During my MFA studies at LSU, I interviewed Ms. Elizabeth Williams, a retired LSU Home Economics Professor. We were the guests of Mrs. Gresdna Dotty, LSU Theater Professor Emeritus, who kindly invited us for lunch in her spacious home.
Now, almost 15 years later, I’ve opened my Louisiana Archive and found this
text. As if my time in Baton Rouge was in a different life. I deplore the
disconnectedness that I’ve experienced by moving about geographically. But I
offer it here, because it is part of contemporary society. We consume, we
discard, we move on, out with the old, in with the new. Even if the old is
gorgeous, even if we just tediously, awkwardly reinvent the wheel.
Ella Veres: So you were saying that they don't have much choice….
Elizabeth Williams: Don't have much choice….
EV: You mean?
EW: Well, I mean if you go in the store today there's not much difference. There's
no age bracket that I can see that I can tell. And when I look at magazines like
Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, any of those fashion magazines that we studied
when I studied clothing and design, we were told that their fashion was five years
ahead of what we were wearing at that time, and I look at some of them in the beauty
shop and I wouldn't waste my money on them now. But I still like to look at them
and I think, "Lord, have mercy!" The clothes look like they came out of
a harem or something. Take a look! Just about everything showing! No clothes much!
But I think you've got plenty of choices out there! just depends on the kind of
life that you live and how much money you have to spend on clothes.
Personally, I like clothes that are very simple, that last a long time, that in
five or ten years they still look good. The main thing that changes is the hem line,
longer or shorter. Real smart, well-dressed, groomed women, which we have a lot
of them in this world, when you get out you'll see them, they try to select clothes
that aren't extreme but are comfortable, and they look pretty, they fit well, and
they're easy to care for.
EV: So it's one thing that you see in the window shop and another thing that people
EW: That's right. You see your fads—I call them fads that young people are wearing,
I keep hoping that it will pass and we'll see the pretty, well-dressed and simply
dressed young person that we used to see. I love sitting up in my two-story office
on campus. Buildings had been put up by now and you can't see that, but to see the
young women come into the campus in the fall of the year, their beautiful, simple
clothes for rush week especially, just absolutely gorgeous how pretty they looked,
and in a month time, you look at them and they just look scandalous for my notion!
Going to class like they're going out to a field, to pick cotton so to speak! You
know, to do work, and no makeup!
But, you know, I'd enjoyed a career of working with young people, and adults too,
and helping them to, especially the adults, with foundation garments. You notice
so many adults today that aren't careful with their foundation garments, and they've
been careless with their eating habits, and it just looks sloppy.
It's always so refreshing to see someone in a proper foundation garment.
EV: What could that be, a proper foundation garment?
EW: A proper foundation garment is one that fits you so beautifully, that it isn't
too tight and it isn't too loose. By that I mean a proper fitting bra, and a proper
fitting girdle, or some panty girdle of some sort, that gives you a smooth silhouette.
Now, of course, it's distressing for some of my age who's worked in that line to
see people so obese and overweight. And the more obese they are, the shorter the
silhouettes get, and I wonder what are they trying to do?!
Gresdna Dotty: I think they don't have a full-length mirror.
EW: I hope that they get one.
GD: I really think that people who have a figure problem and don't…
EW: But Gresdna, let me tell you, you have one, I knew you long time before I… You
kept talking about it and it never bothered me! It took me a long time to see that
you did have a figure problem, but you've always been careful of your foundation
garments, and then you have selected clothes that don't emphasize that disability
that you have, and I think that the proper foundation garment and the proper design,
if a person can select that, any color comes in design, a lot of things come in
design, then, you don't see the faults. It gives the personality of the person an
opportunity to come forward. You see, to me, it takes you so long to waive through
that sloppy appearance to get to know the real person in that sloppy dress!
I suppose it's my age and my training, but I see some beautifully dressed young
people, but I see more of the other kind. It really bothers me as teacher.
We tried so hard to get them out of those kind of clothes. When I came out of the
classroom and worked, it was a social type of work, it was Farmers Home Administration,
we lent money to people. This was in the middle '30s, they couldn't get loans with
the banks back in the Depression. The first family that we visited was the day after
New Year's, and we worked in pairs, a man and a woman, we always worked the same
families. He worked with the man, and I worked with the woman in the house to teach
her some skills, I tried to help her some way.
And we knocked and knocked at the door, and finally this disheveled, sad-looking
person came to the door, her dress was on the wrong side out, and I didn't know
what to think or do, and I don't believe she was very bright. We went in, she had
no chairs, so we sat on lard cans. They just lived in a hovel. So we sat and we
talked about buying a milk cow. And, can you believe it? and jars, she didn't own
any jars, and I said, “Well, we have to buy jars, we have to buy a cow, we can make
you this loan.” One of the requirements was that they had to grow a garden and grow
chickens, and had to learn how to can, and something to provide milk.
