Charlie McMillan

Charlie McMillen

- the Dressmaker

The Dressmaker

“Click, clack and the camera took a snap.”

My parents always entertained their visiting relatives with copious cups of tea poured from the big Brown Betty teapot and accompanied with laden plates of home made scones and gingerbread. When the chatter and gossip began to turn to reminiscence of places and times past my father would bring out from the cupboard under the stairs an old brown leather suitcase. The case was battered and scuffed by many travels and only one of its little brass locks worked. The leather handle was held on only by a boot lace and the case bulged with a lopsided tilt under the pressure of its fullness. Once brought to the kitchen table, the lock was slid open and the lid was lifted on the family Pandora's box.  Revealed was the untidily stacked photographic records of our family's many generations since the invention of the camera and the photographic paper print.

Stored haphazardly in the little brown case were many small two and a half inch square 'Box Brownie' prints showing my parents on holiday at Portobello, Arran or Doon the Watter at Rothesay. Mother  holding a newborn baby- my brother or me? Pictures of my Dad with hair on a seaside promenade;  pictures of mother, father and kids eating ice-cream cones on a beach. There were older studio photos of my grandmothers in cloche hats or with dead foxes around their shoulders. In some they were sporting veils over their faces or heavy strands of pearls around their necks. There were sepia ten-by-eight prints of men in uniform; the last fading images of them before they were evaporated in the muddy fields of war torn France. From the earliest days of photography there were pictures on glass of nameless handsome young men. There were other photos of lost or forgotten people, insofar that my mother or father could not remember who they were or had a vague recollection that they were probably a cousin or perhaps an uncle or an aunt. One or two photos they pushed aside, saying, "Ah, we don't talk about him; he was a bad lot!"

Amid all the chatter and reminiscences engendered by the photographic prompts there was one photograph that always caught my attention and seemed to stand out from all the others. It was a studio portrait mounted in an oval cardboard frame of an elegant Edwardian couple. The gentleman was seated and smartly dressed in three piece suit and with a high starched shirt collar; his hair oiled and parted in the centre. Standing beside him was a gorgeously elegant and beautiful woman whom I assumed to be his wife. Probably taken when they were in their mid thirties they were a truly handsome couple but it was her dress in its Edwardian splendour that dominated the photograph. A dress of the most exquisite style, fitted to her by a master couturier to enhance and flatter her most beautiful female form. The dress radiated quality from its satin and silk sheen to the perfect and tasteful embroidery and decoration.

When I asked who the people in that photograph were, my mother would only say, guardedly,

 "Oh, that's my uncle Charlie and his wife Maisie - he was my mother's brother. He was a bit of a black sheep; turned out to be an embarrassment to my mother's family.” 

When I asked her for more information she would only say ."It was that dress that caused all the trouble."

“What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. "How could a dress cause trouble?"
She answered evasively, "Next time we go to your Grans you can ask her about her brother Charlie and that dress.


Gran in Temple lived in the old tenemented part of  Edinburgh called Gorgie. The area had a mixture of smells that preceded the arrival at her house and included  the sweet yeasty aroma from the nearby brewery, the honeyed malt barley scent from the bonded whisky warehouses and the sour, putrid stench from the stagnant  open sewer of the Union Canal that ran along the backyard of Grans tenement home. The canal was a remainder waterway that two hundred years before had been a major canal artery linking Edinburgh and Glasgow. Now it served as a dumping ground for old bicycles, car tyres and other detritus, yet provided the main water supply for the Fountainbridge Brewery.
We called her 'Gran in Temple' not because she was an old lady in an eastern Temple, full of wisdom and all knowing, but because she lived in Temple Park Crescent and this was to differentiate her from our other Gran - 'Gran in Glasgow '- my father's mother.

I always relished my visits to 'Gran in Temple' with her parlour full to the brim with wondrous things, gleaned from her journeys to America and the Canadian Prairies, England or the auction rooms in Edinburgh's Rose Street. Her cooking was also different from my mother's. We would be fed corned beef with big dollops of mashed potatoes along with mushy marrowfat peas or soggy salted cabbage. This was always followed by custard with prunes. There was always tea brewing on the old black coal burning range in the kitchen and a warming radiant heat emanating from the fire glowing behind the heavy metal door that was often opened to prod the coals and add more fuel. A clothes horse stood beside the range to dry newly washed smalls. Heavier garments hung drying on the pulley rack that hung overhead in the small but cosy kitchen. As it often rained in Edinburgh the horse and pulley were the only means of drying clothes in those days before the advent of electric dryers.

