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Meeting at the Beach Through Memories: My Grandmother, Fashion, and Me

Meeting at the Beach Through Memories: My Grandmother, Fashion, and Me

For years my grandmother remained a family enigma. I never asked my father about her, she was whispered about on sleepless nights as I shared a pillow with an older sister. Stacks of paper dolls, fashion magazines I was too young for, but read anyway, a minefield of my insomnia, and childhood notions. Secrets in my sister’s room, the smell of her hair oil on the pillow, the glint of Letterman’s glasses on screen, “Dad’s mom died when he was ten years old, Momma is Papa’s second wife.” A 1950s tragedy, my grandfather (Papa) remarried for love and his family. I couldn’t grasp the conditions of the mid-century medical field, the dangers of cancer as I fumbled with an out-of-reach center-back button on my Hannah Anderson dress.

A 2011 graduate school project required an examination of my family’s sartorial history. I chose her, Maria Anna Orabone Martinelli (1912–1955), and she emerged in a decadent fur-trimmed coat, her hair waved for church. A large file of scanned photographs arrived in my inbox one afternoon, put together by a younger cousin, carefully preserved by my uncle, a historian. These were the first images I had ever seen of my grandmother. Though none of her clothes survive, through these photos and oral histories captured from my father and my late aunt, I traced her early life, her sense of style, and her special love of the beach. Her given name was Maria Anna Orabona, but sometime during the 1910s, her parents modified their last name to “Orabone.” This change was a likely response to the American attitude towards Italian immigrants at the turn of the century. “Maria” was also the name of one of her older sisters, but both women went by their middle names, Anna and Katie.

Providence, Rhode Island is tiny and full of sparkling coincidences connecting one person to another, like the chains of the costume jewelry it was once known for producing. As I began my study of my grandmother, I realized these connections for the first time through the all-telling medium of her clothing. It was not long into my research when I discovered the high school Anna attended was just next door to my own. For her senior portrait in 1929, Anna’s hair is in perfect, shiny marcel waves and a crisp peter-pan collar with a tiny brooch peeks from her graduation robe or blouse. As the stock market crashed that year, Anna’s appearance is conservative and delicate, perhaps made even more so by her academic robes and careful, controlled waves. Her other older sister, Fiolomena “Fanny,” might have styled her hair for the occasion.  I imagine Anna’s relationship to her older sister of just two years as similar to my own with my three sisters. They are nestled neatly like chicks, one after the other, but I arrived well over a decade later to sample their Chanel face creams in the fifth grade, to beg for French braids and a year’s subscription to Vogue.

Anna earlier, one late spring day in her father’s well-groomed Providence garden with two friends and Fanny. Their father, Fiorontino Orabone, was a prolific gardener, filling the backyard with blooms and grapes for wine. In fashionable, pale dresses with chic cloches topping their short hairstyles, the girls are dressed for a beautiful afternoon in Fiorontino’s garden. When examining this photograph, Anna’s daughter, my late Aunt Barbara, was careful to spell the word, Cloche for me as I interviewed her. Although the camera washes out Anna, second from left, I can discern some small, beautiful details of her appearance. I see a little curl of her dark hair peeking from beneath her hat; she has a collar with a pale little bow at her throat. She is wearing a light, long cardigan, and her skirt hits just above her knees. The always-fashionable Fanny, on the far right, has darker heels, a pleated skirt, and a little caplet at her shoulders.                 

A sophisticated teenage Anna gazes from her seat again in her father’s garden in 1928, a year before she’d complete high school. Here, she sits alone, her short, stylish bob parted severely to one side, and a necklace adorns her long-sleeved blouse or sweater. Her top is edged with little fabric flowers at each shoulder offsetting the real blooms just behind her. Anna was especially fond of flowers, and fabric flower ornaments on clothing rose in popularity into the 1930s. My father remembers visiting his grandfather’s vast garden, encompassing a full backyard space with his mother, who reveled in its blossoms and vegetation. Anna’s necklace, a second striking detail of her portrait, invokes the trend for geometric jewelry and adornment sparked by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Anna also wears a knee-length skirt with new, sheerer stockings and light-colored Louis heels with rounded, capped toes. Anna’s simple, sporty look is evocative of the clean styles introduced by Coco Chanel in the early twenties that included a crewneck sweater with a knee-length, pleated skirt. Her expression is familiar; perhaps her father or her sister is behind the camera lens.

The same year, that very summer of 1928, finds Anna again at sixteen, calf-deep in the ocean with two friends. According to my aunt, Anna frequented Oakland Beach in Warwick, Rhode Island during her girlhood. Anna appears to be mid-laugh; she is very chic with her side-parted, smooth hairstyle and knit swimsuit trimmed with stripes above the thighs. Her friend on the right is equally sporty with her belted swimsuit. Anna is the focal point in her streamlined dark suit; I can’t help but believe that she is the ringleader, creating laughs like ripples and waves. I never knew how much she loved trips to the beach with friends until I saw these photos. It was like finding a piece of beach glass, a smooth rounded shape to fit so perfectly into my own life.

