My Grandma’s Dresses

A few weeks back, I hinted that I might take you on photo tour of my grandma’s vintage dresses.  So this week, that’s exactly what I’m doing!  I went down to California to visit my family last week and I took a little time to photograph these beautiful vintage dresses.  My grandmother isn’t a collector of vintage clothes – these clothes were all bought and worn by her, her mother, and her daughters across several decades.  That’s very special, because these clothes aren’t just beautiful museum pieces.  They are a part of my family history, like photographs and letters and stories.  During our teen years, my sisters and I tried all of these dresses on and through trying them on, we know roughly whose body types we take after.  I’m built more like my grandma, my younger sister takes after my mom, etc.  Isn’t that kind of amazing?  It’s such a personal and beautiful collection and my love for this clothing keeps growing as I grow up.

The design of this dress is very simple – short sleeves, pencil skirt, a notch at the neckline.  The glory of this dress is the textile.  This isn’t a print – the floral and pagoda patterns are all woven into the fabric and it has a wonderful sheen.  I’m guessing this is from the 1950s or early 1960s and possibly handmade.  My great-grandmother was an excellent seamstress and made the majority of her own clothes and her children’s clothes.  I had the honor to know my Great Grandma Thelma, because she lived into her late nineties and she was sharp and witty and funny and an absolute legend.  She worked as a bank teller at age 13 to help support her family, she daily fed an entire farm crew in a chuck wagon at one stage in her life, and she made the best pancakes.

This sage green number looks so 1960s to me.  I’m guessing early sixties, because this isn’t influenced by the extreme Mary Quant mini-skirts and mod style.  This looks more like the trickle-down influence of 1950s Parisian fashion by designers such as Givenchy (famous for dressing Audrey Hepburn) and Balenciaga.  The running theme for these dresses will be that all of them look better on a person.  The hanger does not do them justice.

Judging by the tiny size and the 1960s look, I think this belonged to my mom’s older sister, Carol.  Sadly, Carol is one relative I never got the chance to meet, because she died in a car accident when my mom was still in high school.  But I feel like I know so much about her from photos and family stories and the ribbons she won at rodeos (that’s right, she was a cowgirl – and a very skilled one) and from these beautiful clothes that are still in the family.  I’m so glad my family holds on to memories.  The memories aren’t always preserved through physical things like dresses, but always through stories.  My family is a story-telling family.  I have five siblings and we all tell stories.  Sometimes we all tell the same story from slightly different perspectives.

Seeing this dress makes me want to ask my mom all her memories about Carol and write those stories down, so I can remember them and keep telling them.

This long navy blue dress belonged to my grandma and she remembers wearing it in high school.  It is simple, but oh so darling.  I’m sure this is from the early 1940s and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my great grandmother made this gown by hand.  If you’ve ever seen Casablanca, picture Ingrid Bergman.  Have you pictured her face?  Well, in the 1940s, my grandma looked like Ingrid Bergman.  But even prettier.

This lace sheath dress is pretty special – this is my Great Grandma Thelma’s wedding dress.  After her first husband passed away, she remarried and she wore this at her second wedding.  She was a practical, no-frills person, but she loved beautiful things.  From her clothes, I know she favored simple, streamlined silhouettes and this dress has that beautiful simple shape.  The whimsy comes from this wonderful daisy-patterned lace overlay with every-so-slightly iridescent sequins sewn around the center of each daisy.  It’s the kind of detail you don’t even notice until you get close enough to see it.

I happily confess to loving short, simple wedding dresses.  Brides don’t need an elaborate gown to look beautiful.  Their happiness makes them beautiful and the dress just adds to the beauty.  I think this is one of my favorite wedding dresses, because it exactly suited my great grandma’s personal style and it is simple, but still sweet and celebratory!

I think was another one of Aunt Carol’s dresses (judging by the style and the size) and it is so lovely.  Cream background and blue embroidery – what could be happier than that?  It looks like the perfect dress to wear on a Greek island.  That might be because there’s a Haley Mills Disney movie that is set in Greece and she wears the best sixties dresses.  It’s called The Moonspinners and the plot isn’t much to write home about, but it’s way up there on the hypothetical list of Ashley’s List of Movies Where She Wants All the Clothes.  (Let me know if you want that list in blog post form.)

This green and white dress is a showstopper.  Off the shoulder, full skirt, little waist, and these colors!  The built-in belt and the matching button are all the detail this dress requires.  The leaf patterned textile makes this dress cute and playful, but the shape is what makes it amazing.  I’m sure my grandma made some jaws drop in this dress!


This tan ensemble belonged to my great-grandmother and it has so many details that make me swoon.  The neckline with the button and seaming details.  The buttons and belt that are covered in the same fabric as the dress.  The little pink scarf that matches the lining on the jacket.  These details demonstrate the care that went into making these clothes.  It may look simple, but it is exquisite in design and execution.

This print dress is one my favorite dresses at my grandma’s house.  All of these dresses look better on a woman than on a hanger, but this one especially.  This dress is a friend to curves.  I own a couple of printed summer dresses that remind me of this one and they are my favorites, because the print makes the dress playful and the shape makes it wow.

This is a day dress, not a party dress.  Women used to dress up to go the grocery store and run errands.  They used to dress for dinner.  This level of dressing up was the normal, not the exception.  It wasn’t that long ago!

I’ve saved the best for last.  This formal was my grandma’s and I love it so much.  I’ve always loved it.  The color, the structure, the intricate seam details – it is a triumph.  This is my favorite kind of fashion design – when a designer takes a textile and works with it and manipulates it until it is a feat of structural engineering.  This pushes the limits of what cloth can do.

Before this last trip, I had never thought to look for a label, but I did this time.  I’m glad I did, because when I found the designer’s label, it said Ceil Chapman.  That name might not sound familiar to you, but I yelped a little bit when I found that label.  Mrs. Chapman was an American fashion designer who rose to fame during the 1950s and 1960s, because she dressed some of the best dressed women in Hollywood – Deborah Kerr, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and most famously, Marilyn Monroe.  The combination of Monroe and Chapman was iconic, like Hepburn and Givenchy.  I think her designs rival Christian Dior’s and her work can be found in major museums all over the world, include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  My grandma has great taste.  She has a work of art in her back bedroom.


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