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My Spring Shirt

March 6, 2016
by the gentle author

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

A Child’s Christmas in Devon

On Sunday Morning

1. A Discovery At Christmas

2. Christmas On The Moor

3. The Life Of Peter Stanley Brown

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenn permalink
    March 6, 2016

    It is such a similar pattern! The blue ones look like cornflowers in a way. I wonder what colour the flowers in your mom’s dress is?!

  2. Robert Green permalink
    March 6, 2016

    What a lovely and very touching story, having now seen a photo of your mother GA I can confirm that no one who knows you could possibly be in any doubt as to where you come from, even though the picture dipicts your mother at a tender age its clear to see from her face that your an absolute IMAGE of her.

  3. March 6, 2016

    Love the shirt, it’s perfect for the season. And I love it’s connection to the past. Lovely writing as usual.

  4. Chris F permalink
    March 6, 2016

    Lovely memories… My own Mother is 85 & still active and takes every opportunity to tell me that people are always astounded to know how old she is… I tell her that they would be even more astounded if she told them that she is 95! We had a lovely day yesterday looking at art & craft stalls in the precinct of our cathedral and then lunch at a vegetarian café. It rained for a short while and we shared an umbrella and I told her how much I loved her. I took her home and we drank tea and talked about the old days and how much the city has changed and about my late step-father and the fact that she is the only surviving member of her family of six brothers & sisters and a myriad of other facts that have been related hundreds of times over but are always repeated as if they were new revelations. Another cup of tea and a hug, and as I drove away it started to rain again and I could see her sheltering in her doorway waving and I reflected on the fact that she had refused to put me in a children’s home when my father abandoned her after I was born and how she held down three jobs in order to pay for child care and how she saved my life when I nearly severed my arm on a broken window at age eight and how she cared for my mentally handicapped step-brother for nearly fifty years and dealt with my step-father’s Alzheimer’s and I resolved to spend more time with her because our time here is fleeting and soon it will be left to me to relate those stories, but to who, when there’s only me left?

  5. March 6, 2016

    Lovely post. I still treasure an ancient tablecloth, now very worn and darned, but made from wonderful Liberty print cotton. Valerie

  6. Peter Holland permalink
    March 6, 2016

    Having followed Spitalfields Life almost from the beginning, but living so far away, I have a special fondness (and respect) for the Gentle Author and treasure those posts in which the door opens a little. The shirt is delightful, and all the more so for its threadbare collar.
    Below is a link to a photograph of ‘London Court’ a landmark on the main street of my home town, Perth, Western Australia, that matches, almost perfectly, the archway next to Liberty of London, and reflects our colonial heritage.

  7. Valerie Fairbrass permalink
    March 6, 2016

    I do hope you managed to take in the wonderfully evocative Liberty in Fashion exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, which closed last week. Small but perfectly formed.

  8. Claire Gourlay permalink
    March 6, 2016

    I absolutely love this!!! One of my favourite posts ever. Set me up for Mother’s Day and reminiscing with my family. Thank you x

  9. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 6, 2016

    The “Arts & Crafts” movement lives on …..

  10. Jenny Sparidge permalink
    March 6, 2016

    Such a lovely story; a gentle soul’s affectionate and tender memories. Robert, you’re absolutely right! As soon as my eyes fell on Valerie’s portrait, my immediate thought was the Gentle Author is, without a shadow of a doubt, his mother’s son.

  11. March 6, 2016

    Super style author at his best, this is my period and his. Mum knows best the motto then and still is. There was more stability in that pre tele and computer age radio is so good I remember the morning episodes of ‘Just William’ nice. The other contributors here were so good. I liked reading their contribution; thanks good buddies. John

  12. Sheree Charalampous permalink
    March 6, 2016

    So touching and lovely.
    You have struck a chord with me as liberty holds a special place in my heart.
    Ask my husband what I say about it” if Liberty’s closes down, I’m emigrating”.
    It has always been my favourite store but alas it has lost some of its charm from when I was growing up.
    It is a British institution ,a treasure and must remain.
    What a lovely photo of your Mum, maybe liberty have a photo collection that they may like to add it to.
    I’m sure you look charming in your Liberty print shirt!

  13. Ann permalink
    March 6, 2016

    I really liked your story today. I love that you have a spring shirt and that it is so colourful. I am currently on holiday in Sicily and yesterday while visiting an ancient monument I was struck by the amazing show of spring flowers. There was a carpet of marigolds with several yellow and purple flowers fighting their way through.
    How I wish that Spring colour wasn’t restricted to spring. As soon as summer begins to wane the shops are full of dour blacks, browns and greys, just when we need plenty of colour to see us through those dull Autumn and winter days.

