I was in a teaching school when this photo was taken. I’m wearing green satin dress which was made to order for me. My mother did my hair. At the time I was dating that young man on the photo. He went on to become a wealthy factory director. My mother was very upset that I didn’t want to marry him but I had other plans. I had ambitions to become a teacher and leave our village for a bigger city.
What was the first time when you became aware of what you were wearing? I was maybe three years old. I remember dark pink ruffled dress with white ribbons on the shoulders. I was out with my grandmother and grandfather that day. I also remember my grandmother’s dress, black and elegant with white, hand embroidered collar and T-bar high heels.
I checked with my grandmother and I did have a dress like that. By something short of a miracle she was able to buy a dress that was made in America. In the 80’s in Poland, behind the Iron Curtain this was no mean feast. But she cared (and still does) about her appearance and she has instilled it in me, too. She comes from a generation who puts on a lipstick to take the rubbish out. The clothes were always at the forefront of her mind for a number of reasons; they were her armor as well as a way to show respect of herself and others.
We are extremely close and I grew up watching her chose dresses and shoes, going with her to fabric shops and her tailor, putting a lipstick on. She always understood my even the most outlandish fashion desires and always, always financed them. She is an extraordinary woman and I owe her more that she can ever imagine.
Inspired by a book “Women in clothes” (if you didn’t read it yet- it’s a must!) and all of Linda Grant books (“The clothes on their back” is my favourite) I asked my grandmother about her life in clothes. I’ve split her story into two parts with the second part going online next Friday. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did when I was listening to her.
When I finished teaching school I received what was called a “work order”. Basically, the communist party would decide which region needed certain professionals i. e teachers or engineers and would send people there. I was sent across Poland to work in a town by the German border. I was happy to go. I was curious and wanted to see the world. I took one suitcase with me and got on the train. I was 21 years old.
I was lodging with other young women who were also teachers. They quickly realised that I could draw and was creative and put me in charge of designing dresses for them for Saturday dance evenings. Those dance parties were hugely popular. The whole town would come. Teachers, accountants, engineers, office workers. It was a great way to meet people. At the time teachers’ profession was very respected and we wanted to look out best.
We would save money on food and eat bread with jam so we could buy fabric and have a new dress made for Saturday evenings. We’d have four new dresses made each month. I guess it was an equivalent of girls going shopping on Saturdays now. The fashion was to wear flowers pinned to your dress, for example when I wore blue dress I had daisies pinned to it.
We used to cause quite a stir turning up for the parties. My friends and I were what was called a “good catch”. We were young, pretty and has respected jobs. Boys were fighting to dance with us.
Once I was earning my own money I started having suits and dresses made. I had another tailor who was a bit more expensive but she was worth every penny. I noticed that others would copy what I was wearing. I always thought about it as a compliment.
When I met your grandfather he was wearing an army uniform. He looked very dashing. He’s always had incredible manners. Once he told me that he was eating ice-cream whilst taking a walk when he saw two female acquaintances coming towards him. He immediately swallowed the whole ice-cream in one go so they wouldn’t see him eating. He was always taught it was rude to eat on the street.
I travelled to another city to buy my wedding dress. I had a mentor, an older woman who used to be married to a German aristocrat. He died in the war. Her and I went together to buy my dress. The dress was a big success. It was considered incredibly elegant and I had veil with made of delicate tulle.
When we married I wanted to go back to the East of Poland to be closer to my family. Your grandfather left his family and friends for me and we moved to the eastern corner. He was a very talented accountant and he got a great job for the government co-operative. He went on to become the head accountant for the area.
Your grandfather has always been very stylish. Even in high school he was amongst the most fashionable boys. There was even a name for them – “bikini boys”. I don’t know where the name came from but it was a nickname for very fashionable men. Your grandfather was once told off for being too stylish at the high school dance evening.
When we moved we would still go to dance parties. I made friends with other teachers and there was a restaurant where we would go dancing on Saturday evenings. I bought a blue dress which became my favorite. Made of pale blue chiffon, it was nipped in the waist and had a full skirt. It had black thin flowers imprinted on it- they looked like they were made of velvet. They were covered in glitter and when I danced it was falling around me like a fairy dust.
There was a cobbler in our town who used to make the most fabulous shoes. I had navy blue platforms made. I ordered them to go with my blue dress. The shoes had intricate patterns cut outs and they cost me almost my monthly salary. Your grandfather ordered at the same cobbler blue suede brogues. He wore navy jacket and grey trousers and looked incredibly stylish.
The handbags were not of good quality and there was not much to chose from. I had handbags in different colors, white, yellow, black.
There was fashion for all things crochet. I made for myself white gloves and a hat. I lend it to a friend and she didn’t want to give it back.
I remember having a fur coat made. It was A line and short. It was black. I had a white fur hat to go with it. I travelled far to buy the fur for the coat. I was always prepared to travel far for clothes and fabrics. Sometimes I travelled to Ukraine or East Germany to buy jewelry.
We didn’t have fashion magazines from Europe but there were traveling cinemas showing Western movies so we always looked at fashion in them and copied ideas.
I’ve always loved clothes. I remember one day in the 1940’s, this was shortly after the war. My cousin from Warsaw came to visit us. She was wearing a dress with full skirt nipped in the waist and snow white tennis shoes. This was just after the war when our clothes weren’t much to look at. I followed my cousin around the whole day. I couldn’t believe that someone could look so beautiful.