07 September 2011

Say Hello to Pearl

"A beautiful lady is an accident of nature. A beautiful old lady is a work of art."  ~Louis Nizer

I have a collection of dress forms. I seek them out to keep me company in my studio and to hold up all my treasures (Wha!? You don't talk to your beads and displays?!). They are part of my favorite displays. They each have quite a character. And a name. And a story.

First there was Bessie. I found her at a HomeGoods/TJ Maxx store. She is wooden with a turned wood base and she had on the most hideous painted dress, which is perhaps why she was so neglected. But I like to see past the ugly to the beautiful within. There were several friends with her at the store that day, but at about $35 I only brought one home. I could kick myself that I didn't get more because I have been seeking her equal ever since. 

To get rid of her gauche fashion, I bought some vintage dress patterns from a thrift store. I love the sepia tone and the mysterious lines. (I did sew a skirt once. Just once. And I still don't understand what all those lines mean. And sewing is too much like math. *shudder*). With a little glue and some creative tearing, I decoupaged her a new look. Bessie has always been my first love and my greatest workhorse. 

Sally, Bessie and Lola and boxes and labels getting ready
A.R.T.S. Night 2010
Next came Lola. With dangerous curves and a black painted negligee, Lola lived up to her name. She was a vixen and just stole the show from my hardworking Miss Bess. So a few layers of decoupaged patterns later, Lola fit right in, but still flaunts her curves.

I was delighted to stumble upon the little sister of Bess. A tad bit diminutive, Miss Sally does her big sister proud and carries herself with quiet grace. She, too, needed a decoupage makeover to make her part of the gang.

Earlier this year I picked up two little black flocked lovelies with cute glass knobs on top and ornate metal bases. I have left in their natural ebony state. I call them Lucinda for light and Stellla for star. They may be dark but they shine for me.

I am always on the lookout for more to add to this troupe of hardworking ladies. I covet full size French toille mannequins and dress forms. I love it when they are dressed to the nines. But these sort of things are hard to come by, and if you do find one that is vintage it is rare to find it in very great shape. They were, after all, workers in the seamstress trade.

Today I was picking up the unsold items from one of the local consignment shops that is more like a nice store than a garage sale. Half of this massive re-imagined, formerly vacant building is devoted to consignment of nice clothes and house wares. The other half is an antique mall. With $94 to burn from my sales (woot! Bead shopping! Or maybe laptop shopping!), you know I was looking for more things to buy. I scored this great basket/box made from small branches (I am totally going to make more of these for great displays!) and a brand new pair of jeans. I happened to ask the owner if she ever came across any mannequins or dress forms for sale. As a matter of fact, one was brought in just the other day and would I care to see it?

She led me to the other side of the store. And there she was. The booth in question is one that I frequent when I go there because of the clever displays and beautiful array of costume jewelry. This old and dusty adjustable dress form was on an iron base and close to the floor. Her panels had some gaps and the skirt  looked about to fall of, but there were no tears in her taupe and black woven cover and she had all her parts. We raised her up to her full height. 

The owner offered me a 10% discount on her. I said I would think about it. 

I went to get the kids after school and convinced Tiny Dancer to go back there with me and help me decide. (Okay. I promised her that we could get an old fashioned fountain soda from the 50s soda fountain across the street). I poked and prodded her some more. She seemed like a stable miss in a form fitting tweedy dress, perfect for draping over and pinning to. I decided to bring her home with me. I paid $67.50 for her.

On the way home, we tried to think of what names would work for her (Molly? Lucy? Susie?), and wondered what her story was. But none of the names would stick. However, I knew that eventually her name would come, as the others had.

At home I set about trying to realign her panels and touch up the fabric. There is not a rip or tear anywhere, and the only thing wrong is that it had come undone in a few places, but nothing a glue gun couldn't fix. It looks like she was hardly used.

The original sticker is visible on the breast plate. 

