The Little Black Dress

MAY 12, 2013

“Is it time to make the dress yet?” Mom asked Lola (meaning “grandmother” in Tagalog).   Mom was excited to help my grandmother put together a dress for her high school dance.  After all, she designed it herself at just 15 years old.

“Not yet, after I finish my house chores,” Lola said.

This little black dress has traveled through time, across the world and eventually made its way into my arms, still intact. I’m reminded of the story of my mother and Lola designing and creating their very own “Little Black Dress” every day when I look in my closet.

It was late afternoon when Mom walked home from school in the humid Manila air.  She was used to this type of typical, hot November day in the Philippines…it always felt like summer in the tropics. Mom was going to attend the school dance, and she needed a dress. And if there was anyone who knew anything about dressmaking, it was Lola.

Mom sat down and drew a sketch of a simple dress, which she envisioned to be black, just as Audrey Hepburn would have worn it. She remembered seeing the thin-figured Audrey wearing the iconic “Little Black Dress” in Life magazine.

My mother, like many women in the 50s and 60s, admired this fashion icon after her appearance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hepburn further popularized the “Little Black Dress” that Coco Chanel introduced as the most versatile and feminine piece a woman could wear. At a time when black attire was associated with mourning, Chanel made it into a thing of beauty, into an appreciation for a new look.

My mom wanted to create a dress that would be comfortable and appropriate for tropical weather. It would be simple, fashionable and sleeveless. After sketching the design for her dress, she showed it to Lola.

Mom asked Lola if she would make the dress, and she was more than happy to. As they were about to leave to go fabric shopping, Lola put on a comfortable day dress and carried a leather, cream-colored bag. It was Chanel-inspired and had a square design with double compartments.

The wholesale fabric store was about 20 miles away from their home in San Juan, Manila. They browsed through taffeta, silk, crochet and different knits. Mom kept an open mind with all of the colors and prints available. As Mom looked around the store, Lola carefully continued browsing.

She spotted a black, jersey-knit fabric and held it up to my mom’s body. The soft, black fabric draped nicely on her figure.

“Oh this is the perfect material,” Lola said. “With the design that you drew, this would be the nicest material.”

Mom knew she would stick with black because it was classic and elegant. Most Filipinos wouldn’t dare wear black for an occasion like this because of cultural superstitions. But my mom was bold and liked all things different. This is why her friends were always curious about what she would wear next.

Day 1: Sewing

“Tatahiin na ba natin ang baro ko?” (Are we going to make the dress now?) Mom asked Lola.

It was about 5:30 p.m. when Mom walked into the house and the smell of fresh rice filled the kitchen. Lola would start dinner early these next few days so she could begin sewing. Mom began setting the table with her siblings, Nene, Boyet, Bobbie and Min. Those were their nicknames.

Lola had already measured Mom from top to bottom. First she began with the shoulders, and then moved down to the bust, waistline, hips, arm hole and knees. Mom was very tiny for her 5-foot-6-inch height. She had a 34-inch bust, 24-inch waistline and 34-inch hips.

Lola then started drawing and cutting out the pattern pieces from newspaper. She would place and cut the pattern pieces in a way that wasn’t wasteful. Mom began pinning the newspaper pieces to the fabric as Lola laid out two-and-a-half yards of black jersey-knit. The pattern always had to be pinned toward the grain of the material so it wouldn’t pull. Lola used the selvage as a guide for making the back of the dress where the zipper would be placed.

Day 2: Sewing

After school, Mom walked into the house during the late afternoon. As she opened the door, she heard the thugging sound coming from the sewing machine. She quickly ran upstairs to find Lola already putting together the dress.

“When is it going to be finished?” Mom asked Lola.

She assured Mom it would be ready in time for the dance. Mom watched Lola sew with her 1954 Singer sewing machine before starting her homework. It was an old-fashioned machine with pedals on the bottom and a wheel to spin on the side. Mom loved this machine because it was easy to operate.

“Anong ginagawa mo?” (What are you making there?) Lolo (grandfather) asked Lola.

