My Grandmother’s Closet

By Emily Ask

As a student, the best clothes are free. If they happen to come from your grandmother, well, you’ve probably got to get creative.

That’s what happened last weekend as my grandmother, Mary Ask, went through various boxes and closets of clothes, picking out all the things she hadn’t worn in years to give away. My mind went immediately to work sorting through all the outfits and choosing which pieces I could pair with clothes I already owned. Most of it was very dated, but was it possible to wear any of it today? Fashion has a way of rendering certain pieces obsolete ­– regardless of the quality.

Durability is something many clothes lack today and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my grandmother’s clothes were built to last. Yes, there were ruffled sleeves, puffed shoulders and some questionable colour combinations; ­ but there were no holes or rips to be found. Every button and sewn detail was still securely in place. There was not even a possibility for the shirts to be stretched out because the materials were not made to stretch. Neither were they boxy and stiff. Durability and comfort were the defining characteristics of my grandmother’s clothes. They were meant to be worn 30 years after their creation; the only thing going against them is the ever-changing and ever-subjective world of trends.

Out of three bags of clothes, I chose only a few items to keep for myself, one of which was a blue tartan suit. The skirt was calf-length and the jacket was loose fitting with shoulder pads — a very ’80s look. But turns out the outfit had not always looked that way. The suit first belonged to my great grandmother in the ’60s.

“After she died, I re-cut the whole thing and made it to fit myself,” my grandma told me. “Hers was a different style and everything. I didn’t want to throw it out.”

I figured that if two generations of my family wore this suit, I was obligated to do something with it now that it was mine. I don’t know what I’ll do with the jacket quite yet, but the skirt is cute at knee length. Not to mention the material is thick and warm, so paired with tights it’s a nice way to avoid pants on mild winter days.

While “new” clothes are always a treat, listening to my grandma’s stories about the various dances, dinners and vacations where she wore these clothes was equally exciting.

“This was my night on the town in London,” she said of a sparkly pink sweater.

Her eyes lit up as she looked at it, remembering the dinner theatre she and her friend attended nearly 30 years ago in England.

When I brought out a cream-coloured blouse with snaps between the legs like a body suit, she laughed.

“People got tired of fighting with their blouses. It was just to anchor it and make you look real smart and neat, you know? But when you tried to rush into the bathroom it was something else, quite hilarious.”

“It’s a good thing they quit making those,” she added.

I laughed to myself, remembering the last time I saw an American Apparel window display. The body suit blouse definitely made a comeback and there weren’t even snaps for easy undressing. I never bought one.

The key characteristics of a student are a) learning and b) learning how to get free stuff. My visit with my grandma covered both these categories. It was an exercise in student thriftiness and an excursion into the history and fashion of another generation.

Here are a few other pieces I tried matching with clothes I already had. Hit or miss? Visit for colour photos and share your opinion!

The 50’s Shirt

“I don’t even know how old that is, but it’s old!” my grandma said when I asked her about this shirt. “I’d probably say the ’50s or something.”

It’s still in great shape and extremely lightweight and comfortable. My grandma wore them with capris or “pedal pushers,” as she called them. I added a layered necklace and wore it with a high waisted American Apparel skirt and created a fun and relaxed summer outfit.

The 60’s Raincoat

Nevermind Calgary’s snow, I’m ready for Vancouver’s rain in this adorable ’60s raincoat. This actually belonged to my aunt in high school, but she didn’t want it anymore so she left it with my grandma. I love the Peter Pan collar and the vibrant blue colour.

“Everybody had one of those,” grandma said. “And of course, this is reversible, so it was very popular. It probably looks better as blue.”

The inside of the coat is a muted beige — it doesn’t quite have the same effect, so I’ll probably just wear it one way.

The 60’s blouse

Normally I stay away from muted dark green clothes–but I can’t help but love the necktie and puffed shoulders. There’s no way to un-date this, you have to wear it for what it is. Pair it with a high waisted skirt, nylons and heels, you’ve got an outfit straight out of Mad Men. But would I dare wear this in public and not as a costume? To a company Christmas dinner? I might need to learn how to tie a proper bow first.

The 70’s blouse

There’s no way to update an outfit like messing with the sleeves. The ruffled cuffs on this blouse reminded me of the pirate shirt Seinfeld episode, but it was still really comfortable and I liked the neckline. Rolling the sleeves up above the elbows gives the blouse a decidedly different look. Match it with a high-waisted skirt and you’ve got a cute, formal outfit with character.


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