Polyester kids in a cotton world. Dressing to impress on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

This is one of our good Sundays.  Preacher’s son in a respectable suit.  Preacher’s daughter in a cotton print.  New baby…they’ll get to her soon.

Here comes summer in the Deep South, early 1950’s.  Daddy in white dress shirt and tie, double-breasted seersucker suit.  Panama hat.  Polished shoes. Leslie Ray wanting nothing more than one of those suits for himself.  He was still in his old gabardine. He liked dressing up and wasn’t interested in everyday clothes.

Cotton was what kids in our town wore to school.  Nicely faded shirts on farm boys, girls in prints, some made from flour sacks, others from the yard goods store in Courthouse Square.  Everybody looked alike.  We started out fine in our new school and then Mother got restless.

She was a creative insomniac.  At night she wrote songs.  She painted.  She baked risin’ bread and clover leaf rolls.  She sewed. After she invented her famous plastic and nylon net corsages and sewed up all the clingy jersey dresses her closet could hold, she turned her attention to us.  We’d been down this road before, roped into her projects, protesting all the way.  Daddy was exempt because a Southern Preacher dressed a certain way and that was that.

Mother announced she’d bought some McCall’s patterns for boys’ shirts and girls’ dresses.  She put them together with slippery, man-made fabric in big flowered prints and sent us off to school, me wearing an unusual dress with loads of trim and my brother in a short-sleeved flowered shirt with fancy shaped pockets. We hated those clothes. We didn’t want to be polyester kids in an all-cotton world.

My brother was quick with a solution. His new shirt didn’t remain intact even one full day.  He came home with both pockets dangling and some flimsy (to my ear) story about how it happened.  I was jealous I hadn’t thought of a way to injure my new dress. Playing tag at school soon did it. One sash pulled right out of the back and before going home, I helped the other one rip. I put on a sad face when I revealed the damage.  Mother said,

“You won’t be getting any more pretty dresses like that one, missy.”

And to my brother,

“What were you thinking, playing rough like that in your good shirt?”

Our reprieve came when we learned we were getting us a baby. Gramma K came back down South from California to stay a while.  She was an expert seamstress, with her own peculiar tastes in children’s clothes. The baby arrived and immediately Sister Fern and Gramma K started their competitive back and forth about what the baby would wear. Though  both designed original garments, their output was nothing you’d want to see on an infant. Here’s a scene from The Glory Road:      

       Mother was confined to bed. Church people immediately adopted our baby as their own. The Women’s Missionary Council made baby blankets and quilts with thousands of tiny stitches.  They chose pink and jonquil colored flannel and sewed it into soft gowns and they prepared the baby for her attendance at future church services by trimming the smallest dresses I had ever seen with embroidery and crocheted edgings.    

        These women who looked after their own husbands and families and kept clean houses and cooked three meals a day and worked in the garden too, also produced exquisite handwork and with their investment of time, they rendered the start of a new life profound. 

       Their work was so delicate, it was like Cinderella’s ball gown in the movie. Disney creatures brought Cinderella’s dress to life, all of it removed from reality, with fantasy embellishments drifting into place.  That’s how beautiful our baby’s new wardrobe was.        

      Churchwomen came over and stayed to talk with Gramma K , who appeared at the kitchen table wearing full makeup and flashy jewelry and her California clothes.  Sister Coker was the voice for all the other churchwomen, and she enjoyed a special relationship with Mother.  Nothing Mother did or said seemed to bother her, and vice versa. Sister Coker assured Gramma the Jones baby would want for nothing. 

       In our church, babies were dedicated, but not sprinkled. The water was saved for later. By age 12, which was considered the Age of Reason, there would be full-immersion baptizing in a nearby creek.

      There was talk of the women making a special dress for the dedication. Gramma got her dander up. 

       “I believe I’m capable of making what my grandbaby will wear.”

       Sister Coker, experienced with the opinions of strong women, put on her most reasonable tone.

       “Oh Miz Kalbaugh, we thought with all you have to do…”

       “Yes, I am busy…”

       Gramma was in charge now. 

        “…so I guess we could put our heads together and come up with something…”

       “Oh having your help will be such a blessing!”  Sister Coker beamed as if she had all the time in the world and nothing would give her greater pleasure than to come over to our house and soothe the two high-strung women in residence.

       Daddy would say the prayers of dedication over his infant, and Mother, when she got well enough, would stand in front of the congregation holding our new baby, the way it had been done forever.  Sister Booty said,

       “Maybe we should wait on the dedication until Sister Fern feels better and let her decide about the dress.  Lord knows she’s so artistic, she might already have something in mind.”

      Mother sent word out from the bedroom that she would be happy for the church’s assistance with the dedication dress. She did have a preference. She wanted the dress made of dotted swiss, the softest they could find, on a pastel colored background.  If the yard goods store had only the stiffer kind of dotted swiss, would the women please soak it in Ivory Snow first to soften it?  And could they make a little slip of lawn to wear underneath, and trim it with grosgrain ribbon to match the dotted swiss?  No sooner were her wishes expressed than the women were on their way to turning them into reality.

From her bedroom and with the help of the women in our congregation, Mother began designing clothes for the baby like nothing she’d made before.  They were beautiful and appropriate.  Our baby had a few years ahead of looking good until Sister Fern regained her full strength.

Sister Fern discovers plastic on the The Glory Road

A tad fuzzy but I wanted to get closer on that corsage

The church lady on the right looks exactly the way many ladies looked in our Louisiana congregation in the 1950’s.  On the left, Sister Fern is the gospel singing pastor’s wife wearing a slinky black dress and the big corsage.

From time to time we came off the road from our gospel tours when Daddy pastored a church for a while.  On the road she wore jersey, which clung in the right places and moved even when she stood still.  When she married the preacher, she gave up wearing makeup and raised her low-cut necklines a bit, but she still sought enhancement wherever she could find it.

She found it down at the yard goods store where she discovered polyester and nylon and plastic/vinyl in thin sheets and stiff netting and every other difficult-to-wear, artificial material available.

She made those corsages, huge prickly things they were, in every color.  She cut out the petals using pinking shears, then wired the parts together with florist’s tape and bunches of nylon net.  She formed all the parts into shapes resembling prom corsages – big ones  – some even bigger than the one pictured.  She was tall and her impressive front was built for displaying her creations and she wore some version of this every Sunday. Responding to compliments which may not have been solely directed at her corsage, she was happy to pass along details.

“You can suds them right in the sink, shake them and they’ll dry right off.”

Which doesn’t sound like a great endorsement for items meant to resemble flowers, but people kept saying nice things.  This pleased her so much she made new ones, brighter and bigger, and gifted them to many church ladies. When I stood at the microphone on Sunday to sing with the family, I looked out at a garden of plastic and nylon net occupying the fronts of ladies in their cotton print Sunday best dresses.

Then her attention turned to making school clothes for my brother and me.  Memories of a nylon dress and Leslie Ray’s matching shirt are still fresh and painful.  More about them another time.

Meanwhile, here’s Sister Fern doing what she did best. Click the picture for a song.