Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: The Dressmaker

Our readers will recall Toby Shafter’s amusing description of the Maine community she was born in, in our issue of January 1949. Here she turns her glance on one of the perils of New York, where she now lives and writes.

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My favorite dress was beginning to wear out. I had bought it once between bus stops in Boston and worn it constantly for five years. When it was fashionable to glitter at five o’clock it was a cocktail gown. Later, it became a short evening gown with no alteration whatsoever. Imagination supplied what the dress lacked, for it was a very simple affair of coral shantung with a high mandarin neck and wing sleeves finished in gold with a slim gold belt. I wore it with my best gold shoes and it made me look almost six feet tall.

I had always cherished the idea of having it copied in pure silk shantung with excellent tailoring instead of the mass-produced shoddy seams with which it had been sewn. Now, if ever, was the time. The seams had pulled, the material was wearing thin, and a few wine stains testified to some carnival spirit of the past.

First, I snipped a triangle of the shantung and sent it to Japan to be matched by a friend, for I wanted the best quality silk. The answer came back that shantung was a Chinese weave. I gave up the idea of Oriental silk and decided to find a domestic substitute. In the meantime, however, some Chinese shantung was apparently smuggled into a Tokyo department store. My friend sent me five yards of beautiful silk.

Now came the problem of a dressmaker. It was a simple dress to copy, but I didn’t know where to begin looking for a seamstress in New York. My funds were limited and I had heard that fantastic prices were often charged in New York as a matter of course. Several conferences with friends and acquaintances resulted in “just the right little dressmaker for you.” Her name was Mrs. Snyder and she lived in the Bronx. I could not go to the Bronx. Mrs. Snyder could not come to my place, I was informed by the intermediary, because she had heart trouble and could not walk up to the fourth floor where I lived. It was therefore arranged that we meet at the home of the intermediary, who had an elevator apartment.

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On the appointed day and hour, I gathered up the five yards of luscious red silk shantung, a few matching spools of silk thread, and the old dress. I went to my friend’s apartment, rode up in the elevator, and waited and waited and waited. My friend came. We had supper together. We finished supper and washed the dishes.

When we had almost given up hope, Mrs. Snyder came in panting, full of apologies, explanations, and resolutions. She was a dark-eyed woman of about fifty, with straight hair drawn back in a flat bun, dressed in a full skirt of taffeta with a matching blouse that plunged low at the V-neck. She was starry-eyed as she looked about her. “Such wonderful pictures. Like in a museum!” she exclaimed. “Did you make them yourself?”

My friend explained that they were the work of her brother-in-law, who was a professional artist.

“I love art,” Mrs. Snyder announced. “I’ve gone to the museum many times. The pictures they have there. I could eat them.”

“There’s a costume and dress museum on the lower floor. I should imagine you would be particularly interested in that, Mrs. Snyder,” my friend offered. “Mrs. Snyder is really a dress designer,” she explained to me in an aside.

“Pictures. Pictures. I love them. There’s nothing I adore more,” Mrs. Snyder continued. “I could spend days and nights looking at them . . . .”

“The dress,” I put in hastily, offering the material. “All you have to do is take the old dress and use that as the pattern. It fits me perfectly.”

Mrs. Snyder rolled her eyes upward and clasped her hands to her breast. “Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful,” she exclaimed, taking the material from me and shaking it loose from its folds. “I can make a beautiful dress from this material. There’s so much of it.”

“Here is the dress I want copied,” I said, spreading it out on the couch so she could see its lines.

Mrs. Snyder made a slight moue with her thin, long lips but said nothing. Or perhaps I only imagined it. “Let me see now it fits on you. Try it on,” she suggested.

I slipped into the old dress. It was pretty sad-looking, but essentially it was what I wanted with new cloth and good sewing.

“M-mmm, m-mmm,” Mrs. Snyder murmured shaking her head from side to side. “Such a skimpy skirt. Do you want I should make you a fuller skirt? It would be much nicer.” She looked at me eagerly.

“If you want to,” I agreed, imagining the slim tubular skirt with a fuller flare at the bottom. “But all you are supposed to do is cut the new dress exactly like the old one for the price.”

