EDITORS NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Margaret (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Mrs. Brown, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.
In dark prose, TS Eliot commented on the tedium, boredom and sense of purposelessness in life when he wrote, I have measured out my life in (with) coffee
spoons?)...I grow old ...I grow old ...shall I wear my trousers rolled?
Call it the curse of a former teacher of English, but these phrases often cause me to think about my own lifes journey. However, the words stir little profound insight. I keep coming back to measuring out my life in ...clothes!
My first real memory of clothes can be traced to a Christmas morning when I was about three (although they say you dont consciously remember actual events from this early age, I would disagree.) We were having our tree at grandma and grandpas (I think we had stayed overnight to await Santa for in those days— Dad was in college on the GI bill, and we probably had no money for a tree and breakfast.) I remember approaching the tree which was standing in the left-hand far comer of the living room and being handed some packages. Impatience showed even at this early age. I opened the package and found ...undershirts-the white kind with thin straps. I honestly remember thinking; Santa wouldnt do this to me. I remember nothing else that I received that Christmas. In fact, I remember few other distinct Christmases, (except the one where I got a bride doll in a red metal case—my sister got the blue case). It was a moment in my clothes history; one that probably is the root cause of my love for fancy underwear, despite my outwardly conservative appearance.
The next bit of clothes history I remember goes to a day in second grade at Madill Elementary School. The teacher had for some reason left the room (that would never happen today!) There was an elevated corner of the room, a mini stage if you will-and I had on this wonderful knit jersey window-paned plaid dress, with bright yellow knit banding on the sleeves, a very full skirt (cut on the bias, not gathered), and a yellow cinch belt. Within minutes I had convinced a chorus line to join me on the platform, while I whirled about imitating a very short and plump rocket. The teacher walked in, and I must have been reprimanded, but I honestly dont remember. I remember my skirts whirling around and little else—and the thrill of being the lead dancer.
My most favorite dress from this early period was a blue taffeta dress, full shirt (gathered, not bias cut), with a white collar, and a string tie in navy blue that ended with a daisies sewn on each end of the tie. I loved the swoosh of the fabric, and recall wearing that dress on my birthday (even though parties in those days were organized in yards around games like drop the clothes pin in a bottle, and ring around the rosie. I never remember being cautioned to be careful about damaging my party dress, but it survived for many special occasions. I have no memory of outgrowing it, but I must admit a special reverence for nice fabrics. Maybe the blue taffeta is the reason I look with such affection on vintage fabrics that are certainly more frou-frou than anything I might wear.
Fourth grade is the next clothes milestone, and this again involved a favorite dress. Remember, I was not a petite item, yet, I hadnt recognized that being chubby should influence my choice in clothes. It was the bubblegum dress-yellow, short puffy white sleeves, with a simulated jumper style that laced up the front like an outfit out of Heidi. All over the jumper were little bright circles representing gumballs. Of course, this was before we were allowed to wear nylons, a privilege reserved for sixth grade. So, I am sure I wore the accompanying white ruffled socks and appropriate sturdy school shoes no ties on the shoes however. I distinctly remember no ties! Certainly an appropriate outfit for learning my multiplication tables.
Somewhere in fifth grade, I got my first bra. Fat kids develop early! I remember being mortified, and when asked by one of my girlfriends if I had a bra on, I passed it off as a new kind of short tee shirt. Getting a bra and starting your period at age 10 was not a badge of honor, but cause for great embarrassment. It was not one of the ways in which you wanted to lead your classmates.
Fast forward to sixth grade. Crinolines were all the rage, and the stiffer and more yards included, the better. One of my fonder memories is mother dipping the crinolines in the bathtub, filled with starch and water, to turn limp netting into fabric that would rival Scarlet OHaras. I particularly remember having a red crinoline-and layering crinolines so that you had two or three on, rolled at the waist for consistent length. I also remember pulling those billowing yards under skirts that were not made for them, creating a bell- like silhouette as the skirt hem restricted the yards of netting seeking escape. Burned in my clothes history memory was a green (a shade between mint and pine) shirt and skirt. The shirt had those buttoned tabs that made them a fashionable three-quarters length sleeve, and the skirt had little buttons all the way down the front that made the ensemble look more like a dress than two pieces. The piece de resistance was a wide green leather belt with two brass buckles holding everything in place. At 5 4 and 128 lbs. I was indeed a marvel, complete with red and white ruffles escaping the skirts restraints.
However, it was also in 6th grade that fashion became my friend. The advent of the sack dress and the trapeze were great inventions for mature figures. I had this one brown sack dress made of nubby fabric (Im sure it wasnt silk), with a large white collar and black bow. With my first nylons and garter belt (no girdles yet), and flats I actually had found a style that has been my friend for the past 45 years. I still prefer the lines of the 1920s dresses and am convinced I have been born at the wrong time.
Junior high and high school are a clothes blur. My mother preferred classic styles, and Pendleton shirts and sweater sets were the de rigueur. I had more knife pleated, stitched down at the hips, reversible wool shirts than almost all of my classmates. Of course, I often raided my mothers sweaters so she was never sure what shes see me in at school. (She was the guidance office secretary-a good source of information, and a great resource for producing my typed papers.) We werent allowed to wear pants, skorts, or shorts to school...but I had these wonderful gray wool Bermudas that I wore to basketball games and other events. With the prerequisite knee socks and this enormous red fine knit wool sweater, I was sure I hide my extra weight well. Little did I know that exposing your knees in the dead of winter in upstate New York led to increased fatty deposits——or so Im told.
I dont know how mother supported my wardrobe all those years, but we had the best qualitya problem that continues today as I receive Christmas chocolates from the President of Talbots-in recognition of MY recognition of purchasing quality.
I do remember two prom dresses-one had a moss green shirt of shirr fabric over taffeta (that rustle again), with an embroidered sleeveless top. For an event, I had a dressmaker change the top to white lace. And I also remember my dress for the senior prom. We all decided that we would wear long gowns and long gloves. I ordered a dress from New York-white, sleeveless, square necked, with a beaded applique on one shoulder-for
$35, a veritable fortune. My date actually was miffed that I was so concerned about the dress coming in on time. It was probably my first experience with the Mars and Venus syndrome.
College was fairly unremarkable in clothes history. I attended a womans college where shirts were required for dinner and all trips into town. The Pendleton collection grew (I never did like those Villager A-line shirts), and I entered my sophomore year determined to lose weight. And lose weight I did. The highlight of that entire year was shopping for a little black dress (literally), putting it on, and having my date (a long-time friend who had known me for years), walk by me in my dormitory. It just confirmed all real suspicions that being thin really did transform your life. At a size 7, I was unhealthy, but in hot demand for dates. So much for its whats inside that counts.
The weight thing has been a life long struggle, and my conservative choice in clothes is legend. I have more black suits than an undertaker. When I want to add a little color to the closet, I buy navy or gray. Yet, theres this little piece of me that longs for fringe and beautiful fabrics. Maybe theres room in the nursing home closet for that antique shawl with 12-inch fringe that I keep wrapped in the box under the bed. I will wear my trousers rolled!