Visits to Gran in Temple were often short. I could tell that my mother didn't much like her mother and I could feel that my mother regarded these visits as more duty than pleasure. To me and my brother these visits were a real treat especially when we were allowed into my Gran's parlour. Here resided souvenirs from North America.- Beaded necklaces of wampum, arrows, buckskin purses with quill work, leggings and beadwork ornaments from her time with the Sioux and Blackfeet Indians in Manitoba. Then there was her library of leather bound and gold tooled books; The Waverley Novels, Dickens, Robert Burns, Jack London, R.M. Ballantyne and many more. There were also memorabilia from darker times of two world wars. There was a Nazi telescopic whip cosh from the SS death camps and a picture frame made from a 1914-18 aeroplane propellor.

Along the mantelpiece in the parlour sat an array of framed family photographs. There were photos of my mother as a girl with a shaggy dog. A picture of my mum in a wedding dress beside my dad in his baggy khaki soldiers uniform. Then there was a large framed picture of my Gran's  Canadian husband resplendent in his Canadian Mounted Rifles uniform taken a month before he died in Flanders on his birthday in 1917. However, among these pictures my eye was always drawn to that same photograph in my parent's collection which had intrigued me. Here again was the picture that my mother had said was of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Maisie. Here was the picture that my mother had told me to ask my Gran about – to ask her about the dress?

It was on one of our visits to 'Gran in Temple' that my mother decided that she needed to go  shopping in Princes Street and buy my brother some new trousers and get some fabric to make a new summer dress for herself. I hated shopping so I was left with my Gran for the afternoon. I played for a while out in the street where other kids rode bicycles and played with prams and dolls or did peevery beds chalked on the pavement. Dogs ran about unleashed and semi wild. There were few cars in the 1950's and the streets still belonged to people. Neighbours gossiped, the rag-and-bone man's horse and cart clattered through the cobbled street accompanied by his trumpet blasts. Women opened windows and shouted to each other across the tenement canyons. Then the rain came on, as it often does in Scotland, and I returned to Gran's house. Sometimes when it was cold or wet outside we would play  'Ludo' or 'Snakes and Ladders' but this time Gran was in her front room. She called it her parlour. It was the fashion in those old Scottish houses, that only had two large rooms, to keep all the best possessions in the parlour only to be opened for special occasions such as Christmas or New Year and to do most of the living in the kitchen or scullery.

Gran was dusting around her tea cups and other ornaments. The afternoon light was coming in through the lace curtains, shedding their tracery patterns over the joyous clutter in the room. A break in the clouds outside sent a beam of sunlight though the room that flashed and sparked off the pictures on the mantlepiece. She turned around sensing my presence.
"Is that you pet? you gave me a wee bit fright. I'm an old lady you know, not used to you young things being around."
'Yes Gran , I replied, "I'm sorry but the rain came on so I came in."
"That's alright pet, Maybe we can play some board games to pass the time?"
Then I thought about the pictures on the mantle behind her and summoned up my courage to ask her about THE picture.
"Gran,?' I began meekly. 'Who are those people in these pictures?
"Well pet, they are just some of my relatives, and I suppose they are your relatives too. There's one of your mother when she was a teenager with her dog Towser - She looks so young, carefree and happy then before the war and all that terrible time. This photo's of my husband  Harry in his Canadian army uniform. Off to war - the war to end all wars, they said.”
"Did he die in the war, Gran?" I asked.
'Yes pet, along with too many other bright and beautiful young men.”
She paused ... a thoughtful silence ...then she looked away, remembering.

I broke the reverie, feeling that this was the right time to ask who the lady in the dress was and why had the dress caused trouble.
"Gran, who is that lady in the beautiful dress?" As I asked the question I pointed to the picture that had so intrigued me.
" Ah!" she exclaimed " that's Maisie with her husband Charlie. Charlie was my brother - my older brother. He was a bonny lad as they say in Lancashire where I grew up. He was always immaculately turned out - smartly dressed and perfectly groomed. He took a real pride in appearances and he doted on Maisie. He thought the world of her. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her. They were a lovely couple, two of the nicest people you could ever meet. Charlie was a cabinet maker to trade. They said he was one of the best in Barrow. A real artist with wood they said - gifted and able to build anything in wood. He worked at the big Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in- Furness. The shipyard where they built the big ocean liners and fitted out the  Mauretania, the Lusitania and many more. Charlie worked on the woodwork for the swanky first class accommodations; the ballrooms, the dining rooms, state rooms and first class cabins. He worked with every kind of fancy wood such as mahogany, teak, rosewood, ebony and sandalwood. He was a perfectionist with the detailing of tenons and dovetails, mouldings and carvings, trims and fillets. But, you know, he was a quiet man, modest and generous to a fault. Some people didn't like him- thought he had airs - they would say. Called him a dandy because he dressed smart and neat and well turned out. Some said he had ambitions above his station but I loved him - always had since he was a wee lad. I think people were jealous because he married one of the most beautiful girls in the town and he had a good job. I always thought he had a great sense of style and at heart he was what you would now call an artist. But sadly you couldn't be an artist in working class Barrow in those days at the beginning of the twentieth Century.”

