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Elizabeth Landers | The Clothes Make the Woman

The old is new

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 4, 2013 08:02

In one of his many quotable moments, Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man.” But they also make the woman. As fashions wax and wane and the economy soars and plummets, clean and functional design becomes a core necessity, a respite to the insanity. And as I age, my taste in cut and clothing has followed suit, leading me to the treasure trove of pieces from my family’s personal clothing collection. Collection is used accurately here, as some pieces salvaged from my great−grandmother’s closet in Flossmoor, Ill. share shelf space with bright polka−dot skirt suits from my mother’s working−girl days in the ’80s. The most fascinating pieces, however, came from my grandmother.

Though I never met my grandmother, her wardrobe and truly exquisite taste in fine jewels have opened up windows, glimpses into her tragically short life. As the daughter of a prominent banker in a sleepy suburb outside of Chicago in the 1940s, she was somewhat of a modern day debutante, with a taste for flying in planes, theater, and travel. Though many women — myself included — laud Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior for creating more empowering and comfortable garments for women, there is truly something to be said for the ladylike looks, trim waists and formality of everyday dress from half a century ago. Half of the fascination with shows like “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” comes from the ornate costumes that reflect the period.

Rifling through the dimly lit basement closet in my house in Florida over break, I was once again struck by the specialness of this incredibly well−preserved time machine. Jumbled up in the mix there was — rather hilariously for a Floridian family — so much animal fur that one could have filled a taxidermy museum. The political correctness and awareness of the animal fur industry was no such factor back in our grandmothers’ days. Not only does fur ooze luxury, but in the chilly Midwestern state of Illinois it also served functional purposes too. While we now have high−performance techno fabrics from garment engineers at Uniqlo, our grandparents resorted to the slightly more archaic form of draping themselves in as many animal skins as possible to stay warm.

A few of the pieces, like a double−weight silk tuxedo blazer and wool trousers, have been lugged to my very trusty tailor back home in Tallahassee, Fla. His eyes always light up when I enter his tiny workshop. “The quality of this fabric is incredible. They just don’t make it like this anymore,” he laments as he inspects the jacket. Our generation thrives off of fast fashion and we have a penchant for ever−changing trends instead of quality. The fact that my vintage clothes are still intact, wearable and durable is a testament to the changing nature of global retail; I would not bet money that a Forever 21 jacket will be wearable and timeless in 50 years.

The most incredible thing about many of the blouses, coats, and skirts I’ve salvaged is their complete relevance to my everyday wardrobe. I am known to say, “Oh it was my grandmother’s” when asked where I picked up a particular piece of my outfit. The J. Crew pencil skirt is a carbon copy of a bright blue version that I wear from Albert Nipon. I have more than a few peplum dresses and blouses that have been showered with compliments in the past year since the flouncy waist trend made a strong comeback on the runways. As my mother says, everything old will become new again. The emotional response I have to these clothes is deeply personal, a forged bond between my grandmother and me that may never have otherwise existed. Her clothes have made me the woman I am today.



Elizabeth Landers is a senior majoring in political science. She can be reached at

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