The Last Dress

Hanging in a cedar-lined wardrobe the red grosgrain fabric stands out between my stepmother’s dark Sears Mouton fur jacket and the butterscotch-colored canvas hunting coat – with requisite lined pouches to carry quarry along the bottom – that belonged to my father.

I call it a dress but it’s actually a matching two-piece top and skirt.  It has a few wrinkles I’ve never pressed out from being carefully wrapped in tissue paper for forty-eight years.  The only thing that gives its age away is the faded letters and folds of the labels inside the collar.

Toni Lynn, Lot (undecipherable), Size 12

Last Dress Toni Lynn Label

I have often wondered about the design and the designer.  I finally researched her and found that she designed ‘fashionable’ maternity clothing from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s. She was chosen to design the maternity wardrobe for Elizabeth Montgomery as the character Samantha in the TV show ‘Bewitched’.

The San Bernardino County Sun Sunday Oct 3,1965

The San Bernardino County Sun
Sunday Oct 3,1965

I was given the outfit by an Aunt on an impromptu visit six years ago.

It was after one of my jaunts through the foothills of North Carolina in search of more twigs to add to my 25-year old family tree research.  The day had been more tiring than usual.  I was haltingly adjusting to crutches which supported me to keep the weight off my first ever broken bone.  I’d called my aunt before going to her home in Yadkinville needing to talk to a live person after my visits with the dead.

I maneuvered my way up the few steps to her porch where she greeted me with her characteristic smile and soft voice.  We sat down in the front room to catch up on family health and happenings. Eventually we started through the tall weeds of the past to wander along neglected, and to me, unfamiliar paths of memories.  She shared some of the pain she’d experienced in her life as well as the joys.  She paused as if we’d come to a woodland clearing where she saw herself as a girl playing with her childhood friend.

When my father brought home his child-bride – she was only fourteen when they married – my aunt and she became best friends.  They were only a few months apart in age and would sneak off together to wander the fields and woods.  That friendship would last through my Aunt’s marriage at nineteen, raising families, and working together at Hanes Hosiery in Winston-Salem for a few years.

Hanes Factory 1960 from

One of her regrets shared was not going to see my mother at the hospital.  She was a few days from her due date in her second pregnancy and her husband wouldn’t take her.  The trip between Yadkinville and Winston-Salem in 1962 was longer than it is today.  So she stayed home.

The next day my mother died.

My aunt still had tears in her eyes when she stood up and headed into another room.  Over her shoulder she said, “I have some things I’ve always meant to give you”.  She return a few minutes later with a bundle of pictures, a blue and white blanket, and a white gift box.  I’d seen the pictures before (I’m not sure how many sets float around the family) but she wanted me to have a set.

I silently flipped through the pictures.  My mother in a baby blue and white negligee and robe that matched the lining of her coffin (blue being my father’s favorite color not hers of lavender).  Her hands crossed with the mark of an IV tube still visible on her hand.  Her father stoic and jaw clenched beside her casket.  My father posed with one hand resting on the white tufted blanket draped across the side of the casket.  The views of all the flowers around her and one of the flowers at the graveside – a large white floral and ribbon heart standing in the center.  I rarely look at those photos.  They are part of a tradition that was expected in those days but no longer so popular.

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The blanket was a soft baby blanket that became the backdrop to a shadowbox frame I had made which contains the outfit I left the hospital in, an embroidered handkerchief baby dress, and stretch lace gloves from my preteen years. But the white gift box opened up a new view of my mother.

Shadowbox Frame

Shadowbox Frame

Carefully folded and wrapped in tissue paper was the garments my aunt told me my mother was going to wear home from the hospital cradling her newborn baby.  The color, fabric, and design were nothing like anything I’d seen my mother wearing in the few pictures I’d seen of her.  The top has 3/4″ sleeves and buttons the size of half-dollar pieces covered in the same grosgrain fabric with a small snap at the rounded, collarless neck.

The skirt design fascinated me since it had no elastic, no buttons, no zipper and certainly none of the expandable fabric used in maternity clothes today.  Instead, the top of the skirt was scooped out in the front to allow the growing womb to rest and expand unimpeded.  It fastens by one ribbon extending from the bottom of the u-shaped scoop through which ribbons on either side at the top thread through a loop allowing tying as tight or loosely across the waist as the lady’s pregnancy required.

Last Dress f

I can imagine my mother shopping the department stores that once lined 4th street in Winston-Salem, NC for a chic maternity dress for that special day.  A twenty-one year old pregnant girl on a quest, perhaps on her lunch breaks, to find something out of the ordinary to wear home holding her new baby.

Mother and Daughter Store Downtown Winston Salem Opening March 1940

I like to think she found it at ‘Mother and Daughter’.

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