Mother’s Shanghai Gown

Shanghai1920s- wiki commonsPrior to World War II, we lived in Shanghai, Honolulu, and Manila. My father traveled the Far East for the Standard Oil, while my mother stayed home with me, my sister, and assorted amahs and servants. Privileged expatriates, my parents filled their days with golf, bridge and parties.

“Have a dress made so we can go dancing on the roof of the French Club,” Dad told Mother.

Some clown had created a sign for the Shanghai tailor:

I.B. Jelly Belly

ladies have fits  upstairs

In no time, Jelly Belly made Mother a gown of black panne velvet, a fabric that draped sinuously over her perfect figure. The bodice alone stopped traffic. Heavy, hand-sewn lace, intricately embroidered with white roses—it could have graced the cover of Vogue.

Many an evening Mother kissed me goodnight before she and Dad set off for a night of dining and dancing under the stars at the French Club. Signs of approaching war were everywhere in 1939 as Japanese troops moved from Peking into Shanghai. Chinese refugees streamed into the French Concession, considered the safest area of Shanghai. At six years old, I took no notice.

Somehow, I’ve never been able to part with Mother’s dress. In fact, I bought a store display mannequin to model that gown in the corner of our guest room.

When Maddie, my five-year-old granddaughter, came to spend the night, she stopped before the mannequin and intoned, “When I grow up to be a teenager, I will wear that dress to college.”

I guess it’s an heirloom. I hope that your family artifacts take less space than a mannequin wearing an evening gown.

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