My teenage father, his younger brother and their older sister pose in the photograph, wearing what might be their Sunday finest, circa 1946. But the photo is labeled “Easter,” so when I look at it, I am bombarded with mental images of a tradition that continued well into my own childhood.

We used to dress up for Easter. Now, not so much. Anytime. Dressing down seems like a trend that is here to stay.

Raymond Faria Soares, as seen in the 1946 Easter photo. Photo courtesy Liz Soares

I have more than a hundred photographs of my dad’s family, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, so I know they didn’t dress formally all the time. There’s an amusing photo of Dad’s oldest brother, Vic, wearing a snappy double-breasted blazer with a handkerchief in the top pocket, a tie, and white pants. It’s his Confirmation day in the Catholic church.

Vic’s younger brothers flank him; Ray is wearing knickers, no socks and high-top sneakers, while Art’s shirt is hanging out over the waistband of his shorts. In those days, there was no way they were going to the event looking like that. I’d say they had some dressing up to do before heading out.

In the Easter photo, the young men are wearing good-quality suits with creased, cuffed pants and Oxford lace-ups. Polished.

My aunt has donned a three-quarter-length cloth coat, clinched at the waist with a tie belt. The fabric may feature a light check. The coat has wide lapels of a darker color that matches her skirt. She is, of course, wearing hose and pumps.

Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I could be described as if I was a celebrity appearing at the Oscars.

My mother’s family members were no slouches in the fashion department either. And before I go any further, I should mention that my parents are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who started their working lives as laborers in the cotton mills of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They looked good even on tight budgets.

One of Mom’s favorite memories involved traveling with her mother and sisters to Providence to buy new coats at some well-known store. My mother, who was tall and slim, looks like a model in photographs taken in her 20s and early 30s. Even when she is wearing rolled up jeans and button-down shirts, she looks put together.

She impressed on my sister and me the need to “look nice” at all times. She sewed clothes for us when we were young; I particularly remember a set of calico shorts with a matching sleeveless top. In elementary school, a friend and I thought it would be fun to have our mothers make us identical dresses. I think we were inspired by an incident in a Beverly Cleary novel.

Anyway, the dresses were made of a striped candy pink and red cotton knit material. When my friend got on the bus on “debut” day, I couldn’t help but notice that not only did I have a matching headband, but my sleeves were sewn on correctly (unlike hers), with vertical stripes to match the body of my dress. It is no small thing at age 10 to realize your mother has a sewing superpower.

Later, of course, I would take my mother’s fashion advice with a grain of salt, but I always recognized that she knew what she was talking about. She worked part time in retail for years, starting at a fabric store, then moving on to McWhirr’s, which was, in its day, the most prestigious department store in downtown Fall River, Massachusetts.

Later still, when malls became popular, she worked in a department store called Edgar’s. As a teenager earning money, I appreciated her employee discount. I remember how I felt when I had an important fashion choice to make in the late 1970s. Polyester was the thing, but I was seeing some cotton, boho-style clothes on the racks at Edgar’s. Dare I invest in a peasant blouse and flowered skirt?

I did, and I was right.

I’m sure all my fashion choices as a teenager did not fit Mom’s idea of “looking nice,” but there’s a photo of her, my sister and me at a Valle’s Steak House near Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island. I believe it’s at Easter, maybe 1977. We are all wearing dresses and hose. Mine is a Diane von Furstenberg-style wrap dress that I’d wear today if I still had it. It was probably from Edgar’s. I’m sure Mom approved.

I’m still wearing dresses and skirts most of the time, and I bought a long, woolen winter coat for the first time in years last December. My mother’s voice is in my head every morning. Making an effort to be presentable — it’s not a burden. I think of it as a public service.

After all, I take such joy in looking at my dad in his creased pants. And at the photo of Mom, Maggie and me, on Easter Sunday, circa 1970. I remember well the blue cloth coat I’m wearing, cut through with yellow thread in a houndstooth pattern. I’m wearing white tights, and beige shoes with a little heel. I am squinting into the sun. I look nice.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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