Gran took down the picture from the mantlepiece and held it to show me her brother and sister-in-law. It seemed a bigger picture than the print my mother had in her collection and the detail in the print was crystal clear. I could see the fine stitching in Maisie's dress, all the embroidery seemed to stand out, all the tucks and gussets, and the sheen on the satin; the cool glow from the silk. I was mesmerised. Here was a symphony in silk and satin, a joyous celebration on the female form, a treasure wrapped in pleasure. In the monochrome of the plate I imagined a riot of colour that somehow was present in that dress.

"Gran? were Charlie and Maisie Rich? They look like royalty in that photograph.”
“No pet, they were just ordinary hard working folk, like us, but in some ways they were extraordinary."

"Why were they extraordinary,Gran?" I queried, somewhat puzzled.
"Well pet, that's a story." she replied.
"Please," I pleaded, "tell me the story."
"Very well, but it could take a while to tell. Let's both sit down and get comfortable."
So Gran sat down on one of her comfortable armchairs with the antimacassars on the arms and head rest and I sat on my favourite little three legged milking stool.
'Let me see," she began,"where was I?"
"You were talking about the dress that Maisie wore, Gran." I prompted.

"Ah, yes...that dress. Well, every few weeks Maisie would appear in a new dress with Charlie on her arm either walking out on a Saturday afternoon in the new public park that the town had just built or if the weather was bad they would attend the church on a Sunday or maybe go to a music concert in the fine Town Hall that had recently been opened. Each dress would be in the latest fashion and beautifully made down to the last tiny detail. When this elegant couple stepped out the menfolk in the town couldn't take their eyes off Maisie because she looked so beautiful and dazzling in those dresses and all the women, although they feigned admiration, were really jealous both of her beautiful attire and of her personal beauty.”

"That dress must have cost a fortune.' Mrs Smith would say. "How could they afford to buy a dress like that and him just a working man and her just a housewife?"
"She must have made that dress...she couldn't afford to buy so many fine dresses. She wears a new one every month or so." Mrs Jones would observe.
"I think she must have trained as a dressmaker or seamstress," Mrs Black would speculate. "But it must have been in London or Paris because I've never seen such fine work, such perfect cut and execution, and such attention to detail in any dressmakers shops around here."

"You see pet, in those days most women made and mended their family clothes, so they knew the skill and patience and the many long hours that it took to make one of those elegant Edwardian dresses...and they knew how much they cost. It was also one of the few ways of displaying your social status or your individuality in a society at the time that demanded conformity. My parents were very conformist, they were what are called Ulster Scots. My father was from Antrim and my mother was from Tyrone. They were dour humourless folk that saw hard work and their bleak religion as the centre of their lives. My father was a hard man, worked as a ships engineer with the big steam engines. He was hard with himself and particularly hard on his sons. He ruled the house, as they say, with a rod of iron. I remember long ago when I was a wee girl about your age and I was playing with my dolls and Charlie was helping me dress them and play some imaginary game that bairns play, when my father saw what we were doing, he went mad. Belted Charlie till his bottom was raw and screamed at him that it was wrong for boys to play with dolls, unmanly, he shouted. Charlie cried all night, such a beating he got for what was just a child's innocence."
"That was cruel, to punish a boy for playing." I said.
"That was the way parents treated their children in those times. Beatings were normal and expected. As soon as we were 14  me and my brothers were put to work in a trade apprenticeship. That was another world of beatings and hard knocks. You couldn't be soft or sensitive in those times, it was soon bullied and beaten out of you."
"What was the town like, that you grew up in, Gran?” I asked, beginning now to get a picture of a time half a century ago and before two world wars had torn that age to fragments.