But Mrs. Snyder was not listening. “I can give you a better uplift at the bosom, too,” she added. “The tucks should go in at a slant instead of up and down.” She swiftly pinned the folds at a slant to show me the general effect. It was, indeed, a great improvement and I was convinced that I had a veritable jewel of a dressmaker in Mrs. Snyder. I had hired her for the most perfunctory of copying jobs at a special low price. She was enthusiastically planning to make me a perfect, custom-made dress.

After she left, my friend remarked to me, “I’m glad I got you and Mrs. Snyder together. You can see she loves her work. Wait and see. She’ll produce a creation for you.”

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Mrs. Snyder called me as she had promised she would when she was ready for the next fitting.

“Miss Talby, Miss Talby, I’ve made you a beautiful skirt. Three and three-quarters yards of material I used in it,” Mrs. Snyder announced in her high voice that was a bit trying to the ears. Over the telephone, it had a slight whine.

“That’s fine, Mrs. Snyder,” I answered politely. “When do you want to have the fitting?”

“I didn’t make the waist yet on purpose,” Mrs. Snyder informed me. “For this skirt, you need a waist with a V-neck. I could make you a lovely waist with a V-neck. Say I should do it,” she wheedled.

“Well, I’m not too sure how it would look. After all, I want a Chinese dress. How could I have that with a V-neck?” I pointed out to Mrs. Snyder. “You’d better copy the mandarin neck and the wing sleeves just as they are in the old dress,” I decided.

Mrs. Snyder could not conceal her disappointment. “All right, I’ll do what you say, Miss Talby,” she conceded, “but when I tell you that with this skirt . . . .” Her voice trailed off.

“When can we have the next fitting?” I asked Mrs. Snyder quickly. It occurred to me that I didn’t know her address or telephone number or the proper spelling of her name.

“You don’t need the dress in a special hurry,” Mrs. Snyder half inquired, half informed me.

“Well, I’m going to a cocktail party next Friday evening but I have other things to wear.”

“Then the Thursday after that I’ll be in town anyway. I hate to make the long subway trip extra,” Mrs. Snyder decided. “Can you come uptown to meet me?”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea. If I come uptown, where can we have the fitting? We need a good place so the dress will come out exactly right.”

“We can go into any ladies’ room. There are ladies’ rooms all over Manhattan. It’s not like the Bronx,” Mrs. Snyder offered.

“I can’t see having a dress that I want you to take extra pains with fitted in a ladies’ room,” I replied. “Let’s meet at my friend’s apartment again. I’ll reimburse you for the extra carfare.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no. I didn’t mean that at all, Miss Talby,” Mrs. Snyder protested. “It’s just more convenient for me while I’m already uptown.”

We set the time and place at a small midtown hotel. I had to wait only about twenty-five minutes for Mrs. Snyder, who appeared in a flurry of profuse explanations. She led me to an unattended ladies’ room. There was no place to lay our hats and coats or handbags. From the start there was an atmosphere of furtiveness and discomfort which did not augur well for the fitting.

Mrs. Snyder produced the material triumphantly from a large paper bag. “This is the skirt I made,” she announced holding aloft a voluminous, red, bag-like object. “You’ll see when you try it on. It’s beautiful.”

I held my tongue and withheld judgment until I had awkwardly divested myself of the skirt I was wearing and put on the one Mrs. Snyder considerately held for me to step into. It didn’t seem quite right to me. Instead of fitting smoothly at the hips and growing gradually wider at the bottom, as I had imagined, it had a series of bunched gathers and unpressed pleats at the waistline. I stood patiently while Mrs. Snyder pinned it to the bodice which she had cut according to my specifications.

“I’m telling you, Miss Talby,” Mrs. Snyder observed with her mouth full of pins, “with this skirt, a V-neck would be better. I could still change. Such a beautiful skirt,” she remarked patting it into place.

Now that I was in the dress there was no place to see it. There was only a long, narrow mirror above the row of cracked marble sinks, and no chair to stand on. I spied a covered garbage can standing in a corner, and balancing myself precariously on top of it with one hand on Mrs. Snyder’s shoulder, I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of myself in the mirror to the accompaniment of the groaning and creaking of the garbage can. I looked six months pregnant in the wide skirt which Mrs. Snyder had concocted instead of the slim, svelte, bell-bottom one I had visualized.

