There are times when one thoughtful act can change the way the world sees you – or the way you think it sees you – even if you are only seven years old and your world is a little smaller than it will one day be.
I was still seven years old when the year turned to 1964. I observed the world as the youngest of three sisters, the third of four children. My viewpoint was inevitably coloured by their experiences. My oldest sister, the elder by seven and a quarter years, was practically a grown-up in my eyes. She knew about the Beatles and dancing and had a record player in her bedroom.
She knew everything there was to know about the world I aspired to be a part of. She was fourteen going on twenty.
She was a ‘Teenager’ for goodness sake! Even the word ‘Teenager’ held a certain mystique. My best friend, when asked at school what she wanted to be when she grew up replied confidently,
“A Teenager, Miss.”
Teenagers inhabited the world of pop songs and parties. Later, the girls would tease and back-comb their hair into imitation beehives, wear mini-skirts and flutter false eye lashes. They were an elite group and we all looked forward to being admitted to their circle.
I still had a way to go at seven.
My early experience of the sixties was one of realising that some people just ‘had it’ while others, like me, aspired to have it.
There was a girl in my class who always wore the latest fashions and knew exactly what was what in the music world. Her name was Sharon. She was seven, like me but she could do the ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ and more. She was there, shaking and twisting, at every birthday party we attended, her skirts billowing out around her. I longed to be like Sharon. Her blonde hair swirled as she danced and she wore her clothes with panache.
Sharon was popular and the other girls flocked around her. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
In the Spring term of 1964, Sharon sported an above the knee, tailored, double-breasted coat with shiny brass buttons. I still wore the one passed down from my sister. Owing more to the long gone fifties than to Carnaby Street, it had always drawn my admiration for its tweed fullness. I loved it, caring nothing for the fact that it fell well below my knees, until Sharon and her friends laughed at it when I wore it to school. Sensing the need to save face, I shrugged.
“Isn’t it horrible? It used to be my sister’s – I have to wear it.”
They stopped laughing and sympathised instead. Even Sharon had to do what her mother told her. Sharon was not really without feelings.
The Spring term hurried on. I hovered on the stairs when my sister and her friend disappeared into her bedroom to listen to records. Mostly still content to play with my dolls and hang out with my baby brother, I was also intrigued by their giggles and whispered conversations. I received short shrift should I dare to peer through the doorway but I knew they practised the latest dances.
I once asked my sister if she would teach me how to dance. She laughed at me and told me I just needed to move about a bit. She demonstrated a couple of moves. I tried them. I don’t think they went quite as well as I’d hoped.
I practised the head shaking – alone. My hair was not as long as Sharon’s and nor was I blonde so I did not get quite the desired effect when I looked at myself in the mirror. I did get a pain in my neck and felt extremely queasy for a while. Perhaps dancing was not my forte after all.
The Spring term ended and Easter approached. Winter clothes were put away and summer clothes brought out to air. My wardrobe was never extensive. Children just didn’t have the amount of clothes they have today, back then.
I possessed some hand-me-down dresses from my sisters and my mother knitted us all a couple of cardigans. Invariably, these would include a pink and a white one for my middle sister and a blue and a white one for me.
My mother was very busy over the Easter holiday. A Follower of Fashion in her own right, she made all our clothes and many of her own. They were all beautifully sewn. We were allowed to help choose the material and the dress patterns. This Easter, I had chosen a pale blue cotton and a pretty yellow and white floral print. The pattern book was not needed. My mother already had the dress pattern she had used for my middle sister when she was seven.
The dresses were lovely. Their skirts billowed out – a sash tied round the middle. I couldn’t wait to wear one to school.
On the first day of the summer term, I chose the yellow and white print. I trotted off to school with my middle sister. I don’t recall what she wore. At ten years old, she barely spoke to me unless she had to.
I walked into the classroom and the bright smile, that I had had pinned to my face all morning, vanished. My dress failed to draw the admiring stares I had hoped for. I could see why.
The fashion powers that held sway, had decreed that young girls’ dresses grow slimmer and straight. Tailored styles had burst upon the scene. Sharon wore a simple shift dress with epaulets and pockets. I looked down at my billowing skirts and if the floor could have swallowed the seven year old me up, I’d have been happy.
To be fair, no one said anything, they didn’t need to. Perhaps one or two girls still wore old style dresses but that did not help. I spent the day suffering from ‘wardrobe shame’.
I don’t recall telling my mother what had happened. I hated the thought of telling her that the dress I had loved this morning was a fashion travesty by home time. Perhaps my sister, ever observant, said something. She had already moved up a notch in the pattern books. I merely asked my mother if next time, she could use a different pattern. She said that of course she would and that was that.
I put the dress aside and wore another, less flouncy one the next day.
Mothers are canny creatures. Mine was cannier than most. She must have guessed at my wardrobe-humiliation and a couple of days later, she took the brand new, crisp cotton dress with its carefully sewn skirts and wide sash and worked on it, unbeknown to me, into the small hours.
The next morning, when I awoke, it was there.
Gone were the fussy, flouncy skirts. This dress was straight ‘A’ line, sleeveless with no hint of a swirl. Best of all, it had a long zip running down the front with a silver ring pull on it, just like the ones in the magazines.
I couldn’t wait to show it off, I couldn’t wait to thank my mother.
I ran all the way to school wearing the re-vamped dress and I soaked up the admiring glances, both real and imagined, that were thrown my way as I walked into the classroom. Sharon came over and nodded approvingly. I basked in this new found celebrity.
I wore the print dress to the birthday party we had been invited to the following week. I no longer worried that people would laugh at me. I no longer felt inferior to Sharon and her circle of friends.
Over time my mother transformed all my dresses (there was so much material in each, it was easy she said).
Along with my new wardrobe came a whole new confidence. I no longer worried that the dance moves I was performing fell short of those executed so deftly by Sharon. Clad in my new up to the minute clothes, I could do anything.
Suddenly, back in 1964, I had it!
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