what I said about jewelry made sense. It took me years to put it into words, even for myself, let alone for others. And I love my earrings too.

  2. Brilliant as always. Thank you. :)

    - Laura G.