Book Excerpt: Shirley Jean & The Dress Shop

Three women in 1950 dresses

This is a passage from the book I am ghostwriting about a grandmother’s look back on her life. The book is a collection of vignettes that give us insight into the forces that shaped her life.

The following excerpt details one of her favorite jobs – working in a dress shop in Cairo, Illinois.

The Dress Shop
The early 50s would bear witness to the changing tide of prosperity in our country.  I saw this first hand during the weekends and holidays that I worked at the Mildred Gates Apparel Store. The large two-story brick building was centrally located on the bustling Commercial Avenue of downtown Cairo. That short stretch of road was lined with shops, taverns, and the beautiful Gem Movie Theater.
The dress shop is now long gone, in its place is a vacant lot. There are no remnants, relics, or indications left to portray the greatness that flowed in and out of its doors. The shop, like many others around it, shuttered in Cairo’s decline due to lost river trade and the self-implosion of racial tensions that began in the 50s and reached full fury by 1970. At the time I was too young to fully understand the political climate in Cairo and like many other teenagers, self-absorbed with my own life.
Working in the dress shop exposed me to the latest trends and the people that could afford to buy them. For years I watched my mother labor over the sewing of our household’s clothes. She pinched pennies to buy patterns and selected whatever fabric was on sale – regardless of how unsightly it was. And then there I was – helping ladies pick out the latest ready to wear fashions of the day. It was a whole different world. We watched in awe as fashion turn from the boxy “work wear” of the 40s to softer more feminine, albeit less comfortable, silhouettes of the 50s. This was the era of the iconic tiny waist and full skirt.
As men returned home from war, women went back to their role as housewives and mothers – desperately trying to fit the mold that was pre-cut for them. There was a nationwide push to “look the part,” and the women that came into the shop indeed desired to fit in.
There was a lot of money to be spent on creating matchy-matchy looks for all the ladies in a household. Mothers and daughters that dressed alike propagated the picturesque brand of the time. From shoes to gloves, to hats, bags, and jewelry, accessories had to be just right. A woman’s appearance became an extension of her husband’s wealth. I was already a natural salesperson by this time in my life, and so I excelled in this role. The women coming in the shop had money to spend, and I was all too happy to help them do it.
You had to be careful to mind your manners and do what Mildred Gates wanted, she worked her employees hard. If you didn’t act right, she would smack you good. Lucky for me, I never had to worry about that. I was a dutiful employee that did as I was told. Overall, Mildred was a kind, hardworking lady and was respected and well-liked all over town.  The customers trusted her to get the conservative “new look” just right for them. Her employees did her bidding and ran around fulfilling orders, doting on the customers, and marveling at the latest fashions as they came down the pike from overseas. As the fashion capital shifted from Paris to New York to Italy, we watched with great anticipation, sometimes snickering at the frantic way the wealthy clamored to be first in line for the exotic new styles.

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