“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Mrs. Snyder murmured, patting the folds into place where it stood out fore and aft like an inflated red balloon. “If you only knew how wonderful a V-neck . . . .”

I was so stunned I managed to say only, “No V-neck,” before I made my escape.

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Weeks went by and there was no word from Mrs. Snyder. I was not too worried. She had my material, but I had not paid her anything and did not intend to until the dress was completed. My way, I thought angrily to myself as time passed and there was still no call; and suddenly I became determined that I would not go around in a wide red balloon that was totally incongruous with a mandarin waist. Taking my courage in my hands, I called Mrs. Snyder.

I merely stated who I was and was greeted with a torrent of words. “Oh, Miss Talby, I’ve been so sick. You have no idea. I nearly died and the doctor said I would have a nervous breakdown if I tried to do anything, so that is why I never called you,” she informed me without pausing for breath.

“Then I take it you’ve done nothing further on the dress?” I asked a bit timidly.

“The dress. The dress!” Mrs. Snyder exclaimed. “How could I do anything on the dress when I was dying?”

“Well, good,” I answered. “Because I’ve decided that I want the dress like the old one—exactly how we agreed when I gave you the material. A Chinese dress is supposed to give a slim tubular effect, and I want the skirt copied from the old one.”

“But Miss Talby, that’s not the style this year,” Mrs. Snyder wailed. “This year, it’s in style to have a full skirt with . . . .”

“Yes, yes, I know,” I interrupted somewhat impatiently. “What you’re trying to do is make me a dress with a full skirt and a V-neck exactly like the one you’re wearing. I don’t want your dress. I want my own dress.”

“Don’t you want to be in style, Miss Talby?” Mrs. Snyder said, making one last desperate effort to convince me. “You shouldn’t go around looking skinny when everyone else is wearing wide, full skirts. Think how funny you’ll look.”

“My mind is made up,” I answered firmly. “I wore that dress for five years with the slim skirt and it came and went with all the styles. I like it exactly the way it is.”

“Well, all right, Miss Talby, if you say so,” Mrs. Snyder said, admitting momentary defeat. “You know the skirt was cut on the bias.”

“Yes, I know the skirt was cut on the bias,” I replied, adding what I hoped was firmness to my voice. “That’s what made the dress fit so smoothly over the hips. It hung so well it made me look tall. So now you know what the dress meant to me.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do, Miss Talby,” Mrs. Snyder replied doubtfully. “I’ll have a hard time cutting it on the bias now that the cloth is in pieces.”

“Now, Mrs. Snyder, that’s no answer, you’ll see what you can do,” I said, quite furious by this time. “I gave you five yards of material and you know this dress shouldn’t have taken more than three yards. I told you to copy the dress and that’s what I want you to do. You had no business cutting up three and three-quarters yards of material to make that skirt.”

“All right. All right, Miss Talby. I’ll make a copy of the dress. But you’ll see. It will only be a copy of your own dress and not like the beautiful one I would have made you if you would only let me.”

We set the next appointment in my friend’s apartment. No more ladies’ rooms, I told Mrs. Snyder firmly.

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When we next met, Mrs. Snyder had forgotten all about our altercation. She had the dress, slim and tubular and cut on the bias, looking like the old dress but with infinitely better material and custom-made details. Though it was only basted together loosely, I could see that it was eventually going to fit like a dream.

I whirled around in front of the mirror, happy and triumphant. Mrs. Snyder, dear soul that she was, was happy in my happiness.

“You like it, Miss Talby?” she asked eagerly.

“I love it,” I replied.

“You have nice places to wear it?” she inquired.

“There’ll be lots of parties during the winter holiday season. I suppose I’ll be invited to some,” I answered.

“You have someone to take you? A steady boy-friend?” Mrs. Snyder pursued.

“Well, there is one young man I favor,” I said in as noncommittal a voice as possible.

“Oh, Miss Talby, if my three sons weren’t all married, I’d like to have you for a daughter-in-law. Now this one you favor. he’s eligible? Now I always ask every man I meet if he’s eligible,” Mrs. Snyder resumed in a more practical vein. “First I find out whether a man is eligible. At my age, they can be anything,” Mrs. Snyder sighed recalling the perfidies of men. “Then if they are eligible, I tell them I don’t give samples . . The men nowadays! A woman can’t be too careful of them.”