"Well, Barrow-in-Furness was a town that grew very quickly from a wee village in 1850 to become one of the powerhouses of England's industrial might and war machine. It was a planned town with fine broad streets, public parks, fine municipal buildings and lots of solid brick built terraced houses for the workers and their families. I grew up in one of those terraced houses in Ann Street. Like my father, most of the neighbours worked in the shipyards, in the foundries, at the docks and helped build great ocean liners and battleships. It was in Barrow where the first submarines and the famous giant R101 airship was  built. Britain was at the height of it's Empire. Britain ruled the waves and half the world. It was a golden age in many ways, the early years of the twentieth century. Being well dressed was very important, especially at the weekends. Most people had to do dirty jobs so they were glad to get out of their working overalls and into their "Sunday best" to go stepping out at the weekend in the park, at the new department stores in the High Street, listening to a brass band at the fancy bandstand, in the public park or to an orchestra at the concert hall. Better still, go swanking to a dance, a ball or a civic function."

"Gran, my mum said that Maisie's dress caused a lot of trouble. What did she mean?" I asked, wanting to get to the heart of this mysterious dress.
"Oh she told you about that did she?"Gran said in a questioning tone.
"We'll not really, she just said that the dress caused some sort of trouble." I replied.

“I'll tell you, but you have to understand that in those days men were expected to do only manly things such as hard manual work in the steel works or the shipyard, then come home and have their meals cooked by their wives and then go out to the pub or working men's club and come home drunk. Then at weekends they went to the pub and the football. Women did everything else, they cooked, kept house and cleaned, washed, shopped, looked after the kids, did what they were told, and made and repaired clothes. The roles of men and women were clearly defined and separated. So most men couldn't cook or sew.... even sew on a button. indeed to do so would have been demeaning and humiliating to most men. If asked they would say " that's women's work"...beneath their dignity to do and contemptible."

"It's different now Gran,isn't it.?" I asked hopefully.
" Yes pet, it's better than it was thanks to the suffragettes and the wars when women had to do men's jobs when the men were either away fighting or dead. Now women can get good education and good jobs thanks to the  Suffragettes, the Socialists and the Trade Unions. When I was a girl we only got reading writing and arithmetic then out to work at fourteen, married and bairnt by twenty and old by forty. Now if you work hard at school you can be a doctor or a lawyer or even a politician."

"But Gran I still don't understand why a dress caused trouble.? I was anxious to get to the answer.
"Very well, it began, with the gossips in Ann Street. They couldn't understand how Maisie could afford or make those dresses she wore. They knew that she had no training as a dressmaker and  her own mother was a ham-fisted seamstress so she couldn't have learnt at home. They knew that parcels of materials arrived in the post at the house and they could hear the sewing machine whirring away most nights of the week. Paper dress patterns could be seen lying on the window sill. But they were puzzled, because when they asked Maisie about where she got the fine fabric or how she did that fine embroidery or bead-work she was evasive and quickly changed the subject to talk about the state of the weather. It was Mrs Black, as I recall, who was the most persistent "Nosey Parker" in the street. When she heard the sewing machine whirring and chattering she would go quietly around the back lane that ran behind the terraced houses and see if she could see into the kitchen or scullery to where the sound was coming from. But always the curtains were drawn and she could see nothing, until one night in the heat of summer, Maisie left the window open for some air and the curtains were blowing in the breeze. Mrs Black was out watching and through the brief gaps in the billowing curtains she could see into the room. Expecting to see Maisie treading the sewing machine she was horrified to see a man in shirt sleeves and braces working at the sewing machine. God forbid, she thought and almost cried out in shock's a man's Charlie Macmillan...sewing! You see pet, the very idea that a man would make dresses was considered strange and repugnant. It challenged the whole social order and gender roles that defined peoples lives back then. The next morning the gossip was hot and rife. Mrs Black was energized to tell everyone she could about what she had seen. The word was out."

"Could you imagine? ...her man makes her dresses!"exclaimed Mrs Black.
"That's unnatural that a man should be doing women's work and her passing it off as her own handiwork.!...Shameful." retorted Mrs Brown

 Gran continued, “The malicious gossip spread like wildfire and turned everything around. The dress became, not a thing of adornment and pride but a mark of shame...somehow devalued because it was made by a cabinet maker not a female dressmaker. This was an assault on the established order. The sexual order was threatened. How dare a man invade the female domain? To do so could instantly emasculate him! The thing is that Charlie wasn't the stereotypical "man" like his father or his work mates, he had seen other possibilities as a "man". He had seen a wider canvas, a way to break out of the confinement of gender role play, a way to show his love and care for his wife, a way to adorn her, embellish her; a way to feel proud to be with her and a way to show love with every stitch, button, ribbon and bow. There was also the deep pleasure and joy in the doing and making of a dress, the feel of the materials, the challenge of the creation. Once pet, I asked him about his dressmaking and he said,

"Was it so different from making a chair or a table in wood or fitting out a ships dining room? Wasn't the shaping of the wood, the assembly of the pieces, the planing, routing, jointing, embellishing, carving and fitting the wood to the curves of a ships hull...wasn't that just the same as dressmaking?"

