Dozens of times every day, I pass them: five framed photographs that span five generations of women in my family, telling a story of two countries, wealth, loss, love and fashion.
It was an idea sparked by my great-grandmother, the wife of a wealthy businessman in Los Arabos, Cuba, who posed for the top left photograph with her firstborn, my grandmother, in 1921. She dressed her baby in a dress and bonnet made for her by her mother, my great-great-grandmother, a Spaniard.
When my mother was born in 1948, my grandmother followed suit. A fashionable woman who was always up on the styles of the day, she struck the same pose with her new baby in a fancy Havana photo studio. My mother wears the same baby-sized gold bracelet and lace dress as her mother wore. After my mother was born, my grandmother opened what became the toniest children’s clothing boutique in Havana, La Ciguena de Paris, where she designed her own clothing line worn by children of the city’s wealthiest residents.
The third photo (top right), taken in Omaha, Neb., in 1975, shows my mother holding me. The dress I’m wearing, which my great-grandmother hand-sewed in French lace and fine linen, was a replica of the dress worn in the two previous photos, which by then was in very poor condition. But the bonnet is the same, made by my great-great-grandmother.
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The jewelry worn by my mother and me had to be sneaked out of Cuba by my grandparents during the Castro revolution of the 1960s. (A few suitcases stuffed with jewelry sewn into clothing, important papers, family photographs and children’s clothing from the boutique were all that made it out of Cuba. They started new lives from scratch.)
In the final two photos (bottom center, bottom right), I’m holding my two daughters – Cecilia in 2005 and Julia in 2011. (The last photo was taken by Charlotte photographer Deborah Triplett.) I’m wearing the same necklace as my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother before me. My daughters are wearing the same gold bracelet as the babies in three generations before them.
Occasionally, a new visitor to my home will ask about the photos. I’ll tell the story, and for a moment, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who have both passed, are in the room, along with my mother, who shares her matriarchs’ impeccable taste and wizardry with a sewing needle.
If love is expressed in languages, then fashion was theirs.
Custom-designed and hand-sewn First Communion gowns and dresses for every occasion. Crochet lessons on the front porch.
I grew up to be a hard-news journalist by training, but when I fell into the style beat six years ago, part of it felt like a homecoming. As the women who came before me knew, fashion can be so much more than the clothes on our backs. What we wear can invoke history, emotion, economics and culture.
My daughters are too young to understand the full significance of the images. But I’ve made extra prints of the photos and tucked them hopefully in the frames.
Passion is an occasional series in which writers share something that has moved or inspired them.