I did a little searching about the L & M Adjustable Dress Form Co (alternately known as "Ellanam"). It seems that they were the originators of the adjustable dress form. These were marketed to housewives the world over as a way to easily customize your dress form to suit your personal dimensions. The frame is made of very heavy pressed cardboard and the inside is a labyrinth of braces and screws and wing nuts. She is covered in a very stretchy and nondescript fabric, but her color is perfect for me. They were made in several sizes: a, b, c. I have the b model. She is a bit difficult to adjust without the gaps and overlapping joints, which is likely why she fell out of favor. Today there are plenty of adjustable dress forms on the market but I am not sure that they have the same panache as this one.

The hardware at the top is intriguing with its rust spots and little bolts. There is a plastic knob on top that I am not sure is original to this model or not. The spring appears to be a broken, and I am not sure what it is supposed to do when you do tighten it, unless it makes the neck wider to accommodate different sizes. But I like the steampunk feel of this.

I pulled some of her seams apart so that I could reach my apparently man-sized hands up her skirt and in through her armpits to make the adjustments. I just wanted her to pull herself together and her old shape back. I fired up the glue gun and started to tack the edges of the fabric back down.

And that is when I saw it.

I peeked into the right arm hole and spied a piece of paper tucked under one of the braces and screws. At first I thought it might be something that was put there to keep a brace from wobbling. But then curiosity got the better of me and I pulled it out.

It was a receipt for the original purchase of this dress form.

She was purchased from the JC Penney catalog which had to be shipped from the distribution warehouse in Milwaukee to the Stevens Point store. In those days, Penney's occupied a really old two story building in downtown Stevens Point. (I remember that it was crowded with round spinning racks. The basement was all baby items, household items and where they would come set up the portable photo backdrop to take portraits once a year. The loft area was where the women's undergarments were. Very mysterious stuff indeed when I was 10!)

The original price was $34.99 with a shipping charge of $2.01 (!) and a weight of 12 pounds. This must have been a pre-paid item because the notes indicate that the recipient overpaid. The change was exactly 28 cents!

I paid about double that, but given the age and the great condition that she was in, I feel that this was a steal! I have seen older and less pristine forms sell for $200-400 dollars. I think that I made a great score.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

The name on the invoice is Victor Patoka in Amherst Junction, WI. My sister-in-law Mary is married to Bob Patoka. And they live in Amherst Junction.

I called them up to get the scoop and find out if there was a relative named Victor. It took Bob a few seconds but then he realized that this was his father's cousin. I asked if Victor had a wife. He did. Her name?


A thing of beauty and a true surprise. Something with hidden value.

Pearl is the perfect name for my new mannequin! (And coincidentally, pearls are my favorite gemstone to work with, and the stone of my sorority, Delta Delta Delta - Hi KJ! I will honor the memory of Pearl Patoka and start some new traditions with her as part of my display!)

Already she has a spot in my studio and has been laden with miscellaneous treasures, draped over her shoulders and pinned to her skirt. Her soft knit dress is the perfect complement to Bessie, Lola, Sally, Lucinda and Stella. She has great potential, this curvy goddess. I can see that she will be a great topic of conversation at the show. It is almost like Pearl has been with me all along.

Your turn...
Have you ever found something so perfect in an antique shop? What was it? What story did it have to tell you? Or did you just invent a story for it?
Do tell!



mairedodd said...

sweet serendipity -

Claire Maunsell said...

What a wonderful story! And you told it so well...
Thanks for getting my day off to a great start with a personal and facinating link to the past!

Alice said...

An amazing story. Pearl seems to have been waiting just for you.

Kim Stevens said...

I absolutely loved your story, even got goosebumps! And Stella is a great name - she was a strong Lithuanian woman who raised 5 sons on her own and died at the age of 98 - she was my husband's grandmother!

Christine Altmiller said...

what a great story about the ladies who work with you and how they came to live with you. it was pearl's destiny to be found by you.

Laura Twiford said...

Wow what a cool story! I have a dress form just like Pearl but not the story to go along with it. My first dress form is Betty, and everyone thought I was nuts for naming her! Thanks for making me feel somewhat normal!

