Browsing through my local dollar store last week I came upon an aisle filled with Hallowe’en costumes. Yes, already. The paper and tinsel costumes didn’t interest me that much, but a pair of bright-eyed children did. They cruised up and down the shelves, studying each costume, checking with mom if it was acceptable, then going back to ponder the merits of a pirate versus a princess, a witch versus a vampire. The costumes were entrancing, but flimsy. If bought five weeks in advance, I wonder if they’ll last through to Hallowe’en.
The incident reminded me of the old dress up box in my childhood home. It lived at the back of my closet on a broad shelf created by the ceiling of the staircase. Perfect place, don’t you think? Dark, set apart, magical. The truth was the trunk held a few of my mother’s old clothes but for my brothers and I it was treasure chest, yielding endless hours of entertainment and long involved tales of derring do and fair maidens.
In an age of slim fit pants, my mom’s old bell-bottoms seemed hilariously ridiculous, but paired with an oversize shirt knotted at the waist and a paper hat, they made a great sailor, change the hat for an eye-patch and a bandana and you had a pirate.
Carefully wrapped in tissue paper was a beautiful, lady’s blouse. Made of amber silk with tight cuffs, puffed sleeves, pin-tucks on the bodice, fitted to the waist and flared over the hips it was truly a work of art. It was also fragile with age. I learned later that my great aunt had made her living as a seamstress. The blouse was one of her creations. Sadly, it turned to dust before I learned to appreciate it.
The biggest prize in the box was a cape—navy twill on the outside, scarlet satin on the inside. It served as Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Zorro’s cape, a bull-fighter’s capote, and a nurse’s outdoor wear, just to name a few.
On rainy days, when we were too much underfoot, my mother would banish us from the kitchen to the dress-up box. We could come back when we had a costume and a story to go with it. Maybe that was the start of my story-telling career.
When my brothers and I outgrew dressing up, the box was tucked away in its special place, only to be rediscovered by my nieces. Once again, the dress-up box played a starring role in a child’s imagination. Little girls in swirls of gauzy scarves clunked down the stairs in too-big high-heeled shoes to regale their grandparents with long, involved and impossible tales.
I have the box, now. It was originally a wooden box for paper. My great grandfather was a newspaper man and needed a lot of paper. The large quantities he order, about 200 quires, came in these wooden, leather covered boxes. As far as I know, this is the only one that has survived in my family, and it is in poor repair. Anyone know how to reattach the leather covering without ruining it?
I no longer play dress-up, but I like to spin stories. Maybe that’s a technique I could explore. Before sitting down at the computer I could don a long skirt with petticoats, a tight-sleeved blouse and an over-size hat. Then I’d be in the proper frame of mind—and body—to tell tales of women on the frontier.
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