Fancy Dress Finds Plain Girl

Marian_Orchestra Letter E_Rev7x8_170

It’s spring concert time and I’m making my fingers fly fast over the strings of my violin pizzicato style, trying to keep up with the syncopated rhythms of The Typewriter Song.


Noah Klauss, the director of our Elizabethtown High School Orchestra, is a fan of Leroy Anderson pieces. Last year we played The Syncopated Clock, the sound of a swinging pendulum tick-tocking in our heads as we played the melody.

I am learning the music all right, but in the back of my mind I worry, “What am I going to wear to the concert?” The outfits I have are mostly home-made. A collar or buttons is the most exciting accessory on my blouses or dresses – no lace or plunging necklines for this Mennonite girl, the only plain girl in the orchestra. Obviously, unlike my friends, I don’t have a fancy gown hanging in my closet.

To the rescue: Aunt Ruthie, who out of the blue, gives me a call. Down over the hill I go to our second home, where she and Grandma Longenecker live. As I walk toward the dining room table, Ruthie pulls out part of a bolt of shimmery fabric flocked with swirling designs. I blink at the elegance. Woah!

Flocked fabric similar to actual material
Flocked fabric similar to actual material

She’s already cut out the pattern and I’m to help her stitch the pieces together. Call me Cinderella! I’m going to the ball with a tea-length gown, a fluffy confection beyond my wildest dreams. Even the pin-pricks at my fitting can’t puncture the feelings of fantasy enveloping me now. Thank God, I won’t stick out like a plain Jane after all.

Take away the buttons and lengthen the skirt, and you have my Spring Concert dress.
Snip off the buttons and lengthen the skirt – Voila! my Spring Concert dress.

Do my class-mates in the orchestra comment about my transformation? I don’t remember what anyone else said, if anything. But I do remember the crinkly sound of my gathered skirt as I sit down, violin in lap. And the brand new, starchy-sweet scent of my luscious frock as I pull the bow over the strings.

I'm the plain girl between two fluffy skirts on the left.
I’m the girl with glasses between two fluffy skirts on the left.

Is there an outfit that recalls special memories for you?


Tell your story here!




Wedding on the Cheap

The year 1967 was historic: It was the year of the world’s first heart transplant. There were race riots in Detroit. Polaroid cameras were all the rage as was Twiggy. The average annual income was $ 7300.00 while a house cost about twice that much. Gas was a mere 33 cents a gallon.

It was also the year of our wedding. On the cheap. In August, not June. After moving from Lancaster, PA to Charlotte, NC, my teaching salary increased by only one hundred dollars to about $ 3500.00 stretched to pay for most of the wedding expenses. I was on a pay-as-you-go, no-credit-card system! Today’s Bridezillas would freak out at my teeny tiny budget for a church wedding. Ever the list-maker (call me OCD), I began my planning with a double-columned list: item + amount spent. The cake, flowers, napkins, photographer, and honoraria are missing here. Probably on another list! I was not very good at justifying my bank balance. I remember standing in front of a teller at Wachovia Bank unable to choke back tears at my overdrawn account just weeks before the wedding.

. WeddingNBcover              List-Expenses

January through May was consumed by pattern-buying, fabric-cutting and sewing a gown heavily influenced by Jackie Kennedy’s style. How is it that the fabric for the bridesmaids and the bride, including a train with appliques cost only $ 83.05 then?

BelkReceipt  WeddingPattern

My hair was still in a bun but without the prayer veiling. One day in June, about six weeks before the wedding, I got the courage to dramatically change my hair-do. Off I went to a beauty salon, recommended by my roommates, to experiment with a bob. The stylist began, oddly, by braiding my hair into one long braid, almost waist length. And then she CUT IT OFF! I will never forget the sensation of hair still attached to my head swinging free. Was it in shock? Dancing? I’ll never know, but I do know the agony of trying to get my hands and fingers to contort themselves in odd ways to comb, brush, tease my shorter locks into the new style.


                       Heaven only knows why I still have this hank of hair!

Half the guest list were Mennonite friends and family from Pennsylvania, and they came to North Caroline in droves. Frugal Daddy gladly footed the hefty bill for the full course rehearsal dinner. Families from Charlotte Christian School put up my immediate family. Grandma and Aunt Ruthie were thrilled to stay in the home of Billy Graham’s mother, who had also hosted a bridal shower for me. Except for the bridal party, the wedding itself was a curious blend of plain and fancy: plain-coated, bow-tied Daddy with fancy bride.

 Wedding Day_Marian+Father_8x10_150

You may ask, “Why didn’t the groom help more with the wedding expenses?” A teacher/preacher at the time, he spent the summer as a rigger at the Jacksonville Shipyards carrying heavy chains on his shoulders up and down ladders trying to pay for the honeymoon and all that followed. No metaphor intended here!

