Posts Tagged ‘pandemic activities at home’

During the day, Mom worked as a teller, and at night and on the weekends she attended classes in tailoring. When I started elementary school, people started noticing the clothes she made for me. Soon she was earning pin money and satisfying her creativity by sewing dresses and pantsuits for the working women in town and making alterations on band uniforms, prom dresses, and store-bought clothes … To her, sewing traditionally, the way she had learned it in tailoring school, was an art.

From the food memoir Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America (Seal Press, 2006), by Linda Furiya.

In this quote Ms. Furiya is speaking of her mother, who was born and grew up in Tokyo where she worked as a young woman in a bank and learned how to sew on the side.

In need of some reading escapism, I was shopping my bookshelf and came upon this book. I actually started Bento Box years ago when it first came out and enjoyed it but, I put it down and didn’t go back to it until now. That is strange as this time around I could have read it in one sitting.

In her memoir, Ms. Furiya shares with us the challenges of growing up in a small Indiana town in the 1970s. Her hardworking immigrant parents spoke English awkwardly, the Furiyas (she has two older brothers) were the only Asian family in town, and she felt somewhat lost – disconnected from her Japanese culture but also less than a part of the American culture into which she was born.

Traditional Japanese cuisine played an important role in the family and Ms. Furiya uses food as a entrée into her stories. A food writer and former food columnist for the SF Chronicle, she offers details of her father’s Japanese produce garden, long road trips to secure essential ingredients sold only in large cities, and her mother’s impressive cooking skills. Sprinkled into larger tales, are descriptions of family meals that included steamed buns, rice balls, and other mouthwatering delights. (There are recipes at the end of each chapter.)

My favorite stories are of the family travels to visit other extended family in Brooklyn, NYC, New Jersey, and Japan. In the early 1970s Ms. Furiya travels alone with her mother to Japan. Meeting her mother’s family for the first time and settling into this new yet familiar culture, she finally is able to connect to her heritage but not without some inner conflict. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Tokyo and the family from the unique perspective of a ten-year-old girl.

Of course I also love that she includes fashion and textile references throughout. Food, travel, fashion. What an excellent pandemic escape book.

On another note – today is International Women’s Day, a day when we honor all that women have achieved. How to celebrate? Add a touch of purple to your outfit. Purple is the official color of IWD and one of the three suffragists colors, it symbolizes loyalty. Another way to celebrate the day is to buy and read a book written by a woman. I recommend Bento Box.

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We are studying the 19th century in Fashion History class so now is a good time to discuss the ball gown I had made some years ago.

I had been attending the Gaskell Ball, which was a formal Victorian dance held several times a year at the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland. Quite the time travel event, the Gaskell Ball (named for the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell) gathered a couple hundred people all dressed in formal attire mostly 18th and 19th centuries, a few 20th.  Men in tails or kilts and women in satin or velvet gowns with swishing hoop skirts, elegantly yet swiftly spun in pairs around the large auditorium keeping up with the pace of the band called Brassworks. There were waltzes, polkas, and my favorite Congress of Vienna .

When not dancing, people strolled the room as if part of a royal court. They nodded to one another, perhaps fluttered a fan or tipped a top hat. It was all rather dreamy.

(Most of the women made their own gowns. Probably members of the various costume guilds in the area. There was always a flurry of last minute hand sewing going on in the Ladies Room before the start of the evening, not to mention a lot of heightened emotion.)


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For my first Gaskell I wore a 1930s style cream color lace gown, which was lovely, BUT I soon decided I wanted my own 19th century ball gown. That began an adventure into patterns and fabric, seamstresses and fittings.


Women’s printed cotton dress with demi-gigot sleeves. c. 1830-1835.

I started at Lacis – a fabulous Berkeley store featuring all things antique and vintage from lace and lace making tools to patterns, books, notions, jewelry and a collection of clothing much of which is now part of their museum. At Lacis, with the help of my mother, I settled on an 1830s gown pattern by Past Patterns (technically not Victorian, but close enough). It has the distinct 1830s demi-gigot sleeves, slightly high waist, and full skirt. This time period in fashion was all about the sleeve and there was a lot of variation in puff, from extreme to “demi.”

The next step was to find a seamstress and Lacis recommended Deborah Starks, who actually specialized in Art Deco wedding gowns, but she was willing to take on this project, luckily for me because she did an excellent job and I know it was challenging.

On to the fabric. My mother guided me toward something dressy and suitable for evening. I went with a peach brocade. I liked that the fabric didn’t need any embellishment. After seeing lost ribbons and bows scattered on the Gaskells dance floor and women in tears over ripped ruffles or collapsed hoops, I knew I wanted no fuss. The brocade gave the look without the hassle.

To fill out the skirt, I thought a crinoline would work and I went to a bridal shop. I remember the saleslady had a really hard time understanding:  “No, I don’t want a wedding gown,” I explained. “Just the crinoline for an 19th century … never-mind. Just show me the crinolines, please.” This was the very beginning of themed events, when not so many of us were doing it and the idea of dressing in period costume was puzzling to most people.

Then the shoes. There was no way I could be period accurate with the shoes. Soft satin slippers were not a good idea on that fast moving dance floor. I needed protection and frankly, at least some height. Again my mother assisted in shoe shopping at Nordstrom, where I found a cream leather and lace shoe by Amalfi with a two inch Louis heel.

I chose for the evening bag, or reticule as they were called back then, a little pouch bag that had belonged to my grandmother and was embroidered with silver thread.

IMG_20200425_173143What to do with my hair? Well, that was tricky as the styles of the day were complex and not flattering (see image left). I kept it simple and pushed back my hair with a green ribbon, letting a few curls fall around my face.

It was a cold December night when I debuted the gown. My dancing friends and I took photos and proudly participated in the opening march where we all sang Rule Britannia. Full of energy and excitement the ball sped by as quickly as a Victorian waltz and left my head spinning, too.

In addition to the Gaskell Ball, I have worn my gown to a masquerade dance, a Victorian-themed Christmas party, and once to the Victorian literature class I took in the MFA program at Mills College.

The Gaskell Ball, sadly, is no more and there are few opportunities to sport this  gown. Over the years I have considered selling it, but then I think not. Even though Victorian dances are long gone, there is still the dress and with it many fond memories of times past.

Recently, during this pandemic, I put the gown on and wore it around the house for a few hours. What fun to revisit the soft rustle of the crinoline, the texture of the fabric, and the overall feeling of elegance wearing something so lovely.



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