So, you see, I worked with the very low home and maybe the next day maybe I was
working with college graduates. So you had to adjust, see how you could help bring
EV: Maybe you tell me, comparatively, over the years…. As an outsider I see they
throw away a lot of clothing because of the fashion…
EW: We have…. They have a lot of clothing and some people have a bit of money now,
that perhaps in the '30s and '40s they haven't made then, so they buy a lot of clothing
at discount houses and the cheapest quality and they don't last very long and they
get tired of them and they say, “Oh, well, just throw it away and we'll get some
new ones!” Or they haven't taught, women, homemakers with children, haven't taught
their children how to hang-up their clothes and how to take care of their clothes.
You just have people at all levels with clothes. Now, if I have to pay $40 for a
shirt, a plain cotton shirt, I'll be better very careful of how I'll take care of
that shirt, or that blouse and wash it and iron it… But if you go out and spend
$10 or $15 on a shirt and you haven't been told how to take care of that shirt,
you take it off, throw it down, and it stays there until you get to wash it, so
it gets worn out and then they throw it in dumpsters! You see, it's been the last
two years that I've noticed in these dumpsters, I live around university students,
around these apartments, that they just throw those clothes, good clothes, not excellent
quality, but good clothes, in the dumpsters! which is a terrible waste. This fall,
past fall, there were boxes of wonderful clothes that students left over and just
left at the dumpsters! Well, we collected them up and asked some of the people that
drove the garbage truck to take those clothes, they were clean, and take them to
their church, or take them somewhere that could help people.
So, I really don't know what the answer is for our young people except that we need
to teach them when they are smaller to take better care of their clothes, see I
came up in the years of the Depression, I didn’t know we were having a Depression
but I read about it what a terrible thing we had and we made our clothes. Did you
do it, Gresdna?
GD: Yes, my mother did it.
EW: Yeah! we made our clothes, we learned how to sew them up. I never had a ball
evening dress until I came to LSU and I've been to college two years and my mother
bought me a beautiful black satin evening dress. I thought I was some dressed up!
So I went right into Home Economics where I was taught the care of clothing and
how to select clothing, and I could be better dressed than I am if I spend more
time on it.
EV: I noticed there is also a certain disdain going on, if you are not dressed up
in the latest style, they just judge you and discard you. I find it strange!
EW: Well, it is strange! You still have some young people that dress awfully well
and take good care of their clothes, but they were taught way back when they were
small, and as they were growing up, they were mindful, they had to take care of
those clothes. I think we are swinging back, really, I think it's about time we'd
EV: Well, some students, myself, go to the thrift store and buy clothing that was
fashionable in the, I don't know, in the ‘70s, in the ‘60s. Do you think we are
EW: Yeah, I think you do, 'cause in some of these thrift stores are some magnificent
clothes, and by that I mean the fabric. Good fabric, good construction, and good
design. You can dress well on a very limited budget if you go into those shops.
I am a great admirer of your generation struggling to get an education like you
are. It hurts me, and grieves me to see you having to leave the eating on these
fast foods, maybe you're not getting the diet you should, you're feeding your mind
but you're neglecting that nice body God gave you. You see, fast food is the cause
of a lot of our problems with young people today. And we could see this coming,
research saw this coming way back. I've lived long enough to see it become a reality.
Is this what you want me to say?
EV: Sure. Sure. One last thing: there isn't much choice for aging people in matters
of fashion. I look through magazines and I see just young people, young people,
EW: That's right! In my socio-economic group I had to look rather hard, you know,
I don't spend that much time looking to find a well-made garment that looks good,
that I think after many, many wearings and dry cleanings or washing will stand to
be good, because it's almost out of reach. In other words maybe what I would like
to have I can only have two garments. But I can get away with buying only that,
because I'm not in the office, going to work every day. I didn't think I'll ever
wear slacks but I wear slacks, most of the time when I'm gardening or something
like that. But it's hard to find a good, well-made garment, I think it’s rather
costly. We, if my friends got a garment that's gotten too small or too large, but
still in good shape, we just exchange with each other as…
EW: Or share. Like I shared with you. They were nice, they were in good shape and
I think that I gave you some that were about ten years old! They looked good.
EV: Thank you. Last question: What is fashion and what is style?
EW: Oh, I can't give you a good definition.... Style is more or less ageless, fashion
is the passing of the seasons, of the years. Well, that's not a good definition,
really, look in the books.
EV: I like style but I don't agree with fashion, with temporary, transient things.
EW: They say, “She's stylish, she's fashionable, she's fashionable, she's dressed
up in the latest thing, as opposed to last season's.” But look in the book and getttye
a good definition.
EV: Thank you.
Williams passed away a few years
ago. I still have a green bag that she taught me how to soften its stiff leather.
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being some of them, I’d be grateful.
August 19th, 2013