Fifth grade was the year I discovered fashion. Or, rather, I realized that my wardrobe wasn’t quite the same as many of the other girls in my class. Before that year, I don’t remember being self-conscious of my clothing – I loved going to the thrift shop with my mom and grandma and coming home with a couple of “grab bags” that we could pick up for 25 cents each. It was almost like Christmas (at least Christmas at my house) to open those bags and discover the treasures inside.
Of course, those bags of surprises didn’t always have anything that would really be of interest to a fifth-grade girl, but it was fun anyway. There were even a few times when we would go to the thrift shop and be able to pick out our own stuff, if we had a dollar or two. Really, that was all it took to come home with a couple of complete “new” outfits. The best stuff, though, was the dresses and coats that my mom would buy (or we would find in one of those “grab bags”) so she could cut them up and turn them into a brand-new skirt, or dress, or coat for me. So, for me, clothing was always just the things we wore to work or play or school, and never something that was a really big deal in terms of “fashion.”
Until the fifth grade. For some reason, I suddenly noticed that some of the girls in my class seemed to have a brand-new outfit every week! Even new shoes – which was quite extravagant in my mind because I would get one new pair of shoes at the beginning of the school year, and then tennis shoes in the summer. So new shoes right in the middle of fifth grade? Amazing! But it worked out OK because I had a really nifty pair of penny loafers, the kind with the little opening on the top where you could slide in a penny, and with the stitching all around the outside of the front of the shoes. That was especially good for me that year, because when the stitching in the shoes would come loose, or break, all I had to do was go home and raid my mama’s sewing cabinet for a needle and thread, and I could fix those penny loafers. They lasted me all year, so I didn’t need a “new” pair of shoes!
The fifth grade was also the year of the Blue Jumper. I really don’t remember where I got it . . . could be that my mom made it for me (probably from something else she picked up at the thrift store and cut up to make me a new dress), or perhaps we actually purchased it, already made, from the thrift store. No matter, I loved my Blue Jumper! It was a soft blue corduroy fabric, with a dropped waist, and a cross-over front with two buttons. It had a v-neck so I could wear a sweater underneath when it was cold, or just a white blouse under it on warmer days. And I wore it many, many days during the fifth grade.
For some reason, that is the only dress I remember that year. I’m sure I must have had a few other things to wear, but that Blue Jumper was my favorite, that’s for sure. That was also about the time I started learning to sew by making new outfits for my Barbie doll. Between drawing and dressing hundreds of paper dolls and stitching clothes for my Barbie doll, I discovered a love of design and fashion. But what in the world was a little girl going to do with “fashion” when the only “fashion” in her life was from a 25 cent “grab bag” at the thrift store?
Over time I learned to sew on an old Singer treadle sewing machine, and eventually my mom bought me a real sewing machine for my high school graduation. That must have been a huge sacrifice for her, but of course, I didn’t realize it until much later. I used that simple sewing machine for at least 25 years, making clothing for myself in college, later as a young mom, and for all of my older children. And the love of sewing, designing, and creating clothing never died . . . which is why I continue to make new stuff out of old stuff today!
I think it was in the fifth grade that I discovered the book, “The Hundred Dresses” by Eleanor Estes. If you have never read it, you might find it interesting to understand the life of a little girl, Wanda, who wore the same dress to school every day and the other girls made fun of her. She would always tell them, “At home, I have a hundred dresses.” And they would laugh. And they would tease her and make fun of her. Until one day she didn’t return to school. The other girls felt kind of bad for being so mean to her, so they went looking for her. As they knocked on the door of the little run-down cottage where Wanda and her family had lived, the door swung open to an empty, cold, and dark room. What they discovered there, in Wanda’s closet, made them realize she had been right all along.
And that’s one of the reasons that I have always loved having “a hundred dresses” in my studio where I can cut them up, sew them back together, and turn them into brand-new, beautiful dresses . . . or whatever else I want to make out of them. I guess there is just something comforting knowing that, even though there was a day when my Blue Jumper and penny loafers were my favorite possessions, I now have a whole studio filled with “stuff” from the local thrift store. I have at least “a hundred dresses,” and they are all mine. And I can do with them whatever I want. Just to think it all started the year I discovered fashion, and that Blue Jumper.
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