Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Mute and Elegant Testimony

My pretty mother wore a grey vertical striped shirtwaist dress the day she brought my little brother home from the hospital.  As she knelt in front of us with her tender white bundle, the skirt of her dress ballooned over her knees like an upside down tulip.  I know this partly because I have a picture of that moment in time. It is no surprise that the dress became the most-requested for our birthdays when we each got to choose her outfit for one day.  It's also not hard to understand the special memory that plain and serviceable grey dress held.

But it also conveyed something about my mother and who she was at that time - a practical yet devoted young mother.  I would love to have that everyday dress and some other favorites that my mother wore and for that matter, some of my own dresses, long disappeared.

Augusta Roddis (that is her picture above) certainly understood that clothes have the power to speak to us about the past and that is perhaps why she saved, in her large Wisconsin home, more than a hundred years of family clothes.  The story of Augusta's extraordinary collection, American Style and Spirit - Fashions and Lives of the Roddis Family, 1850-1995, has captivated me and absorbed most of my winter reading time.

The text of the book engagingly gives evocative descriptions of dresses, hats, shoes and other accessories worn by the Roddis family for much of the 20th century.  The rich variety of items are complemented by photographs and letters indicating where the garments were worn and by receipts which indicate where the garments were bought.  It's a fascinating account of an interesting middle-class family that grew in wealth but somehow maintained humble middle class roots.

But this is not to say that the Roddis women were boring - the family often traveled and there was always a charity ball, wedding or party to attend.  The lovely part is that there are so many frocks and fripperies to commemorate each of these events.  The book is filled with photos of not only the clothes, but dress patterns (the Roddis women also sewed!), artifacts and supporting ephemera like ads from periodicals.  It is a spellbinding picture book with an engrossing true story to savor.

Sometime in her seventies, Augusta wrote a letter about what it was like to open trunks in the attic filled with a treasure trove of dresses amply adorned with embroidery and laces that once belonged to her grandmother. "There were her clothes, bearing mute but eloquent her very discriminating, fastidious, elegant and feminine taste".  And isn't that exactly what our clothes do for us, whether we are in a ball gown or a plain shirtwaist - silently saying the things we cannot express?

If I were to find my mother's simple grey dress in a trunk today, I suspect it would transmit a wordless message from the past too - just as Augusta Roddis' collection does.


  1. Thank you for this post. I too have sentimental attachment to several pieces of clothing and will never part with them. I ordered this book this morning and cannot wait for it to arrive as it seems to be so beautifully created. I have to admit I got chills when I read about your mother's lovely grey dress. Your writing is so very special.

  2. A lovely post!!! What a wonderful story!

  3. Thank you for sharing Donna! We received a wonderful story to go with the name of the book we all were intrigued by. What a treat.

  4. Oh, how lovely this is!! Thanks so much for sharing. I just loved it! And now, we MUST see a picture of your mom in that dress, you realize! Hugs, Karen

  5. This collection of clothing is currently on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It is definitely worth a trip if you can make it!

    1. Have you seen it Kathy? I would love to go!

    2. Yes! The items are well displayed and the background information gives a real feel for the lifestyle of this family, trips to Europe on elegant ocean liners, more business-like attire for community involvement. I felt as though I knew the family at the end. The range of clothing is from the latter 1800's to the 1980's.
      They appear to be an admirable family who, as they prospered, gave back to their community.