Material GirlPosted: February 8, 2009
“You only need two dresses.” He held up two fingers. The shape of a V. Victory. That gave an implied impetus to his words. He knew what he was talking about.
“One to wear, while you wash out the other,” he continued.
“Aw, Dad. That might’ve been the way y’all did it out in the sticks back during the Depression, but it’s not that way any more.”
Every girl had to have at least 5 dresses — one for each school day of the week — and then appropriate Sunday clothes on top of that. No girl would be caught dead wearing the same dress twice in one week. Actually, no girl would be caught dead wearing the same dress twice in two weeks, unless she really, really liked it, and then she might. So here was the need for at least 10 school dresses and at least 4 Sunday dresses to cover a month’s worth of holy days.
Clothes were expensive, and we all know what happened to the world in 1964. The Beatles came to America and butch hair cuts and crew cuts and short hair became like that 2-dress rule of the 1930’s. Out! My dad owned a barber shop and with all the boys wearing their hair longer and even the men not getting their customary haircut a week, the City Barber Shop fell into a slump. Dad had two daughters and could not afford the obligatory 28 dresses. And Kamien’s — Your Favorite Store since 1904 — out-priced my mama’s pocketbook on a teacher’s pay.
It was a real dilemma because we had to have the dresses and on top of that we needed piccolinos, penny loafers and Weejuns, padded bras, panty girdles, and stockings six days a week. Plus, hats and gloves for Sunday School. Needs were great and times were hard.
Mama’s Singer came to the rescue. She bought a brand new sewing machine in a sleek blond cabinet. She’d sewed for us all our lives — pretty polished cotton dresses with sashes and puffed sleeves, shorts and matching tops, and sequined costumes for our dancing recitals. You could buy a pattern for under a dollar and material, thread, zipper, and buttons for about five. Mama and I figured out real quick that we could stretch the clothing budget with the Singer.
Mama gave me a monthly allowance of $50. I could buy ten new dresses a month with that! Yet reality was that after buying stockings, cherry Cokes at Bob’s, fake earrings, Chantilly cologne, and Cover Girl and Maybelline makeup, I could only buy one or two.
So at least once a month, the Hardy Girls — Lucille, Kathy, Judi — would head south down Highway 61 to Leland in Mama’s turquoise Ford, then turn west toward the river on 82 to Greenville. Our first stop was Bev-Mar, a huge material warehouse, filled with all kinds, naps, and colors of cloth, with all the peripherals and patterns. We’d spend the first hour sitting on tall stools looking through pattern books and the next two hours picking out material. My sister was still a preteen, not quite ready for the fashion scene, and this was misery to her. After quickly agreeing to what pattern and material she wanted, she was ready to go. She’d fold over backward on columns of bolts, throw her arms out in despair, cry, and beg Mama to go home. “Kathy’s never going to get finished. She’ll take all day!” We were there at store opening and by lunch we had sacks full of new-smelling fabric to stick in the trunk. We’d eat at Pasquale’s and then head downtown to Washington Avenue where Sam Stein’s shoe store and Stein Mart stood at the foot of the levee.
Sam Stein helped keep us dressed and well-heeled. He was a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1900, to Memphis in 1901, where he sold jewelry up and down the Mississippi River before deciding Greenville was the place he wanted to settle. He peddled his jewelry in a horse and buggy between Greenville and Vicksburg and then started his business in 1902 in the front of Finlay’s Drug Store on the corner of Washington and Walnut. Later he opened his first location on Washington Avenue, selling shoes and fabrics, towels and wash rags, dishes, and other sundries. Sam Stein was the granddaddy of all the Marts; he was a mass merchandiser before K-Mart and Wal-Mart were ever a seed in anyone’s imagination. Sam helped mamas and daughters stay in style in a time of long bangs and collar-length hair, when daddies needed burr cuts to make a living.
The Hardy Girls had to stealthily slip their packages into the house in front of their daddy sitting in the living room in front of the TV. It was like one at a time. We didn’t want to stress him out about money and such, so we tried to protect him by letting him believe in his V and the two-dress rule.
“What’ve you got?”
“Nothin.” I clutched the sack between the cups of my padded bra.
He’d look at us sideways in our new clothes and shoes, but he never asked.
He was afraid of knowing. And besides, he liked seeing us all dressed up in fancy new clothes on a front pew at the First Baptist Church and it was fine as long as he didn’t have to know how much or how little money we spent.