Rosanne said...

Love your ladies! I have one myself, she is a petite woman just standing in the corner. I need go find her a little black dress...like a size 2. You'll see her at my house. I haven't named her though...I am saving Pearl as a name for my next dog...its one of my favorites. And I love this saying...oh holy Mother of Pearl!

Cece said...

Enjoyed the history of your find in this post. Good story.

Cynthia said...

I wish I had a dress form like Pearl. I am on the lookout for one. I bought a wire one at tjmaxx, but jewelry kinda disappears on her.
I don't have any good stories like Pearl's story (that's awesome!)

Stories They Tell said...

What a cool story and great find! I have one similar to this but older and made of papier mache but my grandma had one just like Pearl. I always feel fortunate when I discover something so unusual in a store but I know that I was really following my "finders vibe" which leads me to all kinds of fabulous stuff. I guess that's what makes us the real sisterhood of shoppers. She will be truly appreciated.

Jennifer Jangles said...

Wow! That is the greatest story, it was meant to be. You really had me scared when you put your hand up her. I thought for sure you were going to find a spider. Eek!

Marie Cramp said...

She was truly meant for you! How fantastic! I can't say I have ever found anything that cool, but then again, where I live we don't have much for antique stores or even good vintage! Congrats!

Michelle Mach said...

You are such a great storyteller!

Heidi Post said...

That is a fabulous story! What a weird coincidence. I'm sure you and Pearl will have some great times together :)

Lori said...

What a great story! That is so amazing that "Pearl" is truly related to you! What a fabulous find! Lucky YOU - I hope to find a shabby dress form, someday... with a shabby price tag! ;-)

Lola said...

Thank you for sharing your beautiful collection and its delightful history! Not surprisingly, curvey Lola is my favorite. =D

SummersStudio said...

That is such a great find and an even better story. I think Pearl will make excellent company. Isn't it funny and heart warming how our lives weave together in such serrendiptous ways?

Dawn Doucette said...

Oh Erin, what a fabulous story! I love the history, the serendipitous naming, and finding something that is a treasure to you at a great price... SCORE!
What a beautiful collection you have!

Hope your week is full of more wonderful surprises!

Erin S said...

really cool! I love how you decoupaged the first ones.

I thought I was the only person who couldn't sew! I also have made exactly one skirt (a forced project from mandatory 7th grade sewing) which I had to unpick about 97 times before the teacher approved it. I still can't even hem my own pants.

Unknown said...

Erin that was Lovely!! Such treasures!! ox

In the Light of the Moon said...

Pearl is AMAZING!!!You were meant to find her..and thats wonderful!!Actually I love your entire collection!!I have been on the search for a dressform for some time,but like you..she will find me and I will be patient...and drool over yours in the meantime..heehee.Hugs,Cat

Cindy said...

Erin, what a great story - from beginning to end. I loved it. I have been searching for dress forms for years and finally have a few vintage forms that I have yet to blog about. One has been in my studio for quite some time and she has a name. Funny how we like to name our headless dress forms! Your name is absolutely perfect. I think it's incredible how you found the actual original receipt - and even tracked down the name of the owner. Absolutely amazing. I think you have the dress form story to top all dress form stories!

Jenni said...

Erin, what a fantastic story...I got goose bumps reading it! Pearl was definately meant to belong to you.

cathy @ ma vie trouvee said...

Hi Erin,
First congrats on winning Rice's book on Deryn's site - this is how I found your blog. I am visiting for the first time - a lovely blog you have. I love this crazy sweet story and such a perfect name for her! I've book-marked you so I can come back to visit again - cheers from Brussels

Anonymous said...

How delighted our family was to accidentally come upon this blog. Pearl Patoka was our Mom. If she were still with us, she would be absolutely delighted to see what had become of her "Matilda" and that someone as caring as you has adopted her. Matilda a.k.a. Pearl helped Mom through many nights years ago. God Bless.


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