Tuesday, March 30, 2010

MRS. BARBEE


We used to get whole new outfits for Easter Morning. For weeks before the date, we’d discuss our Easter Dress, and our Easter Shoes and even our hats and hairbows. And most of us in town had the same seamstress---Mrs. Barbee, who by my time had outfitted a couple of generations of little girls, teens, and their mothers in fancy apparel. She was constantly in demand, for every piano recital, formal dance, (no proms in those days, but somehow someone somewhere in the county was always having a dance---a formal, or a tea-dance, or even a sock-hop on somebody’s hardwood floors at home) and for every High School social and Wedding-related soiree.

She was a tiny dry bird of a woman, with a wrinkly little face even when we first met, and she made all my "fancy" clothes from second grade recitals to going-off-to-college wardrobe. I would stand atop the little round step-stool, eye-to-eye with Mrs. B, (or eye to cheek, which on her were dense peachy forests of tiny fuzz, each small sprig bearing its own personal grain of Coty face powder, like whole universes of Who-worlds, safer than Horton on her sweet face. She coulda retired on the savings she'd have had from just the dust which fell down her neckline).

She'd roll twelve or so straight-pins round between her lips, with the uncanny knack of sliding just one forward with her tongue, ready for the grab-and-spear of the hem, darts, placket. She never stuck me, but I do believe I've been scratched by every stiff fabric known to couture---those were the days of just-coming-on of the polyester stuff, the nylons and the nets and taffetas. And I suppose it was the mouthful of pins which caused her to use her own form of wordless language---she had a series of MMMMM and ummm-ummm and other little noises which could be uttered with tightly-closed lips, and we moved whichever way or held in or held up whatever she indicated.

I'd stand there, my sturdy little round body rigidly stiff, as she and Mother conferred, marvelled at my hopeless embonpoint for a such a running, tree-climbing, swimming, ballplaying neighborhood Sheena of the pre-teen set; then they'd sigh in resignation and make it fit. I can still SMELL the stiffness of those materials, the corners and the edges and the little ravellies that burrowed beneath your arms. No hair shirt could tickle like a pinned-together or just-darted bodice with the seams untrimmed. Ow.
Mrs. Barbee had one son, a quiet man who almost always wore white; he was a slim, pale, pearly person, quite like the descriptions of Boo Radley, and though slow-moving, could vanish from the living room like smoke when you knocked on the door for your fitting. You could see him through the eight panes of the front door, through the haze of the pinched-together white sheer curtain with the rod shirred top and bottom, and sometimes even before you knocked, he’d see your shadow through the door or catch a movement out of the corner of his eye, and get up from his brown recliner and disappear through the dining room arch, not even stopping to turn off the ballgame.
Mr. Malcolm did radios, and made a little bit of their living, but he was a gentle shell of the bright lively young man Daddy described from their teens. He'd been badly affected by the War, but not wounded, I don't think. He was more within himself than with us, for all the years that I knew him. And he was good to his Mama.

One year, three of the Moms picked the same pattern and the exact material except for color. So three of us in stiff cinch-waisted, poufy-skirted peau de soie brocade with Anne Shirley's dream-of-Heaven sleeves appeared at the same tea-dance. Mine was yellow, and if those enormous shoulder-puffs weren’t leg-o-mutton sleeves, they missed their chance. And I LOVED it, even though we were triplets. We took one look at each other as we arrived, and burst out laughing. And MRS. B HADN’T SAID A WORD.

And we felt gorgeous in those dresses---there's no dressing room, no rack of clothes, no expensively-perfumed, luxurious store in the world which can give the totally beautiful feeling of one of those several-fittings, pins-in-the-mouth, turn this way, scratchy-fabric dresses crafted by that artist who was our Mrs. Barbee. You felt important in her clothes, as well as pretty.

It's like those descriptions by Gallico in Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris---the details of the hand-sewing and all the perfection expected, and the calculation of the cost, down to the last hook for the last eye, and the sheets of tissue in the box. I loved that book. And after Mrs. Barbee's, I could smell Dior's salon, as well---the little steam in the air from the iron ever-ready for pressing seams, and the dry, crisp scent of heavy fabric, with a lingering hint of Coty in the air.

6 comments:

Maggie McArthur said...

I'm gonna roll about in that writing. Rachel, there's no one who can touch you.

Southern Lady said...

Oh, what memories that brought back to me, Rachel ... only my "Mrs. Barbee" was my sweet little Mama. I was always tiny and she made my clothes until I got married.

You never cease to amaze me with the pictures and memories you bring to life with your writing.

racheld said...

OH, Maggie! I'll "consider the source" and be complimented out of the few wits I have left. You're one to talk!!

And Janie---I, alas, was not, and my despairing Mother handed off the honors to Mrs. B., year after year.

And you know, when I thought of the Easter clothes, I just got started rattling on and remembered that trio of matching dresses. I googled "Puff-sleeve vintage dress pattern," and it was about the third one down---the EXACT DRESS!! We all thought we were Audrey Hepburn in those couture outfits.

Anonymous said...

I was mostly in hand-me-downs until a teenager, when I learned to sew, then sewed most of my clothes until I was out of my 30s. Did have a few fitted formal dresses as an adult. The fitting for the Mother of the Groom dress in Williamsburg stands out in my mind--had to sit in underpants and bra for at least 20 minutes for one adjustment!

And do still sew some, mostly mending these days.

Kim Shook said...

As usual Rachel, your wonderful write evokes memories I don't even OWN! Thank you once again.

Kouign aman said...

Ding dong, lady, you can write!
Here's to starchy flirty rustly flippy Easter dresses and that special feeling, for years to come.