Whether Mrs. Snyder was widow, grass or sod, divorcee, or the illegitimate mother of three married sons, I never discovered. Men, and the difficulties of getting one, occupied a great deal of her energy and conversation, as they did mine at the time. We fixed the date for the next fitting, for Mrs. Snyder claimed that another was required to bring the dress to perfection.

“You’ll see, Miss Talby, the dress will bring you luck and a good chosen. A good bridegroom,” Mrs. Snyder assured me as she lingered to chat. “Now this one you like, what does he have for an occupation? An artist? He’s crazy, then? Not crazy but nice? Can’t you find yourself a man with a nice, steady job, and eligible? Let me tell you from all my experience . . . .”

I lost myself in my own thoughts and heard nothing further until Mrs. Snyder switched the subject to apartments. “Now this apartment I like,” Mrs. Snyder announced. “You should get one like it with an elevator. Then I could come to fit you in your own apartment. It would be so nice if you had an apartment of your own with an elevator.”

“My apartment is nice,” I answered. “And I don’t mind its being a walk-up. It’s only three short flights of stairs. And I have a woodburning fireplace, a beautiful garden entrance with trees, and a gold-fish pond, and it’s on a nice Village street. That should count for something.”

“A woodburning fireplace. What do you need it for?” Mrs. Snyder sniffed. “Better an elevator. Easier on the heart and on the feet.”

I don’t know exactly how it happened but somehow between the procrastinations of Mrs. Snyder’s fittings, her excuses, her illnesses, and her inability to keep various midtown appointments with me, I did move into another apartment without a wood-burning fireplace and a charming entrance, on a dirty, narrow street. The building did have an elevator. Led on by the lure of my own new apartment and a dinner invitation, Mrs. Snyder came one day for what 1 thought was to be the final fitting.

“This landlord is much better than the other one,” Mrs. Snyder announced as she surveyed my new apartment. “I told you the other landlord was no good. Now this is an apartment—with an elevator,” she observed with satisfaction.

The dress looked substantially as it had the last time I saw it. Mrs. Snyder measured off the proper length for the hem and then proceeded to rip apart the basting threads at the waistline. “I want this dress to be exactly right,” she murmured as she pinned it together again.

We ate a dinner that was scanty but Mrs. Snyder’s eyes sparkled with the spiced wine that was plentiful. I gave her the metallic gold braid I had bought to trim the wing sleeves and high neck of the dress, adding that I hoped she would finish it soon. As an added inducement, I presented her with a ticket to a new opera. “An older man who’s a good friend of mine will be there, too, sitting in the seat right next to you,” I told her.

“He’s eligible?” Mrs. Snyder asked promptly.

“Well, I don’t know whether you’d call him that or not,” I answered hesitantly. “He’s not married and never has been. He’s over seventy years old, I believe. But he’s an awfully nice man. Witty and well educated.”

“I’ve heard the Roumanian Inn is a nice place to meet men. Have you ever been there, Miss Talby? I’m going there some evening for dinner, and then I’ll stay for the dancing—if I meet some nice man . . . .”

Mrs. Snyder met us at the opera and appeared to enjoy it. I don’t believe she listened to the music much or cared what the plot was about, but the idea of being at the opera seemed to give her a thrill. She was interested in my friend, the older man, too, but not excessively so. He left in the middle of the opera, saying he was sick. I do not believe that it was Mrs. Snyder who made him sick. She did not take his departure amiss, at any rate. She seemed quite pleased with my company and after the opera insisted on taking me into one of the whipped-cream emporiums along Broadway. She thanked me again and again, saying how much she had enjoyed the evening.

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Now our relations entered a new phase—a social one. There were still fittings, and now Mrs. Snyder came often. Sometimes she brought the dress, sometimes she did not. There was always a little something to be fixed or adjusted. She basted the seams and ripped them out again. She kept tabs on my social life, asking me each time where I was going, with whom I was going, and what our plans for the evening were.

