James Carbaugh: Ladies’ “Better” Dresses
Southern Legitimacy Statement: As a child I remember two bumper stickers that screamed out the following: “If your heart isn’t in Dixie, then get your ass out:” and, “I don’t give a damn how they do it in Ohio.” After internalizing these epithets, I think that for the first time, it became evident to me that I was born and was living in a distinctive part of the USA, an area where language was colorful and effusive, people were strange by birth or choice, and every experience was a story with fantastic details.I felt calm and comfortable with these characteristics and adopted them as part of my persona. Being “southern” began to mean something inherently beautiful to me, an identifier I adopted proudly and still manifest in my words, thoughts, and actions.
Ladies’ “Better” Dresses
Due to her limited financial resources, MamaLu always considered the purchase of an item, be it food, clothing, furniture, or whatever, a matter of winning or losing. Winning meant that she had found something she needed at a substantially reduced or lower-than-expected price and therefore had money left over. Losing meant that she just did not have enough money to buy what she wanted, so she had to settle for a second choice, buy something of lesser quality, or, in the worst case scenario, purchase nothing at all. Generally, she was successful because she could think of creative ways to substitute items or to change them to reflect what she really wanted. This ability always led her to remain positive about shopping.
The situation facing her on this particular day was a rare one, because it did not involve purchases for her sons, my four brothers and me. Instead, she was venturing out to buy a new dress for herself to wear during the Christmas holidays. She took my twin Curt and me with her to the downtown department stores to help shop and to carry potential packages. Our first stop was at one of the best stores in town.
“It’s Meyers-Arnold’s, your Merry Christmas store – it’s Meyers-Arnold’s, where you can buy much more. You can buy much more when you shop at Meyers-Arnold’s. It’s Meyers-Arnold’s, your Merry Christmas Store.” So went the jingle that was accompanied by a bouncy and memorable tune. It was both heard on the radio several times a day and seen on television equally as often from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It was not unusual to hear people singing or humming the jingle of the season, touting the department store of the season. MamaLu, Curt, and I cheerfully sang it as we arrived in the downtown area on the bus.
Meyers-Arnold’s and Ivey’s were the two upscale department stores in Greenville, both having an imposing presence on Main Street. The more moderately-priced stores, also on Main Street, were Belk-Simpson’s and J. C. Penney’s. Both were large but not as sophisticated. And lastly, for many of us, there were F. W. Woolworth’s and Kress,’ the five-and-dime stores where MamaLu bought our elastic waistband jeans.
But Meyers-Arnold’s was definitely the premier department store for clothes, especially ladies’ apparel, shoes, and gloves; home furnishings; and just about anything else of consequence. Its windows facing Main Street always looked elegant, especially during Christmas. There was a perfect scene of a well-appointed parlor with a towering and twinkling tree surrounded by lots of colorfully-wrapped presents, a fireplace that magically worked, a decorated mantel with stockings, a coffee table with hot chocolate and cookies, and beautiful chairs with Christmas pillows. There were garlands of pine and spruce framing the snow-sprayed windows. And, there were Christmas carols piped outside of the large building so that the entire community of shoppers could hear their favorite songs and carols. Mine was “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Such a Christmas would be rare in Greenville, but not removed from the realm of possibilities; in fact, upon entering Meyers-Arnold, patrons felt that anything was possible.
Meyers-Arnold’s had more than one floor so most people used the elevator. Specific elevator etiquette was expected. Men and boys would always defer to the women and girls. We would wait for them to get on the elevator, then we would enter. The same procedure would be expected upon exiting. The elevator operator always wore white gloves and a colorful uniform and pressed the button for each particular floor, also announcing it upon arrival. It was considered in the poorest of taste if a patron did not recognize the operator by thanking him by name for mashing (pressing) the button. It was also expected that a patron would carry on general pleasantries with the operator and provide an appropriate tip, not too little, but also not so grand as to say – “I am a wealthy person.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the elevator operator’s job was that he announced the items available on each floor – home furnishings, lamps, glassware, china on the first floor; sale items in the basement, etc. The most puzzling announcement for me came with the calm, melodious bell tone for the second floor. It was the place for ladies’ “better” dresses and lingerie. I never was quite sure what was meant by the phrase, “better dresses;” but, I had noticed on previous trips that MamaLu rarely exited the elevator there, and when she did, it was only for a short while. She usually went to the third floor where it was announced “ladies’ ready-to-wear.” Today, she had devised a strategy for winning; she was to get off on the “better dresses” floor, to study the most beautiful dresses, and then to go up a floor to find less expensive facsimiles. She had decided on a red dress in order to have a festive flair. She found one immediately but it was very expensive. When asked by the clerk if she wanted to try it on, MamaLu was very honest as she explained her situation –
“Oh no, this dress is way out of my price range.”
