Another Worn Story

May 8th, 2015

My mother, Clelia Heebner, worked at Brown from 1959 until 1989, first in the housing office and then for the dean of students (“Worn Stories,” January/February). She may be remembered by some Brown alumni as a secretary, but few probably knew that she had graduated in the late 1930s from Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. According to its website, Traphagen was opened in the 1920s to teach such technical aspects of design as patternmaking and draping. It closed in the 1990s. Among its alumni were Geoffrey Beene and the African American designer Franklin Rowe.

In 1968, when I was about to make my confirmation and graduate from eighth grade, my mother designed and made a dress for these occasions. It was completely white, and, about four inches up from the bottom of the sleeves and across the chest, she made a row of tiny pleats outlined in lace. At thirteen, I was questioning whether my mother’s choice was “cool” enough. Although I didn’t say anything, I remember feeling embarrassed to be wearing a homemade dress in front of the kids at the tony East Side church.

My mother must have been really proud of this dress. After she passed away in 2013, more than forty years after making the dress, I found it in a cedar chest in the basement of her house. Upon finding the dress, I smiled through tears. It is so typical of the 1960s. It is an A-line shift, with an eighteen-inch zipper up the back, with flare sleeves. It is also quintessentially my mother’s design. No mini-skirts for her daughter. That dress would have hit just below my knee, which even in her last years, she insisted was the only acceptable way to wear a skirt or dress, although she herself wore long skirts.

I realize now that my mother probably came home from work at University Hall and then worked well into the night to make that dress. My classmate’s mothers have probably sent the posh frocks their daughters wore for confirmation/graduation to the consignment shop long ago. I now own an original, designed and executed by my mother.

Elaine Heebner
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Related Issue
May/June 2015