Forgotten fashionistas: Rediscovering my grandmother’s identity through fashion

If you asked me to close my eyes and visualize my grandmother, I would describe her as a petite, cuddly woman tottering to the kitchen to see if there’d be any food she could entice me with. 

For some of us, when we envision our grandparents, we think of them in terms of their family roles. Grandmothers, especially, are the caregivers, huggers, and comfort food experts. In some cases, they are the ones who sneak a few dollars or several pieces of candy into our pockets when the parents aren’t looking. But we sometimes fail to see the individual beneath the role.

On the surface, my grandmother would fit this “typical grandma” stereotype. For most of my life, she was the woman in the kitchen, always making dishes for lunch and dinner, and prodding me to come eat while the food was hot.

But, she never cooked when she was a mother raising four children. It seemed that as her identity within the family transformed over the years, her culinary skills evolved – and so did her fashion style. 

More fashion on Cold Tea Collective: Creatively Different: The arts of an unconventional path to fashion as a second-generation Filipino Canadian

Style over comfort

Another unmistakable characteristic of my grandmother was how much she cared about her image.

When I was in elementary school, my grandparents would visit for a month during Christmas from Manila, where they lived. My grandmother was always dressed in light, straight-legged trousers, a silk blouse, earrings, necklace, and rings, and most importantly — open-toed kitten heeled shoes. 

It was completely impractical for New York winters, and we always had to bring them a heavier down jacket to wear.

Slowly, my grandparents were able to build up a winter wardrobe at my mother’s place — something that was suitable for New York that they wouldn’t have to bring back to Manila.

My grandmother’s winter outfits needed to preserve a longer silhouette, hiding her age and weight gain. It didn’t matter how warm or practical the clothes were; they had to make her look slim and neat.

Two people enjoying a meal in New York.
Enjoying a meal in New York. Photo submitted.

For many years, I’d roll my eyes at this. How many coats were bought and swapped out, pants worn and tossed, more shirts bought only to never be worn again — just because someone had made a comment about her appearance? I thought it was a waste of money, and there was only so much closet space!

Nowadays, she’s far more practical. She’s converted over to wearing fleece turtlenecks and leggings with a down jacket. Sometimes her pajamas are an extra layer underneath. Gone is the jewelry, stored away until a special event happens.

She had always taken care of her appearance, but I always wondered why. Why did it matter so much how she looked when she wasn’t dressed for the weather? Why did she have to put on so much jewelry when going out?

The forgotten fashionistas

Lately, I’ve become more interested in fashion — more specifically, how fashion reflects identity. I follow how public figures can use their fashion to send subtle messages about what they’re thinking, representing, or feeling.

From HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style to Chinatown Pretty, I became fascinated with how older and younger generations wield fashion with purpose. But Chinatown Pretty opened my eyes to another subset of fashionable people: seniors living in Chinatowns across North America.

Elderly people are sometimes forgotten for their style, and I realized that’s what I had done to my grandmother all this time. I overlooked her individual style and personality, because to me, she was just Grandma.

She was “Grandma who cooks all the time, and is a warm cuddly hug.” That was it.

But along the way, I forgot that she was her own person. She was a young woman, a wife, a mother, a tour guide, a friend, and a socialite.

The author's grandmother and others standing in a row.
Author’s grandmother at far right. Photo submitted.

Finding identity through fashion

Back in Manila, my grandmother socialized at the hair salon and gossiped over mahjong. She knew famous singers from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and traveled constantly between those cities while also working as a tour guide. She was the one who taught me about the history of Jose Rizal and Philippine Independence. 

I knew that she had participated in a beauty pageant when she was young, as she crowed about her small waist and how all the boys loved her. What I didn’t know until recently was that she won third place, and that it was a pageant hosted by the Chinese Student Association at Far East University. I made an assumption that she hadn’t attended college – but she did.

An image of the author's grandmother competing in a beauty pageant, standing in front of a green curtain.
The author’s grandmother at a beauty pageant. Photo submitted.

When I saw photos of my grandmother when she was younger and traveled around Asia, I couldn’t believe how I never appreciated her hip and trendy style. She wore boat-neck cocktail dresses that were in vogue in the ‘50s, purses with longer handles that reminded me unmistakably of Queen Elizabeth II’s own Launer handbag, and wool blazers instead of a proper jacket in colder weather.

For her wedding, I assumed she only had a Chinese tea ceremony and banquet, wearing a cheongsam throughout. But boy was I shocked when I saw her wedding photo – a beautiful high-neck white gown with a long mantilla veil. My grandpa was dapper too. 

Her style didn’t just extend only to her outfits, especially seeing a consistent uniform of silk blouses and pants. It also extended to her children, where she dressed the daughters in matching dresses and the son in a corresponding outfit. All her children dressed alike, all the time. 

From the beehive hairdos of the ‘60s (which she wore prominently through the ‘70s), to her high waisted pants and aviators, I understood even more how style was as important to her identity as being a wife and mother. 

A wedding photo of the author's grandmother and grandfather.
The author’s grandmother at her wedding. Photo submitted.

If I ask now why she doesn’t dress up often anymore, she’d say, “Where am I going to go?” 

As in, she has nowhere to be seen, nowhere to see.

Writing our narratives through style

Every so often my grandmother whips out her huge jewelry, whether it’s the brooches, rings, or the large jade pendants. She loves bright, bolder patterns like leopard print or floral motifs on her shirts. It’s like she never lost part of her sense of style. 

When I was younger, I thought it was garish and flashy. Now, I love that she has an occasion to celebrate wanting to look good. I have a greater appreciation for her style. 

A present-day photo of grandparents in front of a bridge.
The author’s grandmother, present day. Photo submitted.

Revisiting her vintage style has given me cause to reflectturned me introspective. I wonder how I may appear to my future children and grandchildren one day, if they were to find a photo of me now. 

I rarely wear dresses or dress up in any way. My closet is full of black, navy, and gray clothes: the New York uniform. Most of the time, I wear jeans and baggy sweatshirts, borrowing my husband’s clothes. I have been influenced by his streetwear style, his effortless cool, but at the same time, I look decidedly “normal.” 

Would future generations think I dressed for comfort? What statement will they think I am trying to make, if any? Would they accept “streetwear” as a fashion statement itself? Or would they think that my style was boring, and that I lacked personality? 

And what would future generations think of me if – or perhaps when – they only see me as a mother, or a grandmother, and not an individual? Will they, too, forget that I have had a career, I have traveled, and I have a degree?

Or perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, what will happen is my style will evolve just as my identity will. My fashion identity will be woven into the fabric of my story – I just have to remember to tell it. 

And, from my grandmother and my mother, I have to remember to ask for it. 

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