by Beth J. Drechsel
I wandered past the clothing section in Target and my eyes were nearly blinded by the sight of tie-dye patterns on T-shirts. It took me right back to the 1970’s when my sister and I were in high-school. Tie-dye was “in,” but we couldn’t afford new T-shirts. We got most of our clothing second-hand, sent to my poor missionary parents from churches all across the United States. Believe me, there weren’t many trendy items in those parcel post boxes and barrels.
However, we had a mother who used to tell us, “Just because we get our clothes out of missionary barrels doesn’t mean we have to look like Mennonites.” She saw potential in every cast-off item and could “think outside of the box,” so to speak. When she pulled out a pile of once-white boys’ T-shirts with yellow underarm stains, she had a brilliant idea. She bleached and washed them, and then gave them to my sister and me to tie-dye. We twisted and folded, tied the shirts in bunches with rubber bands, and then plunged the bundles into pots of colorful hot dye bubbling on the stovetop. We had plenty of old shirts to experiment with until we got just the look we wanted. It was so much fun! I was tiny, and the shirts were all too big for me so Ma showed me how to scrunch up one side of the hem and pull it through a large plastic buckle to hang over my hip. Very mod!
Ma was clever with a needle and thread, and her old black Singer sewing machine. My sister and I loved to brainstorm with her on fashion and to browse the Simplicity and McCall pattern books together with her at the fabric store in town. We rarely had the money to buy new fabric, but this was not a problem for Ma. I remember when we received a package with nothing in it but two flat sheets—one with a turquoise and white stripe pattern, and the other sheet covered with pink and white flowers. She combined those sheets to make me a striped hippie dress with a flowered collar and cuffs.
Another time someone sent a big bolt of cream-colored fabric scattered with tiny blue figures. The bolt was probably discarded because the figures were of a golfer in full swing! Ma made me a cute maxi-dress with an empire waist and a blue sash. I’ll never forget my boyfriend’s grin when I wore that groovy frock to the high-school banquet the last night of summer camp.
Ma made me bell bottoms by taking straight-legged polyester slacks and inserting a triangle of coordinating fabric to flare out the hems. But what I really wanted was blue jeans and that was the one item she couldn’t whip up on her trusty Singer. Denim was too bulky to fit under the needle of the old machine. I finally saved enough money to buy myself a pair of hip-hugger bell-bottomed jeans. I loved them and wore them until they were threadbare. Always resourceful, Ma showed me how to get more wear out of them by covering the worst of the holes with gingham patches and by embroidering flowers along the shredded hems.
Though I was a missionary kid, my parents let me make decisions about how much skin I could bare. Ma could also take something like a plus-size woman’s dress, cut it up, and use the fabric to present me with a new mini-skirt. When I asked how short I could wear it, my parents’ attitude was, “As short as you are modestly comfortable.” It only took me a time or two to discover that I didn’t feel comfortable with my panties showing. I let down the skirt hem a few inches.
Not everyone in our conservative church circle felt that good Christian girls should be dressing according to fashion trends. My grandma was number one on the list for me. She was an excellent seamstress and whenever she came to visit, she’d make my sister and me new outfits. I remember the time we excitedly showed her patterns for the popular patchwork peasant smocks we had picked out. Unfortunately, Grandma’s Plymouth Brethren modesty was offended. She practically spit at Ma, “I will not sew my granddaughters blouses that make them look like they’re pregnant!”
My sister and I were mortified. That idea had never crossed our minds! We just wanted to look like the other girls at school – and they were all wearing smocks that year. Ma took us aside and assured us that wearing smocks did not mean we were expecting, and told us that after Grandma went home she would sew us the smocks herself.
I graduated from high school four decades ago. The styles I wore back then passed away only to be resurrected again. Mini skirts and maxi dresses, tie-dye shirts and embroidered flared jeans all can be found today at popular clothing stores. Best of all, peasant smocks are “in” again (though they’ve been re-named as “tunics”). And, happily, I’ve discovered that Grandma was only partially right. Smocks can hide a “bun in the oven” but they’re also great at hiding a muffin top at age sixty.
Beth Drechsel is a homemaker and gardener living in Flora Vista, New Mexico. She is happily married to her husband, Paul, and they have two adult sons. She finds joy in her simple life and in her relationships.