When I was about 15 years old in 1970, my Aunt Sylvia let me ransack her attic and take with me anything I wanted. She was a professional singer and her collection of street and stage outfits consisted of dozens of boxes of items dating from the 1940s through to the 60s. I was set. I had just inherited an image, a style, an attitude based upon this classic era of women’s fashion. Throughout my college years, followed by the years I spent hanging out at CBGBs in the mid to late 70s, I was that skinny kid in the vintage outfits. Amidst a sea of punk rockers in Doc Martins and torn jeans, I was in stilettos and (not) tailored (to me) 40s era suits, sometimes complete with matching hat. My aunt suggested I take her old outfits because she objected to my usual garb. At a thrift shop across the street from my high school in Flushing, I had invented my previous style through several pairs of boy’s 50s era sharkskin suits. Along with Beatle boots I’d discovered on Delancey St, and tab collared shirts, I was full on teddy boy. My aunt, recognizing my passion for the bygone era, thought I should dress less like a boy and more like a woman.
Over the years, my favorite from the Aunt Sylvia collection was a strapless black silk chiffon tight-fitted, ‘wiggle’ dress, complete with whale bone stays. It took quite a few years for me to gain the maturity and courage to wear whatI called my Marilyn Monroe dress. I also needed to master my sewing skills in order to take it in a full 4 inches from top to bottom by hand so it would fit my 94 pound, shapeless frame. With the cut of the dress, plus stays and layers of draped chiffon, even skinnymalink me looked voluptuous. The dress was magical in the way it made me feel and maybe even look – though I cannot vouch for the look part.
I have no pictures of me in this dress, or even of the dress itself. Yet, on the few occasions I wore it out to nightclubs or rock n roll parties, people would snap my picture. Whether this was because I looked fabulous or ridiculous, I will not venture to guess. Clearly, the dress was special.
One day my aunt called to see how I was doing. I mentioned to her how fabulous
that dress was and how it created quite a sensation at the clubs. I referred to it as my Marilyn dress to refresh her memory. Aunt Sylvia then told me that the dress had actually belonged to Gloria Swanson, the silent movie star. Sylvia was given it by my grandmother who was a tailor in Hollywood.
Years before the internet and the glories of google, finding information on the woman who owned the dress before me was not easy. Beyond her silent film career, all I found at the library was her acclaim for her role in Sunset Boulevard. Ms Swanson was also tiny. At under five feet tall, it didn’t make sense that she would fit into that dress, clearly made for a taller and larger woman. Further, the dress was classic late 50s to early 60s when Ms Swanson, born in 1899, would have been a bit old for such a dress. Or maybe not… I will never know how she may have dressed in her 60s. Even with the modern power of google, no photos of her in this dress come up. Aunt Sylvia, still alive and very alert in her 90s, insists it had been Ms. Swanson’s dress.
By the time I graduated college in 1977, not knowing what else to do and having no career goals or prospects, I moved to London and naturally brought much of my vintage wardrobe with me. I do recall wearing the Swanson dress once again in London, and, of course, the exuberant praise that always accompanied it, at a rock n roll party(I vaguely recall the Stray Cats in attendance having just arrived in the UK). I also know that in 1980 when I was vacating my Clapham flat, I left the dress behind, along with my favorite stiletto heels, many 1940s era 2 piece suits, and most of my fancier clothes, stuffed into in a large black trash bag. Since I was about to embark on a round the world back-packing adventure with a final stop in New Zealand, I only packed my casual or more flexible, travel-worthy vintage outfits. In the 80s, fabulous vintage clothing was very available and cheap in thrift shops – even in New Zealand. So my habit of collecting and discarding vintage clothing as I traveled the world continued. Now, however, acquiring a true vintage wardrobe like the one I left behind in London (and New Zealand, and Australia, among other places) has become increasingly difficult and pricy, if not nearly impossible. In my old age, I find I spend more and more time fondly reminiscing on my distant past, recalling how spectacular I felt in that ‘Marilyn’ dress. I also mourn its fate along with all those other treasures I so callously discarded. I can only hope some lucky soul came across that large, bulging trash bag on the sidewalk on Edgely Road and ransacked it for the fabulous riches it held.
Hollywood FL, August 2019
One thought on “Gloria Swanson’s Dress”
Oh Laine… bagging up such a treasure of a dress! Shame on you! Couldn’t you find someone to pass it on to, or the wardrobe department of a theatre company would have loved it.
However, I do understand and respect the desire to travel and the need to discard most of your ‘stuff’. Gloria Swanson wrote her biography a long time back, and I have a copy somewhere. Last year or the year before, I visited an exhibition of Hollywood costumes, stars’ dresses, Esther Williams swim suits, etc, in the City Hall art gallery in Brisbane. It was a private collection…. Fascinating!