The summer months are traditionally wedding months, particularly June. Do you have a wedding memory to share? Your own? Someone else’s?

Like this post? Follow my blog and get many more free of charge! Just type in your email address at the top of the page and click “subscribe!” WordPress keeps your email address private.

Secrets of the Ra-Ra Sewinghood

Thread 1

All Mennonite girls of the 1950s and 60s made their own clothes. Hager’s, Watt & Shand, or Garvin’s in Lancaster city was not the place to shop for dresses with capes or any other plain clothing. So, we made our own frocks on Mother’s foot-powered treadle machine.

                          180px-Singer_sewing_machin copy

Creating a ward-robe entailed buying a pattern by Simplicity, McCall, or Butterick that we could adapt, finding fabric by the yard at one of the department stores or a specialty shop like Mohr’s Fabrics. Usually, my sisters and I were allowed to buy any material we wanted within reason. We knew solid bright red was out and probably purple, now two of my favorites. One shopping spree as a young teen, I found a pretty, multi-colored repeat pattern on a black background and pulled the bolt out of the stack for Mom to admire:

“Look at this!” I chirped.

Mom looked at the material with squinty eyes, and gasped, “Don’t you see there are guns!”

Now it was my turn to look squinty-eyed. “Guns!” I had to look harder. Yes, you could imagine that those tiny figures on black fabric were shaped like guns. On principle, guns were forbidden in the Mennonite church.  Our household had a little cap gun which we outfitted with rolls of red ribbon with black dots of ammunition for the 4th of July, but otherwise guns were used only for hunting deer, pheasants, and other game by men. Using guns to kill people, even during warfare, was strictly forbidden.

Christian Doctrine_cover_150_med Christian Doctrine_Nonresistance page_4x7_150

The fabric with the offensive repeat pattern? You guessed it—I did not buy it, which according to my mother, shrieked GUNS!

We always attended public school, and now that I think of it, our family observed a double standard: skirts and blouses for school but always caped dresses for church. When I joined the teaching staff  at Lancaster Mennonite School, caped dresses of course were de rigeur. And when my life took a different path, I gave away such dresses to a Mennonite consignment shop with strict instructions about my identity to the lady in charge so that no student would embarrass herself by showing up to class in a dress worn by the former Sister Longenecker. Here is a pattern with a pleated skirt and cute neckline I adapted into a “plain” dress:


Thread 2

My light blue Singer sewing machine is portable, so I can use it at home on weekends or put it into the Studebaker to use at my campus home when I’m not making lesson plans or grading papers.


Months earlier I have met my neighbor’s best friend, Cliff, who is now my boy-friend. Now that he has completed his Bachelor’s degree and working on his Divinity degree, he is allowed to live off campus with 3 other students with whom he shares rent, utilities, and fuel bills. He works in the dining common to pay tuition. Since December we have been writing letters back and forth. Of course, there were no cell-phones in the 1960s and long distance calls were way too expensive, so we made do with letters–lots of them.

Cliff: “It’s reee..aa..ll..y cold here.” A rare snow has fallen in the Carolinas and the nasty cold air wheezes beneath the open crawl space in the rental house. “We ran out of oil until the 25th when we get paid, so the guys and I are sleeping in overcoats and tons of blankets until we can get more oil.  The only way we can get drinking water is to thaw snow in a kettle on the stove. Every thing is frozen up.”

Marian, the nurturer, clicks into gear: “Really! That’s awful. Isn’t there something you could do—space heaters?

Cliff: “No, that would take too much electricity!”

I formulate a plan to make him a robe for Valentine’s Day, so I buy heavy marine blue terry cloth and set to work, adding the appropriate initials in sturdy, white thread. Vintage robe below!

RobePattern Cliff'sRobe

My blue Singer sewing machine moves with me the next school year from Lancaster, PA to Charlotte, NC where I make the transition from very plain to less plain. During the year I get engaged to the formerly frozen student who has quickly thawed out, and we make plans for an August wedding. My machine goes into high gear in full fancy mode stitching the thick white peau de soie (French for “skin of silk”) gown with an empire waist and a train attached to a belted bow. First Lady Jackie Kennedy has an enormous influence on style evident in this pattern.


Settling into the hectic life of big city Jacksonville, I keep a connection with my roots with my trusty Singer. I am bold enough to use the fancier Vogue patterns, experimenting with multiple fabric colors in the same outfit.


Next I buy a host of patterns for a little girl and boy to wear—and of course a teddy bear!

TeddyBear Pattern

What vintage clothing in your wardrobe have you hung onto? For sentimental reasons? Some other reason? Let us know: Click on Reply/Comment.

Like this post? Follow my blog and gets many more free of charge? Just type in your email address at the top of the page and click “subscribe”! WordPress keeps your email address private.