My maternal grandmother, Nancy, is one of the most stylish people I know. Today she turns ninety years old and I couldn’t be more proud to show her off. I can only hope that I got the right genes to age as gracefully as she has. As a stylish woman who has seen nearly a century I was curious as to how things have changed, not just from a wide angle general lens like I usually cover but through the lens of a singular woman.
Nancy grew up on a farm in Ohio before moving to California in her twenties. She had a love for great clothing from a very young age and learned how to sew in order to get the clothing she wanted. She made a lot of her own dresses for school even using chicken feed sacks as fabric for her creations. Her mother took her to the department stores in Akron from time to time to go shopping. Department stores back then (1930s/1940s) were a wholly different affair from how they are today. Customers dressed up to go shopping instead of the “cleaning out the garage” clothes as my grandma referred to it today. The stores were well-staffed and spacious. Clothes were crammed into racks like they are today. She never even recalled waiting in a line! A staff person would ring up the clothing for you while you relaxed in a plush chair (not just a VIP service back then). I learned that not only did more people sew their own clothing back then, it was also way easier to do so. Department stores would often have “yardage” departments which consisted of fabric by the yard and on-trend patterns you could use with instructions on how to create the pictured garments. Today pattern packets look as though they were designed in the 80’s which is probably around when most people stopped sewing. When I asked her about any major splurge purchases she made she assured me she splurged as often as she could.
While Nancy and her contemporaries were plenty aware of changing trends from season to season very few of them followed the designer collections. In fact many say that designer labels didn’t really enter the collective vernacular until shows like Sex and the City featured brands like Manolo Blahnik so heavily. Nancy confirmed this saying she personally hardly followed designers. There was one designer that swept her generation though and that was Christian Dior and his “New Look” just after WWII. She says his designs were literally everywhere. It was impossible to not know about the New Look. He even had a Time Magazine cover at the time.
As for her favorite fashion decade? She just answered “not this one.” Celebrity culture has been the biggest issue in the fashion industry in her opinion. Magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar used to feature the garments in the photos as opposed to focusing on the aesthetic angle of the spread. They zoomed in on the details and highlighted the quality of the garments and how to purchase. The ads never really felt like ads because all the pages were just showing beautiful dresses and suits. She postulates that the lack of detail in the photos is due to the cheapening quality of the clothing. She says she saw the decline of the middle class early on through fashion -- there was a decline in the middle class of clothing. Today this is certainly true as all we see is cheap fast fashion and prohibitively expensive designer fashion. While some modern luxury brands like Cuyana and Everlane are trying to fill that gap, the general landscape is still polarized.
A lot of Nancy’s fashion advice stems from a fashion styling class she took in Beverly Hills in the late 1950’s . She even still had the portfolio she used for establishing flattering shapes and styles for her body. She frequently shared that one should look at themselves very objectively and analytically to figure out the best styles for one’s body. After doing that it’s easier to not be swept into trends that don’t flatter or project the image you want for yourself. When I asked her about her favorite fashion icons she mentioned the givens: Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn but then paused and warned against having a fashion icon. Getting dressed should only be about yourself and what looks good on someone else might not look good on you (and vice versa!). That kind of thought process kept her as one of the best dressed accountants at her company. While others sheepishly gave into unflattering trends she remained looking classic and lovely.
Unfortunately she never taught my mom or aunt how to sew. For my grandma the act of sewing was not righteous or even fun in its own right. She only sewed to get the clothing she really wanted (you aren’t limited to the trends at the store if you can make whatever you want) so she never felt the need to pass on the skill especially given the declining price of clothing. My mom learned sewing through her school’s home economics class (something we should definitely bring back for both genders at school) and my grandma helped her with any homework issues. My mom taught me the basics and I felt the need to learn more and enrolled in further sewing schooling. My siblings did not feel such a pull.
We concluded the interview and her live-in boyfriend handed her a martini. Happy birthday, Nana!