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 testimony...to 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.