  14. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 6, 2016

    As I write this there are piles of snow outside my window in Toronto and salt stains on the roads. People are still bundled in layers of warm clothing as they briskly take their be-coated dogs for a short walk.

    How wonderful then to see this shirt and cling to the notion that Spring is around the corner for those of us in Canada.

    Coupled with your blog yesterday about the crocus and snowdrop plants, this shirt is a zinging reminder of new life.
    thank you!

  15. March 6, 2016

    Great shirt and What a great response from Chris S. How we are shaped by our relationship with our mothers.

  16. Ellida D permalink
    March 6, 2016

    A lovely story, as usual, which has stirred many a memory. When I married, back in the early 1970’s, my bridesmaids had dresses in a similar Liberty print (only with a green background) which my mother made. Also, I remember we all had to save any scraps or offcuts of small print cotton material which my mother then turned into the clothes for the dolls and toys she made for various charity sales. When in production, there would be piles of miniature dresses, matching knickers, petticoats, vests and socks waiting the assembly of the dolls from the trays of legs, arms, heads and bodies; all hand stitched by mother. I recall watching her turn collars on my grandfathers’ and father’s shirts too – a possibility to prolong the life of your gorgeous spring edition?

  17. Tim permalink
    March 6, 2016

    A nice piece of ribbon that is one of the colours of the shirt sewn around the collar with handstitch will keep that shirt going for a while.
    If you do this, check the cuffs as they may also need a ribbon as well.
    VV Rouleaux have a good selection on Marylebone Lane.

  18. Jude permalink
    March 6, 2016

    My mother had the exact same hairstyle:). Despite the snow, a beautiful sunny day so i guess you’ll be wearing the shirt. Nice to read your childhood memories.

  19. Katya permalink
    March 6, 2016

    If you don’t think it would be too much of a sacrilege to tamper with the collar by removing it altogether, you can still buy the print at Liberty. Here is a link for you to compare. No doubt the colors in your shirt have faded, but adding a bright, cheery collar might make an interesting contrast. Replacing it might even be something the lovely Liberty people might do for you.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  20. Linda Kincaid permalink
    March 6, 2016

    A beautiful post as always. Thankyou. I also particularly liked Chris F’s comment.

  21. Carol Dance permalink
    March 6, 2016

    Your writing was perfectly lovely; it brought a tear to my jaded eye.

  22. Terry Smyth permalink
    March 7, 2016

    I so much enjoy your expert lightness of touch, in this instance revealing how memory and the unconscious work together, gently surprising us as the past seeps unbidden into our everyday present.

  23. Delia Folkard permalink
    March 7, 2016

    I love your stylish shirt and hope you can find someone who can turn the collar and cuffs to give you many more years wear.

  24. March 7, 2016

    I so enjoyed this post, for many reasons. But the suggestion from one of the readers about adding ribbon really tickled me. Practical, playful, and fashion-forward, methinks.
    Rest assured the completed/updated shirt would spur a lot of attention and inquiries — and prompt even MORE great stories. You’ve really got to consider it.
    Thanks for another memorable and thought-provoking post.
    From a reader in the Hudson River Valley in New York.

  25. March 8, 2016

    I love this story. My grandmother used to buy Liberty prints and make me dresses.

  26. Jean Lall permalink
    March 9, 2016

    Oh! where to begin? In 1953 when I was 11 years old we (my American family and I) moved to Calgary, Alberta. Liberty fabrics were available in the shops there and we became hooked! My mother made beautiful dresses and blouses for my sister and me. Daddy occasionally went to London on business and brought back more Liberty lawn in those ineffably beautiful floral prints. We left Canada but I never could get those fabrics out of my mind. Fifty years later I was living in Canterbury and at a Saturday market I came upon a woman who was selling handmade dresses for little girls which she had designed and stitched from vintage Liberty lawn prints! By now I had hopes of becoming a grandmother, and I bought several of the dresses in various sizes. Sure enough, two granddaughters materialized and wore the dresses, and one went to a grand-niece who wore it as a flower girl in a wedding. Later I had a chance to visit Liberty itself; it was a true pilgrimage. Bless you for this wonderful post about the fabric of our lives, the priceless threads that link the generations.

  27. March 19, 2016

    I just love reading this story.

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