Whenever I shop for a dress today, I remember with pleasure how much easier it was when I was a youngster. In those days, we had a dressmaker who came to the house to do our sewing.
It was possible to buy dresses at a department store or speciality shop, but we were a middle-class family, and the better dresses were generally out of our price range. My family was fortunate, however, in that my father was a salesman for the Winsted Silk Company, and several times a year we were allowed to order materials selected from my father's swatches of silk.
I will never forget one of my mother's dresses from this period, though not necessarily because of the dress. She was a singer and was often asked to perform with choirs or for programs and special occasions. The dress was a beautiful peacock blue with a rounded neck, no sleeves, and a long skirt slightly draped at the hipline. The style was simple, but the color made it spectacular. With it she wore high-topped, buttoned, champagne-colored shoes with the same blue trim as her dress. How I envied her those shoes!
Our dressmaker was a Miss Villvoch, a tall, thin lady who rarely smiled. She was a top-notch dressmaker, however. Armed with several style books and one pattern, she descended upon us twice a year: two weeks in spring and two in the fall. Sometimes there would be an extra week if my mother needed a new dress for a special occasion.
Miss Villvoch always arrived promptly at 8 a.m. and left promptly at 5 p.m. She ate her noon meal with us, and once in the morning and once in the afternoon she would be treated to tea with cake or cookies.
Her domain was my mother and father's bedroom where the Singer sewing machine was located. The bed had been pushed tight against the wall, and two card tables were there for her use. The Singer was operated by a foot treadle, as there was no electricity available to us at that time.
After Miss Villvoch was settled in and her style books placed on the table, she would call us to come look at the styles and select the ones we wanted. She had only one pattern, but by some skill known only to her, she was able to produce a dress the right size and the exact copy of the syle we had chosen.
The dress was cut and basted together for our first fitting. Any alterations were adjusted and made secure with pins from a pin cushion attached to her left wrist. If it happened that the style we had chosen was not quite right for us, with that same expert touch, she managed to twist, turn, and pin it until it was.
My mother always cautioned my sister and me beforehand that we must act like little ladies while Miss Villvoch was there. In addition, we had to come home right after school, stay close to the house in case of fittings, and keep on our dresses and petticoats. This meant no play clothes and no play, but the anticipation of two new dresses more than compensated.
When the Winsted Silk Company was purchased by Belding-Heminway Company of Belding, Mich., my father became one of their salesmen. By that time, rayon and other synthetic materials had been improved and made fashionable. They cost less than silk, of course, because they were not dependent on threads from the Orient, but I missed the soft, velvety feel of my earlier dresses. Happily, Beldings continued the practice of allowing their salesmen to buy materials twice a year for their families.
One of my most traumatic experiences occurred when I was a freshman in high school. That year, one of the two rayon materials I had chosen was in autumn colors. It was made into a fitted dress without a waistline and trimmed with a brown velvet collar and cuffs. My mother gave me permission to wear it to school on the day I was scheduled to give a report in civics class.
I received compliments on both the dress and the report and felt quite pleased with myself as I started home. We lived a mile and a half from the high school, and, of course, in those days we walked. When I was about halfway home, it began to rain. I had no umbrella - and my coat was only a three-quarter length.
As I hurried along, I could feel the rain beating against my legs and my unprotected dress. I could see my hemline creeping upward with every step I took. By the time I reached home, my dress had shrunk two inches above my petticoat.
I was devastated! On the other hand, my sister was in ecstacy. Since she was a few years younger, the hemline presented no problem; and she now had three new dresses for the winter season.