A gown a day keeps the doctor away

I wasn’t allowed a dressing gown as a child and I wonder if it’s why I’m so nuts about them now.

It was my mother’s birthday yesterday – or it would have been if she was alive. She would have been 85.

It was a beautiful day, too, which made me a trifle melancholy. Although my mother and I didn’t get on and had only reached an uneasy rapprochement before she died, I was gutted when she developed pancreatic cancer because she was enjoying her life to the full. A member of everything from the Mother’s Union to the Salvation Army choir, her days were taken up with meetings, outings and art classes and she enjoyed her life as much as if not more than the next person. She would have enjoyed yesterday.

In trying to remember something good about her, I recalled suddenly her dressmaking skills. They weren’t fantastic – neither are mine – but she could run up a skirt or a dress pretty well. It must be from her than I inherit a love of sewing – from all those hours I spent by her old black Singer hand-treadle machine, pulling through the fabric and acting as a third hand. 

We were pretty broke and so when my clothes weren’t from jumble sales, they were mostly made by her. I remember in particular a little brown flowered sleeveless dress, and an occasion when, since I had nothing new to wear to the school party, she secretly sewed me a beautiful turquoise dress with a sweetheart neckline and presented it to me the evening before. 

My memory is playing tricks, of course. It was I who made the turquoise dress, in stiff Crimpelene that refused to behave, and which left me so disenchanted with sewing that I never picked up a needle again for 10 years. But she did make me a frock for that party which, sadly, I can’t remember, except my happiness at having it.

One other thing I do remember her making me, however, and this with absolute accuracy, was a dressing gown. This was a big issue because we weren’t allowed dressing gowns in our house. My miner father thought them the height of slovenliness (probably influenced by the kitchen-sink drama Woman in a Dressing Gown, or more likely by my Irish grandmother who kept her laundry in the bath and sent her kids to wash at the public baths down the road). Once awake in our glacial house where the winter water froze in your bedside glass, you got ‘properly’ dressed in ‘proper’ clothes straight away, before Jack Frost nipped your bits off. Slippers were allowed, to save our outdoor shoes, but dressing gowns were something we saw only on television.

But when I was nine or 10, all that changed. I went on a school trip and the list of things to bring specified ‘dressing gown’. What a shock. My dad was furious, but my mum took it as a gleeful opportunity to cock a snook at him and make me what can only be described as a housecoat. It was in floor-length navy quilted nylon, like a thin sleeping bag, with a floral trim at neck and hem, a Nehru collar and a long zip down the front. It was enveloping and as warm as toast and because it was insistently called a ‘housecoat’, I even succeeded in wearing it a few times at home without my father going ballistic. 

I hadn’t thought of it till now, but I wonder if this is the reason I luxuriate in dressing gowns now. Even my guests are treated to slipper socks and big fluffy bathrobes with hoods when they stay here, but since I left home, I have had one glamorous gown after another. When went to university, almost the first thing I bought myself was a man’s smoking robe from the 1930s, in black and copper leaf print with a big black collar. I felt like Noel Coward in it and wore it until it literally fell apart.

When I left my previous partner, a Kenzo bathrobe in deep red velour and towelling was one of the things I treated myself to in celebration.

Some years later, following the dictum that if you’re not rich, you’d better be handy, I made my first dressing gown, based on a kimono pattern. It was red paisley Viyella lined with the same fabric in green. Two layers thick, it was fantastically warm and did me for 10 years before I made another, this time cranking the glamour level up a notch with gold-embossed, hammered, multicolour floral rayon velvet, lined with gold satin and interlined with wool challis – my version of a Georgina Von Etzdorf.

Sadly, it is now this gown’s turn to fall apart, so I plan to reline it with towelling and call it a bathrobe (the old Kenzo bit the dust some years ago, as it was completely bald), and for the time being I’m wearing an old coat as a dressing gown. To tell the truth, it’s probably much more suited for this than it ever was as a coat – it’s a huge Jaegar wrap thing in bright saffron wool, trimmed with a black velvet shawl collar and deep cuffs, and lined with black satin (guess who used to earn a high salary?). It always gave me the feeling of venturing out in my housecoat and, at ankle length, was far too long to wear comfortably in the street, but as a dressing gown, it’s very Joan Crawford and surprisingly warm, though it might need interlining with polar fleece for winter.

But meanwhile my little sewist’s mind is working away with ideas, designing the perfect dressing gown in my head. Something 1930s-ish, with a small waist and a big bias skirt, a wrap front with buttons, bishop sleeves and knitted cuffs that don’t let the draught in. Deep pockets and a belt, and a wide shawl collar that I can flip and button shut. I have plans for the copper and purple flocked rayon velvet that’s hanging around in the sewing room. Or the deep green silk velvet from Liberty, as thick and plush as a pelt. Or the midnight blue rayon velvet sprinkled with glitter stars. Or the sinfully soft yellow, red and tartan pure cashmere, 72 inches wide, that I bought in a bolt from a shop closure and still can’t think what to do with. 

What did Chanel say about luxury? That it’s a necessity that begins where necessity ends? Mmn. Whatever I finally decide on, I have a feeling that this winter is going to see me very snuggly, thank you… 🙂

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