My Spring Shirt
I pulled this shirt out of my cupboard this week in advance of the arrival of spring. If you look closely, you will see the collar is wearing through but this does not diminish my affection for this favoured garment that I have worn for years now, bringing it out just for these few months at the end of winter. Although most of the clothes I own are of undecorated design, there is a gentle lyrical quality about this pattern that appeals to me.
When I wear this shirt with a dark jacket, the colours really sing and I feel am doing my bit in participating in the seasonal change. This contrast of formal clothing with a sprigged shirt can express dignified restraint while at the same time revealing an attachment to flowers, plants, gardens and nature – a contrast that I recognise in my own personality.
I love the conceit of having violets on my shirt when those in my garden are in flower and I enjoy the subtle tones of all the flowers portrayed, remaining as recognisable species while artfully stylised to make a pattern. The evocation of the natural world in this simple design touches a chord for me and, as with so many things that trigger an emotional response, I discovered that my passion for these floral patterns from Liberty goes back a long way.
When I came across the familiar photograph of my mother Valerie as a child, which you can see below, I did a double-take when I recognised the pattern on the dress. It was a Liberty print, very similar to my spring shirt which I hold in such affection. In that moment, I recalled that my grandmother Katherine bought fabric at Liberty in London and had it made up into dresses for my mother in the nineteen-thirties. This was a gesture which made such an unforgettable impression on my mother that for her whole life she carried her delight in these cotton dresses, which were so magical to her as a little girl in Somerset. Floral prints fed her innocent imagination, nurtured by ‘Songs of the Flower Fairies’ and performing as one of Titania’s attendants in a school play.
A generation later, I grew up with the received emotion of this memory – a story my mother told me when I was a child. I thought I had forgotten, but I realised it was through an unconscious recollection of the photograph of my mother in the Liberty dress that I was attracted to this flowery shirt, without understanding the origin of my desire at the time.
The story was confirmed when my Uncle Richard moved out of the old house where he and my mother grew up and, in my grandmother’s dressing table, I found a small leather pocket diary from the thirties recording her London trip with the entry, “Stayed at Claridges. Ordered carpet and sideboard at Harvey Nichols and bought materials at Liberty.” My grandmother was the daughter of a diminished aristocratic family who married my grandfather Leslie, a bank manager, and adopted an autocratic manner to ameliorate her loss of status. Consequently, my mother, with admirable resourcefulness, ran away from home at nineteen to escape my bossy grandmother and married my father Peter, who was a professional footballer – an act of social rebellion that my grandmother never forgave.
Nevertheless, the taste I acquired for these old-fashioned designs reflects the fondness my mother carried for that special moment in her childhood which she never forgot, when my grandmother showed maternal kindness to her little daughter in the gift of flowery cotton dresses. An act which came to represent everything about my grandmother that my mother could embrace with unqualified affection, and she encouraged me to remember the best of people too, a prerogative I claim in this instance as the sole living representative of these characters.
Today, I wear my shirt as the sympathetic illustration of a narrative which extends over three generations, culminating in my own existence upon this earth, and as I button my spring shirt, before walking out to celebrate sunshine and a new beginning, I am reminded that I alone carry these emotional stories now, clothing me in the humble affections of my forebears.
The Gentle Author’s mother ‘Valerie’ in the nineteen-thirties
Liberty of London
You may like to read these other stories of The Gentle Author’s family