“It’s a dress for Lynne,” she said.

My grandmother began by threading the bobbin, the spool, and then ran the thread from top to bottom until it reached the hole in the needle. Lola then started stitching the bodice and worked her way to the shoulder straps and sides. Next, she sewed around the arm hole and neck and attached the bottom piece. Last, Lola hand sewed the temporary stitching for the zipper and had my mother try it on. She always tried on the dress as it was being made so it would be a perfect fit.

Day 3: Night before the dance

It was the night before the dance when Mom returned home from school in time for dinner. She changed out of her red and white uniform, worked on her homework and finished her chores for the evening. Earlier that day, Lola had lots of things to do and wasn’t able to start sewing early. She would be up late that night and Mom was anxiously waiting for her every step of the way to see how the dress would turn out.

 Since Lola had a very creative eye, Mom’s simple dress design began to change as Lola continued sewing.

“Maybe it would be nicer if we added more detail by having a bow on top of the shoulder,” Lola said.

Lola, being as knowledgeable as she was with dress construction, also designed an additional ruffle flap over the bust-area, creating a flowy look. It became more and more unique as she continued stitching the dress, piece by piece.

“You can go to bed now. I’ll finish it and you can try it on in the morning,” Lola said.

When Mom went upstairs and tucked herself into bed, Lola stayed up until midnight finishing the dress. Lola was always happy to make something for her daughter no matter how tired she was.

Day 4: The event

When the time came to get ready for the dance, Mom was very happy with her dress, especially after all the waiting. So she put her hair in rollers, slipped on her dress and stockings and threw on a pair of black kitten heels. She wore a gold-toned Omega watch and a pair of studded earrings. She dabbed her face with powder, light eye shadow and a touch of eye liner.

“Ang ganda ng anak ko!” (My daughter is pretty!) Lola said.

Mom was a striking young girl. She was tall, slender and carried herself gracefully – she was always the center of attention. The dress fit perfectly and even had Lola’s signature zipper. One side was always higher than the other.

Lola looked at her daughter…and she smiled. Her daughter looked beautiful.

“You will look nice at the dance,” Lola said.

Mom thanked her and headed to the event.

When Mom arrived, she met with her friends Violette, Linda, Yoli, Yola and Santos. They all wore nice dresses, except Santos who was a male – at least on the outside.

Mom was the only one in solid black, so her friends were curious.

“Why are you wearing black?” they asked.

“Because I wanted to wear black,” she said.

“It looks pretty anyway!” they said.

“Oh Lynne, I like your dress!” Santos exclaimed. “Can I borrow it?” Santos was also very skinny.

“If you can fit yourself in it,” Mom said jokingly.

Mom was very proud to tell her friends that her mother worked hard on her outfit. Mom made a bold fashion statement, and that wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew her.

As she walked into the three-story building, she entered a large courtyard in the middle of the school. There was live music, food, loud chatter and dancing. Dancing had always been an essential part of Philippine culture because it was how people socialized.

As the school’s band started up the keyboard, drums and guitar, Mom immediately noticed the handsome singer, and he saw her too. They both smiled.

The singer often dedicated songs to my mom, and tonight he dedicated “House of the Rising Sun” to her, one of her favorites. Mom wondered how many guys would ask her to dance that night…she was never a wallflower. Before any song started, there were five hands extended asking her to dance.

Later that night, the singer and my mom shared a dance together to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.”

Though Mom wore her “Little Black Dress” many times after this, she will always remember her first time wearing it and the time she spent with her mother making it.

It was nearly 40 years later when my mom handed this dress down to me, and I was around the same age she was when Lola made it.

Even though I never had the chance to meet Lola, this dress is an heirloom that will always be kept in the family. I have never worn the dress, but have tried it on a countless number of times. One day I will find a place special enough to wear my “Little Black Dress,” but just having it in my closet will remind me of the special women that shaped who I am today.

1 COMMENT

  • Lynne 4 years ago

    I am always proud of my daughter’s literary ability. This article will always have a special place in my heart. Michelle wrote this well. Thank you, baby!