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Barron’s Basement

All my posts this week have been about my mother, Mary Louise Barron. I’m going to continue that trend for my Friday note, but move to a subject that’s quite a bit lighter than those I’ve been focused on so far.

Because my mother didn’t like to have her picture taken, I have fewer photographs of her than I’d prefer. If I had more, this post would undoubtedly feature an image of her in the striking off-white and black plaid wool coat she had sewn and wore frequently in her later years… it was slightly flared, fell almost to her ankles, and was always worn with the collar up.

She had a love of beautiful (though not extravagant) fabrics and for many years she sewed many of her own clothes. In the very early days she would fashion new garments from discarded ones acquired during visits to her childhood home in Ferryland. In later years, she followed patterns –– usually Vogue and Butterick –– and purchased fabric when it was on sale in the few stores where it was sold in St. John’s. She made the vast majority of her own nurse’s uniforms, never using uniform patterns –– which were in limited supply and generally unattractive. Instead she chose one- or two-piece dress styles that she’d modify if needed. And she claimed that she didn’t sew for other people, which she didn’t… technically. Unless you count the many jackets and skirts she made for herself, only to decide she didn’t like them and so passed them along to the sister or friend for whom they were perfect.

Mary in coat
This outfit illustrates quite a number of my mother’s preferences — a great bargain, black turtleneck, collar up, accent scarf and a hat!

Anything she didn’t sew she purchased on sale. There was one “bargain basement” store in downtown St. John’s when I was growing up, and if a new outfit was needed and there was no time to sew one, we’d comb through the racks, inevitably finding something stunning.

Whether the outfit she wore was comprised of a bargain she’d found or items she’d sewn or both, my mother would look like a million dollars (to borrow an old phrase) in an outfit that cost a fraction of what most people would have either paid or expected. Her unerring sense of how to put outfits together and the way she carried herself –– a reflection, I think, of her inner strength –– combined to make her stand out.

She also had some personal style preferences. Collars, for instance, would always be up. She even made this work for suit jackets, though exactly how still baffles me. Gloves, purses, footwear, these all had to be leather, though occasionally there’d be some suede. Black was the dominant colour around which most of her wardrobe was constructed, and brown was another longtime favorite. Colours were rich and powerful, rarely pastel. She wore prints in moderation, and she loved tweeds and plaids. Her favorite sweater style was a turtleneck. Scarves were used simply and skillfully. And hats, she loved hats.

Wedding couple and parents
The sewing machine was moved up to the dining room when these two dresses were being sewed. We were properly terrified we’d get the fabric dirty, even though that had never happened on any of our previous projects.

I’ve written about the countless hours I spent with my father in his garage, wearing faded jeans and ragged sweatshirts… working on Land Rovers, rebuilding campers, helping with whatever project he had embarked upon in whatever small way I could. I spent many hours with my mother as well, browsing and shopping until we located the material and other items needed at a price we could afford. Then we’d retreat to the basement where the sewing machine was set up and magic would happen.

And it was magic –– especially those times, and there were many, when someone would ask my mother or me where we’d gotten our outfits, and we’d smile innocently and answer: “Barron’s Basement of course… what… you haven’t heard of it? We’re there all the time!”

We were indeed. And it was a wonderful place to be.