“Him I didn’t like,” she would remark holding the pins tightly between her lips, when I mentioned an appointment with my favorite beau. “A nice girl like you could find somebody better. Oh, Miss Talby, if I were only a man.”

Spring was approaching and I realized that the making and unmaking of the dress had been going on almost six months. Moreover, my beau had planned an elaborate evening a week hence—dinner, the opera, and then possibly dancing. By this time, he had seen every dress I owned—I needed something spectacularly attractive.

I called Mrs. Snyder on the phone. I called her once. I called her twice. There was never any answer. I spent the better part of the weekend trying to reach her by telephone and did not succeed. Perhaps she had eloped with the material, the half-finished dress, and one of her “eligible” men. On Tuesday morning, she did answer the telephone. She was, as usual, full of apologies. She had spent the weekend at the home of one of her sons. His wife was sick. I explained the situation to her, told her I must have the dress for the following Monday evening, and impressed upon her that she had been basting and ripping the dress for six months. “You know it won’t take you long to sew up the seams, Mrs. Snyder,” I told her when I sensed reluctance in her voice.

“One more fitting, just one more fitting, Miss Talby,” she begged, “and then the dress will be ready to be sewn. I want to be sure that the bosom line is exactly right.”

The week was hectic. There was one more fitting. Mrs. Snyder brought the dress in pieces. She had ripped it out again, but I stood over her sternly as she basted it together again in my presence. She told me all the difficulties she would encounter in finishing it. There was the belt to be brought to the belt-maker, a zipper to install, shoulder pads to buy. To all this, my firm answer was a kindly, “But that won’t take more than five or ten minutes, Mrs. Snyder.”

Mrs. Snyder shook her head dolefully. “You don’t know. You never know, Miss Talby, how long these things take. The belt-maker likes to take me out for coffee and cheese cake, the presser wants to talk to me. It can take a long time.” I was adamant. The dress must be finished within a week. To make certain, I called Mrs. Snyder up at least every other morning. At last she could procrastinate no longer and admitted that the seams were ready to be sewn, the hem turned, and the dress would be finished.

“I’ll see if I can get downtown tomorrow. There’s a place where I think I can use a sewing machine,” she finally informed me with great reluctance.

“Haven’t you a sewing machine of your own?” I asked, horrified.

“Of course I have a sewing machine,” Mrs. Snyder said soothingly, “but it’s an old one and it will take me a long time on that. If I go downtown I can get it done in a few minutes.”

I called Mrs. Snyder the next day and the next. She said she had gone downtown and not been able to use the sewing machine. I knew that she hadn’t, but she promised faithfully to have the dress done by Tuesday.

“But what good will the dress do me on Tuesday? I’m going out Monday night and I have nothing to wear,” I wailed. Having the dress for the opera began to mean a great deal to me.

“You always had other things to wear before,” Mrs. Snyder pointed out maddeningly. “Besides, him I don’t like so much. You could find yourself a much better boyfriend.”

“Mrs. Snyder, I want the dress for Monday night,” I said, fully exasperated. “You’ve been making and unmaking it since before Thanksgiving. Spring is here now.”

“I know. I know, Miss Talby,” Mrs. Snyder said soothingly. “Don’t worry. I’ll do the best I can. You’ll have your dress.”

Late Monday afternoon, Mrs. Snyder called me. Even before she spoke, I knew—the dress was not done. She had had an attack of lumbago and could not move her back. The doctor had ordered her to stay in bed. “But I’ll have the dress for you to morrow,” she assured me brightly.

The evening was spoiled before it began, My escort came late. My hair was a mess. The dress I wore lacked umph. We gulped the excellent supper. When we arrived at the opera, it had already begun. Nor was it as good as we had anticipated. If things had been right, if I had been charming and scintillating, I felt he might have asked me to marry him that night. When he left, I knew I’d never see him again.

Mrs. Snyder did bring the dress the next evening—too late. She knew I was angry—that it was more than anger, for it had some of the elements of heartbreak and despair.

“Did you have a nice time on your date last night?” she asked brightly.

“So-so,” I answered. She must have guessed that something was wrong—she looked conscience-stricken.

I tried on the dress. It was beautiful, though scant solace to me. I paid Mrs. Snyder what I owed her and we parted.

Soon after, I moved out of that apartment.

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