"But the neighbours didn't see it that way. The word was out. The women were giggling and twittering when Charlie passed them on his way to work and it got worse. At work the teasing and sneering began. At first it was a snide joke such as "can you sew a button on my trousers, Charlie? Or "I'm thinking of getting a new waistcoat, maybe that seamstress in Ann Street could make me one, or maybe some knickers for the wife?"
"Then they started to call him names such as "the Seamstress",or “the Stitcher”, but the name that stuck was the “Dressmaker”... “Dressmaker Charlie”. Charlie took all this in good humour, but it was hurtful. My father got to hear about Charlie's dressmaking and was horrified, 'black-affronted' as they say in Scotland and sent word to Charlie and Maisie that he didn't want to have them visit again. “Never darken my doorstep”, were his actual words. He did the same to me but that's another story.
Sadly when Charlie and Maisie walked out the next weekend it wasn't admiration and envy anymore it was scorn and sneers they received.
"See that woman in that fancy dress, it's her husband that made it...shameful is what I say. " They were made to hear an intentional aside from a passer by. 

In the park they overheard some gossips, "To think of a man making a dress, it's you think he's really a "man"? They have no children you know and married near ten years.”

“Maisie stopped wearing the fine beautiful dresses to go out and started dressing very plain. But Charlie didn't stop making beautiful clothes for Maisie but she only wore them when they went on their holidays to Blackpool or made a trip to Manchester. You know pet, it's sad and contemptible that ignorant untalented people's sneers and sanctions can stifle creativity. You will probably face the same thing yourself in your life, but mark my words, you should never give in to that kind of badness that tries to crush your spirit."

"What happened to Charlie and Maisie?" I asked. "And what happened to the dress?"

"Like most men of my generation he had to join the forces in the 1914-18 War. At first he was needed in the shipyard but as the war dragged on they started conscripting older men. Charlie had received a few packages containing white feathers...this was a (cowardly) way of accusing him of cowardice. He joined up in the Navy and was killed when a German U boat sank his ship in the cold Atlantic Ocean. Maisie never really got over his death and she wore plain black "widows weeds " thereafter. Her health deteriorated - perhaps it was the heartbreak or it could have been the tuberculosis-  I don't know - but she was dead by 1920."
"Did any of the dresses survive", I wondered.?
"Only one my dear, I've kept it here as a memento - would you like to see it?"
" Really, Gran, yes,yes,yes, where is it is it here.?” I babbled excitedly .

"You just wait a minute pet." Gran said as she got up and went next door to her bedroom. I could hear a wardrobe opening and something heavy dropping to the floor. Gran reappeared a few minutes later with a large leather case. She laid it down and sprang the hasps then lifted the lid to reveal a mass of white tissue paper. She delved among the paper folding it back to reveal a shimmer of silk and  satin then she lifted the garment clear of the paper and case to reveal the dress"

"Oh ,Gran it's that dress, isn't it?" I squealed gleefully with excitement.

“Yes pet, it's the same dress that's in the photograph. Maisie gave it to me to wear for my wedding to my first husband, that ne'er do well, George Shaw. but that's another story. I've kept it all these years, it's so beautiful and it's all I have left to remind me of my brother and those times before the first world war.”

“Oh, Gran, can I try it on?” I asked excitedly.

“I think it will be too big for you, but you can hold it up against yourself and look in the mirror.” Gran replied.

I picked up the dress , feeling the smoothness of the satin and the textures of the bead-work and embroidery and held it up against my body in front of the full length mirror. For a moment I was back in Edwardian England, parading in the park with my beau. But then I heard the front gate creak and footsteps on the path to the front door. 

Gran said, “Oh dear, I think that's your mother coming back. Quickly put the dress back in the case.”

“Why?” I asked, puzzled.

“I can't explain, laddie, someday you will understand.” Gran said quietly as she slid the clasps shut on the case.”I don't think your mother would want me to be showing her son fancy women's clothing.”

That was the last time I saw that dress. When my Gran died the house was cleared by my mother and all the mementos of Canada and the dress disappeared forever.

Gordon Mooney 

My Great Aunt and her daughter on her wedding day 1911.

My Great Aunt and her daughter on her wedding day 1911.

2015- revised 2016