Written for Snap! magazine, published in November 2008
Online version can be found on pages 69-70 at
During a recent conversation when a friend recalled watching Betty Boop cartoons at her Bubby’s as a child, it hit me just how seminal a role grandmothers can have in the development of a girl’s sense of style. To this day, Betty Boop’s overt sexuality continues to influence my friend’s attitudes towards femininity, sex and fashion, as do any other cartoon ladies with big boobs, lips and curvy legs. I on the other hand, still tend to veer toward patterns I saw my Romanian grandmother and her sisters wear at their peak in the sixties. On a trip to Eastern Europe a few years back, I returned with a second-hand mini polka dot dress and striped shirt that I knew, if Meta Singer were still alive, would make her proud.
Whether it be the lavish outfits worn on special holidays, the dresses that are sewn for parties or the gifts given or found during visits to grandma’s apartment, a sense of femininity is presented, constructed and reconstructed by little girls. They are treated with cookies, hot pink nail polish and feathered hats when left in the care of their grandmothers, and it is in between these lines of tackiness and sophistication that girls relish playing dress-up. First in the safety of the lounge room, they eventually venture outside of the house in certain combinations that were once considered too eccentric for the public eye. Trips to the mall, jewelry stores and lessons on applying makeup are simultaneously wondrous and silly. Amidst shoulder pads and animal prints, grandmothers offer these teachings, albeit not always aware of their potential impact.
My friend Maddie agrees: “I pretty much only wear my Bubby’s scarves, gloves, sunglasses and jewelery: clip-ons, long beaded necklaces and broaches with clocks on them, from a time when women weren’t supposed to wear wrist watches. My old roommate called it my “Bubby bling” and I constantly get compliments on it all, which is especially amusing since she was a Ukrainian socialist who never bought any real jewelry; the compliments are on costume stuff. Still, it’s all holding up much better than anything I’ve bought in my lifetime, outlasting my Vans sunglasses by about thirty-five years…I also throw in a bit of grandpa stuff too, like sock garters.”
The dictionary defines gaudy as leading to “a false allure or promise.” When worn two generations down, this ‘allure’ can represent a nostalgia for a time when women were immigrating to the ‘New World’, designing their own clothes and redefining their identities both as citizens and women. Occasionally lost in translation, European women’s style occasionally conflicted with their new peers. Maddie admits that once arriving in Canada via Austria in the seventies, her other grandmother’s “sense of style was different from the middle-class suburban moms. With puffy hair and sequins, she was in a tight bun and a well-cut black dress. It was her who inspired me to take risks and respect fashion as art.”
There are times, however, when tawdriness overrides sophistication. Rachel recounts how she received a charm belonging to her grandmother with a menorah on it. “My sister got the one with ballet shoes.” There is also the issue of timing. Not everyone can wear the styles that, as Maddie says, “are so hot on sweet young things like ourselves but ridiculous and often-times embarrassing on the original wearers.” Audrey reflects on her Polish grandmother’s laissez-faire attitude: “There is a time and place for everything including getting all dolled up. I respect her [current] lack of effort more than some older women who try way too hard; that’s tacky.”
If we prefer our grandmothers’ fashion sense because it seems more authentic, our attraction is also based on a healthy rebellion against our own parents. This begs the question, will our daughters purposely wear the notoriously unflattering ‘mom jeans’ and crocs in the years to come? Will they sport yoga pants and velour sweatsuits in attempts to rekindle the yummy mummy spirit? As my Ukrainian grandmother used to say, “Uch, phoo-ya.”