Anna in her beach pajamas, 1931. Revere Beach is just outside of Boston and this and the following photo are marked with the location. In another photo likely taken on the same day, the fashion-conscious Anna is wearing the pajamas while her two friends remain in their swimsuits, perhaps it was part of her seaside style that year, or maybe she was just cold. I am especially fond of the details here, her insouciant expression, the little beret or swim cap, the piping on her blouse, the way she’s tucked it into her high-waisted trousers, the patch pocket in a coordinating print. On a recent visit to a vintage market, I found a silk pair, and without trying them on, I purchased them. I am not sure if they were for the seashore (Anna’s look heavier than silk, possibly a cotton), or for sleep. Either way, I intend to save them for special occasions, a summer wedding or dinner party worn with heels. To justify my purchase later, I invoked Anna and her beach pajamas, my inspiration.

Another photo is also labeled “Revere Beach, 1931” and may have been from the same visit. The seaside destination was accessible from Providence either by train or car. It was established in 1896 and is proclaimed “America’s first public beach.” Revere Beach featured other forms of entertainment like rollercoasters and dance halls. The two women appear to be in a parking lot or on a street. If you peer into the reflection on the automobile’s window, midway-style signage is visible. Anna and her friend, Ann are both wearing mysterious miniature hats on the sides of their heads, which does not seem like a 1930s fashion but may have been worn for a festival or a parade. Though she is invested in her look on the sand, Anna might be more committed to the easiness of a trip to the shoreline than her companion. Instead of the high pointy white heels Ann wears, Anna is wearing more conservative round toe shoes. While her friend wears a ruffled blouse and trim skirt, Anna is relaxed after her day at the beach in a simple shift, accented by a narrow belt with a nautical V-neck collar. My aunt and father both recall that although Anna loved an excuse to get dressed up, as she aged and became a mother, she invested in formal evening wear but kept her daytime dresses casual and simple, wearing cotton shift dresses to wrangle four young children in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Finally, Anna at her most formal, in her wedding gown when she married my Papa, Ezekiel Martinelli in 1934 at age twenty-two. From the decorum of her surroundings, I can discern that Anna had her portrait taken in a studio. The marcel waves return again from her high school portrait––she trusted a hairstyle, kept her hair short, and returned to what worked. Perched atop her head, a Juliet cap veil with its sweeping cathedral lengths swirled around her, a dramatic bouquet of flowers in her hands. Her dress engages the simplicity and elegance of the 1930s; according to my aunt, it was rich silk satin. She remembers her mother allowing her and her little sister, Gerry to play dress up in the gown. The two little girls in their whimsy ruined the garment, but as I think of my own wedding dress, lonely in the closet of my childhood bedroom in Providence, a new life as a dress-up prop seems a welcome fate for this ephemeral piece of clothing.

There are still so many secrets surrounding my grandmother, Anna. I wish I could talk to her, ask her about the print on her cotton beach pajamas, the necklace she wore in the garden, or the miniature hats she and a friend donned after the beach. I’d like to ask her or whoever marked the photos, carefully in black ink or red pencil, more details. For me, the beach trips with my friends and my family amalgamate into a single trip, sunglasses, magazine print melted into my knees, sand. I am so fortunate for these little glimpses, the tiny details that they have triggered in my family’s memories. My father and my aunt both remember Lily of the Valley perfume, a scent I romanticized until I smelled it and determined it to powdery for myself. Anna’s clothing and shopping habits eked out into their childhoods: Auntie Barbara remembered snuggling in Anna’s many furs with her sister Gerry, especially the sealskin one, my father remembers trips to downtown Providence, alone with his mother to visit boutiques and department stores, the special lunches they’d share away from his three other siblings since they were the only two who loved Chinese food. My father, a boyhood fan of the Howdy Doody program persuaded her to take him on one of these excursions to meet a character from the show. He recalled how she’d cook him dinner and let him sit, in his Howdy Doody costume and eat while watching the TV program. As a mother, Anna seemed to understand the comfort and novelty of clothing extending to her young children’s experiences.

The parallels of our lives are striking– Anna had two sisters and was the youngest. I have three and am also the baby. Like me, she stole her older sisters’ fashion magazines and consulted them for inspiration. Anna’s high school was around the corner from mine, thus we walked the same streets as teenage girls. As a student in the Providence school system, Anna won the Anthony Medal Award for writing composition in 1925. Almost eighty years later, I won the very same award.  Anna spent her afternoons in her father’s garden in Providence; decades later, I sprawled myself on an old sheet on the perfect green lawn of our own Providence backyard, maintained by her son. I accompanied my older sisters and mother on trips to the thrift store, Filene’s Basement, or a local boutique, as Anna proudly brought her own children on special shopping excursions to examine the offerings of local Providence department stores, like Sheppard’s, Gladdings, and the Outlet. I dutifully trek to South County Rhode Island beaches, and even in New York, I can be found on weekends with my husband on the shores of Brighton Beach or the Rockaways, dressed in my favorite swimsuit, just as Anna made the voyage to Oakland Beach in Warwick, RI or then even further trip to Revere Beach in MassachusettsNow I know she loved the things that I adore, her sisters and fashion magazines, beautiful clothes, an afternoon by the shore, a smart hairstyle and always, her family. I am so grateful for this kinship, extended to me over more than sixty years, a reassurance that I am doing the right thing, studying fashion, writing, and caring for old, beautiful clothes in a museum collection.

$$$ickening: A Black Trans Woman's Reflections on Femme Identity, Class, and Privilege

$$$ickening: A Black Trans Woman's Reflections on Femme Identity, Class, and Privilege