Monday, 17 August 2015

Passing On

Around seventy-five years ago this  hand-embroidered silk dress was made for me in China, and rather surprisingly managed to make its way to England in the early years of World War 2. I was born just after the outbreak of war, and have vivid memories of my clothes when I was a young child. I remember the textures as much as anything, for I grew up in a time when clothes were scarce and everything was passed on, passed down, recycled, remade. But this dress, with its matching embroidered knickers was made especially for me, and sent right across the world for me. Sensational stuff, and a source of considerable pride to my mother.

I hated this dress. I hated the matching knickers even more. I had to wear the whole slippery outfit for any occasion when I might be on show, when my mother's visitors were coming, or when members of the family needed to be impressed. My mother would instruct me to flash the matching knickers. I was probably no more than four years old, but I felt terrible.
I used to hide this dress, but it was always found again ('However did it get there?') I also collected any scrap of string that I could try to use as a belt. I loathed the way the dress drooped and sagged, and tying a belt round it helped a bit. However, that was counter-productive, as was the hiding. Being silk the dress had to be meticulously laundered and ironed, and tying string round its middle did not help at all. It holds some uncomfortable memories, this little dress, but I kept it all the same, or rather my mother did, for I found it again after her death. It evoked such a storm of memories for me that I kept it, too. Looking at it now I can't believe how young I must have been when it generated such powerful emotion.

At the time of the 70th anniversary of VJ Day I have been thinking a lot about my uncle and aunt, who sent the dress for me, and who suffered terribly at the fall of Singapore, where they were living at the time of the Japanese invasion. My uncle spent the years of Japanese Occupation in Changi Prison, and was never able to speak about his experiences. My aunt and infant cousin managed to get on to a boat without even knowing where it was going. They ended up in Hobart, on Tasmania.
The dress and knickers came to England, and look who was wearing them yesterday:

Granddaughter, knowing nothing of wars and conflict and uncomfortable clothes and shortages, liked the seventy-five year old dress and even the matching knickers. She would have kept them on all day, but was persuaded into something more robust and also made in China. Some day she may be interested to know the history of the little dress, but not for many years.

A long walk down memory lane for me, and a sadness that my uncle and aunt could not see another generation in hand-embroidered silk, nor get a quick flash of the embroidered knickers.
I know they would have loved that.


Elephant's Child said...

She looks adorable in it too.
Oh the memories this post has triggered. Dressing up for company in clothes I loathed. They always seemed to itch. One of them I hated so much I can remember biting it savagely when sent away to put it on. I think I was probably five or six, but I remember that dress and my rage.
I am so glad that your mother saved it, and that you did too. Despite the very mixed feelings it evokes.

Zhoen said...

I hated the short, uncomfortable dresses, as well. Maybe if I hadn't had to wear them, could chose the color, make them longer, since I did love the swirl and poof. Your dear little one redeems the gift, out of context, out of choice.

More and more convinced that it's not the what, but the lack of forcing. Allowing, persuading, accepting.

Zhoen said...

Oh, and smocking. I had some dresses with smocked bodices.

Joan said...

She looks lovely in it. And that hair!

My parents, born in Indonesia and forced to settle in Holland with their families after the war, emigrated to the States after their marriage.

I remember battered cardboard boxes turning up at our house once or twice a year, with all manner of exotic foods: wax-encased cheeses, smelly shrimp powders, Verkade chocolate bars (only for Mum) and sweets, carefully rationed out.

There were always dresses, lovingly sewn by my Oma. Always matching for my sister and me. And oh, the disappointment when mine was too small!

Relatively Retiring said...

E.C.: I had forgotten that I was also so angry that I attempted to bite and rip. What passionate creatures small children can be! I couldn't quite believe that Little E. really liked the droopy knickers with their 75 year old elastic.

Zhoen: you're right. She chose to wear the outfit to give her Mummy a surprise when she came into the room. I try never to force unless it's essential for safety reasons and even then there is usually a more tactful way. But it's easier being a Granny and only having to do it occasionally. I was not so tactful as a mother of two active sons.
The smocking is a good old craft, isn't it?

Joan: what an interesting family history you must have. I remember those battered boxes, too. What huge excitement they generated, and what mysteries inside - 'best' butter in a tin, cheese in a tin, strange things like spearmint which I never understood, and even stranger clothing which I was told looked wonderful. I never understood that, either.
As for Granddaughter's hair - beautiful, but she will need a general anaesthetic if it's to be cut.

Jee said...

My mother had a horror of short dresses with matching knickers so I escaped that particular indignity, but I had a very girly older sister who refused to take me anywhere unless I wore a dress of some description. Thank goodness for an older brother who didn't care what I wore and was glad of my company. I 1was saddled with a ghastly coat with matching hat and muff when I was five which I mercifully outgrew very quickly. It was replaced by a beautiful navy vekour made by my father's tailor that I loved,

Relatively Retiring said...

Jee: oh, the velvet collared coat with matching hat, and gloves on a string! I hope you're making some for Miss Bunny.

Leslee said...

So much history in that little dress and matching knickers. I just finished reading Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, and also a long article in The New Yorker on Hiroshima, so I guess I've been steeped in the WWII era of late. So much hardship. Which I guess puts the forcible wearing of unwanted clothing into perspective, but such immediate personal things loom larger for the child! I don't remember any unwanted clothing, but I do remember my mother painstakingly doing up my blonde curls in a fancy hairdo that I was so upset by I washed it out when she wasn't looking, and she was so furious when she went to show me off to her parents.

Relatively Retiring said...

Leslee: the positive side of unwanted clothing was that it put us all in the same boat, so there was no competitive element about fashion and designer brands. At school we all had strange coloured sweaters that had been unravelled and reknitted, and we all had clothing that was either too big or too small.

Joy said...

I think it is a lovely dress, and your grand daughter has beautiful hair!

Relatively Retiring said...

Joy: thank you for your comment. I was surprised how much she liked the dress (and the knickers).

Jenny Woolf said...

So the dress was not a failure, even though you didn't have the right feelings about it at the time. It looks very pretty, almost 1920s (a style of children's dress I always like - reminds me of vintage illustrations). Someone has worked hard on it. And the parts I can see seems to be extraordinarily well preserved. So I daresay it will last another 75 years, with care.

Relatively Retiring said...

Jenny: yes, it might do for the great-great-granddaughter! What a thought.