THE BLOG
09/30/2013 07:11 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Back to School: Memories Defined by Dresses

When I was growing up, a regular part of fall was going with my mother, the daughter of a cotton farmer, to fabric stores in my Alabama hometown to buy cotton prints and matching trims and buttons for five or six new school dresses. I still remember the smell of the newly-dyed material when we walked in and the anticipation of what we would find. In those days, fabric stores got leftover bolts of material from textile mills and clothing manufacturers. Some of the places were even called, "mill ends stores," and they carried a wide selection of beautiful textiles.

When we got home from shopping, we put everything out on the bed and admired it again and decided which to make first. I had three older brothers, and Mother had waited a long time for a child she could dress in something besides dungarees and polo shirts. As she finished each dress, I pictured myself in it at school and got more and more excited about the new year.

Many of the dresses are still so clear in my memory. In first grade, one was gray corduroy dotted with red hearts. It had a circular skirt (perfect for twirling) and a little roll-down turtleneck collar. I wore it at least once a week. I cried when I outgrew it and Mother gave it away.

In the late summer before second grade, we moved across the state where I would be starting in a new school. That season's new dresses were ready well before the move and packed gingerly in their own big box to make the trip. One was a black and gray stripe with tiny embroidered tulips within the stripes. Mother chose a pattern with a drop waist so the bodice was long. To accentuate the design, she put a strip, three stripes wide, down the front and cut the two sides of the bodice on the bias so the stripes leading into the strip were diagonal. She finished it with a white Peter Pan collar made of pique and a row of octagonal real pearl buttons (I still have a few of them) down the stripe. All the dresses had long sleeves with button cuffs.

With four kids in our family, my parents' school-teacher salaries didn't buy many luxuries. But Mother wasn't deterred. She studied the department store ads in the Birmingham News and browsed the racks of the better stores, memorizing what she saw and then copying the designs.

Over the years there were corduroy jumpers with matching print shirts or, for piano recitals, velveteen jumpers with taffeta shirts. In junior high and high school, pleated wool skirts -- not the easiest styles to fit but Mother didn't stop until they were perfect.

Around eighth grade I learned to sew too, and after that we worked together on the outfits and I made some myself. When I was headed to college at the University of Alabama, the invitations to sorority rush parties specified the proper attire as, "dark cotton transitionals." No problem. Mother and I had that nailed.

For grad school at the University of Missouri, where I had a teaching assistantship, Mother imagined I should dress more professionally. We made that year's dresses of more sophisticated synthetics and wools -- shirt dresses with leather belts and a gray flannel jumper that buttoned down the front. (I never told her that everyone on campus was in bell bottoms and sweaters and that dresses didn't get much wear.)

Years later, Mother died -- in August, once our big sewing month. I went home to Alabama for her funeral. On the way back to California, I spent a few days in Santa Fe, where I sought out a fabric store. I bought yardage in three beautiful fall prints. I never used it and I eventually gave it away, but the comfort it brought me had been worth every penny.

Now not a fall passes that I don't long for beautiful fabrics. I don't sew anymore but I still take a walk through a few fabric stores to see and feel and smell. Beautifully printed cottons and rayons are hard to find by the yard. Garment production has moved overseas and fabric stores don't get the leftover bolts they once thrived on. But I find some good fabrics in ready-made things on the rack. This year I got a pair of pajama pants at Urban Outfitters in a beautiful rust and burgundy geometric print that would have been perfect for a school dress back then. Sleeping in them is almost like having my mother tuck me in again. I feel embraced by her love, and the seasons -- even in Southern California -- seem right on schedule.

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