“Oh precious, you need to go up to the third floor,” the clerk, who was working on commission, lamented. MamaLu responded with a promise that she would do so after she had looked at a few other dresses.
“But dear, these are our better dresses, some of them are designer dresses,” the clerk emphasized.
“Thank you for letting me know that,” as if MamaLu didn’t already know. She continued to browse as Curt and I continued to point out anything that was red. After a while, she said: “Let’s move on up to the third floor,” – and she thanked the attentive clerk whose patience was wearing thin and whose coffers were not being filled.
There was a readily observable difference between the two floors; the third floor had more clothes in general and some were crammed into racks. MamaLu pointed to some of the defects in the dresses – zippers not meeting precisely, thinner material, less interesting designs, buttons not covered, and sizes that didn’t seem to be standardized. Her assessment was remarkable because her eyesight was limited by an affliction whereby when looking at something, she could only see parts of it; but, she never allowed this partial vision to stop her from whatever she wanted to do. The prices on this floor were less but not as much as MamaLu had hoped; and, some of the dresses were just plain ugly. We felt that they were not worthy of our mother.
MamaLu liked to win, especially when shopping. She was disappointed, but not ready to wave the sign of surrender quite yet. She said,
“It’s off to J.C. Penney’s.” She had decided to forego Ivey’s because it would basically mirror the experience at Meyers Arnold’s. So down the street we went, stopping at Woolworth’s candy counter for some chocolate-covered raisins. Woolworth’s was very colorful and had a ceramic counter full of beautiful vases, figurines, and all types of things to sit around on tables, mantels, etc. MamaLu’s mother, Mammee, had numerous pieces from the Woolworth collection given to her by my four brothers and me and her six other grandchildren. My favorite was the small bust of a lady who was wearing earrings and a hat that was open at the top, so that the figurine was really a vase. Curt, Paul, and I always picked wild violets and bachelor buttons to put in the lady’s hat during spring.
JC Penney’s was abuzz with frantic Christmas buying. There were “sale” signs, red ribbons, and tinsel everywhere. Penney’s did not distinguish between their dresses. It was assumed, I guess, that all the dresses were “good.” This time MamaLu gave us more explicit directions, saying that we needed to look for both “red” and “size 3.” We took the challenge and produced quite an array of fashions. One was constructed of the same fabric as a Christmas tablecloth we had at home. Another one weighed more the green army blankets on our beds. MamaLu said that it was so heavy that she would be exhausted after wearing it for more than thirty minutes. Another one had bright red poinsettias on it. MamaLu liked it also but reminded us to look at the big sacks of flour at the Dixie Home Grocery Store on Saturday because we would see the very same material there; imagine, a flour sack dress. Curt then found an interesting dress, but MamaLu, without explaining why, said no decent woman of any upbringing would wear it. Another dress looked like it was designed for the Miss America contest because it had lots of sparkles on it. I could just imagine MamaLu wearing it and performing the turnip scene from “Gone with the Wind.” She also declined it. Finally, she found a really pretty dress that was very simple and she tried it on. It looked great but was ruled out because the hem was unraveling. We continued looking, but to no avail. Then, MamaLu tried another of her winning strategies and moved us down to the children’s department, because sometimes she could wear a large in a child’s size. There was entirely too much fussiness about the dresses there; but, MamaLu explored the possibility of redesigning a dress by removing some of the bows, lace, extra buttons, and other attached items. She had been successful before, but, unfortunately, did not find a worthy candidate today. It was now time for a different plan of attack – plan C, a move to the Dollar Store, and forego Belk’s; it would be a repeat of J.C. Penney’s. We could look at all of the decorations in the windows as we walked down the street.
The name “Dollar Store” was a misnomer because most of the items cost much more than a dollar. There was no beautiful music to greet us, no overly-decorated windows facing the street, no beautiful marble-like floors, no . . . and the “no list” goes on. Instead, there were large yellow sheets of paper with black dollar signs in the windows; and, there were racks and bins of clothes, with shoppers flailing rapidly through them. Shoppers moving to the next floor sounded like cattle as they climbed the wooden staircases. Women’s clothes, however, whether “good, better, or best,” were all on the first floor.
We began our quest. The color red was abundant. MamaLu immediately found a dress that would have fit the three of us combined. Always creative, she almost bought it to convert into a tablecloth and napkins. But then she found a beautiful selection of “red sateen with a brocade-like texture,” whatever that was. Like the exquisite dress at Meyers-Arnold’s, it was simple and had small sleeves and some covered buttons on the front. The stitching seemed to be intact and overall, it was a beautiful dress. She asked Curt and me to inspect in case she had missed any flaws; we found none. I could tell that MamaLu really liked it – and the price was less expensive that anything we had seen in the two previous stores. She took off her coat and went into a stall behind some really shabby black curtains to try it on. She emerged looking radiant. It was beautiful and she looked beautiful in it – a perfect fit. A lady who was wrestling through a nearby bin, gasped and said:
“Dear, that’s beautiful. I lived in China for several years and that is very similar to a Chinese wedding dress, which is always red – and it fits you perfectly.” MamaLu thanked her for the information and the compliment, and then went back behind the curtains to change. Re-emerging, she led us to the cashier and paid for the successful search. Then we caught the bus for our ride home. The bus driver knew us well and was very kind. As he approached our street, he took a shortcut and dropped us off at our front door. We were surely lucky on this day ─ some money to spare and a front door delivery.
The next morning, however, MamaLu announced that we had to return to the Dollar Store. Was there something wrong with the dress? Had it become unraveled? Was the zipper broken? No, she had left her coat there. It wasn’t particularly cold so in the midst of her excitement, she had just forgotten about it. For Curt and me, it was just another adventure. This time we stopped first at Woolworth’s and MamaLu bought some items to accessorize her new dress ─ bright, “fire-engine” red finger nail polish and a sparkly necklace that looked expensive, but really wasn’t. Then we went to the Dollar Store. MamaLu asked for the manager and was told, rather curtly, that he was around somewhere – “just keep looking for him.” He was found in the cloth department, unrolling a bolt of green velvet. MamaLu carefully explained the situation regarding her coat. He took us to “lost and found” and we looked through a box of various items – there was no coat of any description. We decided to search for it within the racks of coats. Within minutes, Curt announced, “here it is.” It was on a long rack of coats with a price tag on it. We knew it belonged to MamaLu because she had redesigned it to reflect her own sense of fashion. She had sewn some brown velvet around the collar and on the sleeves to get it “a little more flair.” She took it to the manager and explained the situation. The manager very unapologetically said:
“Look lady, this ain’t no charity. I ain’t giving you this coat,” followed by, “Why ain’t your name in it?” and “If you want it, you got to pay for it.”
“Well, I left my grocery list in it – would you check and see?” she said calmly.
He obliged and laughingly said, “You’re wasting my time – they ain’t nothing in here.”
Of course Curt and I vouched for the authenticity of ownership, only to be assaulted with:
“Oh, so you’re learning to be liars and thieves too.”
MamaLu was flabbergasted with what she considered to be the ultimate insult. No one was going to talk to, nor about her children in such a manner. She took the coat, proceeded to the cash register, and “re-bought” it. The bargain on the dress was now somewhat diminished by the mandatory re-purchase of her own coat, thankfully at a highly discounted amount compared to the original price. Somehow, MamaLu managed to be calm and smiled through the entire ordeal.
We took the bus as far as the Woodlawn Pharmacy where we sat down at the soda fountain and Curt and I had Cherry Cokes and peanut butter crackers. MamaLu had her favorites, a Dr. Pepper and a Hershey candy bar. Then we walked the rest of the way home.
Later in the week, MamaLu wore her new outfit to her garden club meeting. Her consternation about the coat had subsided and all of us were able to laugh about the Dollar Store misadventure. The dress appeared as if it could have easily come from the ladies’ “best” collection of the finest store anywhere and she looked very beautiful. As far as winning or losing, MamaLu’s assessment was that she had procured a beautiful dress and had recovered her coat, so the entire experience was neither a win nor a loss, but certainly a draw. To Curt and me, it was both a success and a life lesson about shopping, being creative, being positive, and making the best of all situations.