Bonfiring the vanities | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

The first time I realized how much of a fashionista my mother had been was when my baptismal dress turned up sometime in my married life.


Nothing I had ever wrapped my children in when they became Christians could hold a candle to that one. By that time the tiny outfit was as brown and dry as a tea leaf. It was tattered and torn, but the cloth was French Chantilly lace which, in the ’30s, unlike today, was as fine and intricate as spiders’ webs. Faded, too, was the just-as-tattered soft silk slip. It was obvious my mama loved dressing me up.


In Quiapo when I was a child, we had a chic mestiza neighbor named Fe Golden who lived in an entresuelo across the street. Her breasts were upright, her derrière luscious. Although shop-less, Señora Fe was a couturier in the true sense, and together she and my mama pieced me together as I grew up.


Both of them had great taste and wild imaginations, so I wore shoulder-less dresses with straps, finely pleated balloon skirts, sun dresses, and soft slacks—nothing corny, mind you. For my fancier frocks they ordered custom-made hats which were delivered to our doorstep in oval boxes with the Spanish milliner’s signature on it: Inez F. Granfil. The one I wore longest was a straw chapeau with an upturned brim.


At that time there was a craze among young mommies over Shirley Temple, a cute 4-year-old Hollywood moppet with blonde sausage curls and dimples. Mama filled a whole album with clippings of the child star.     Shirley Temple wore the briefest of minis, exhibiting bits of panty fore and aft. Soon enough I had to wear those mini-minis too, resentfully and endlessly pulling down the hem to hide my panties.


Live coals


Mama made it a habit to pinch my nose whenever she passed me by. I guess I owe my tall nose to that, but somehow she forgot to pinch the bridge. As for my hair, black and straight like my dad’s, she had a temporary remedy for that.


“Cold wave” had not yet been invented. The only way to get curled was with curling irons (tenaza), an instrument of torture if ever I saw one. Hair wrapped in foil was twirled around a kind of sipit primitively heated on live coals (something like that).


Sometimes the contraption slipped and there was the smell of burning hair. Indeed some little girls had small bald scars on their heads as relics of their mother’s vanity. It took hours of fidgeting to get curled in that manner and the hard-earned ringlets washed off in a day. I went through the ordeal twice.


Once was during the 1935 Children’s Fancy Dress Ball, a component of the Manila Carnival and the number before the coronation of the Carnival Queen. It was exciting for doting mamas to caparison their kids in fancy costumes and let them parade around the oval for all Manila to see.


My cousin, Paping Dinglasan, and I appeared as Benvenuto Cellini and the Duchess of Florence, he in a princely silver lamé shirt and cap and me in a Fe Golden midnight blue velvet gown with a long pearl necklace and a topaz dangling from a Juliet cap on my forehead. I guess we must have won something because there was our photo in a yellowed Manila Tribune clipping. I was 5.


When I was 10, my hair was below shoulder length. Mama was fascinated with ribbons and bows of all colors and prints which she styled into my hair. I was still an only child at that time, and it took a hideously long time to start out for school.


Mama or the maid would be braiding my hair every which way—close to the scalp and joining a main braid, hanging down like two ropes, crossed at the nape, braids coiled above each ear or in a cross-over coronet.


My bangs seemed destined to be permanent. Once every 10 days my mother would take me to daddy’s barber to have it trimmed. I climbed up the enormous chair with bolster pillows, had a big sheet envelop me, and the barber trimmed my bangs with lots of instructions from mama.


As a very small child, I liked watching my mother dressing up in front of her Art Nouveau dresser with three oval mirrors. You could see yourself from any angle. There were many bottles of perfume on top—Crepe de Chine (with a sandalwood sliver floating in it), Mitsuoko, L’Heure Bleue, Shalimar and Lotion Vegetal.


Mama owned a profusion of scents but, like most women in those days, only one lipstick (Max Factor), red. Rouge, in a tiny black tin she applied on her cheeks with a short fat camel hair brush. Her clips and hairpins were in a red-and-black boat-shaped Art Nouveau glass container. It once had a matching perfume atomizer and polvera (container for loose face powder).




A decade later, the hairpins in the boat-shaped   container were replaced with “mervins,” evil-looking aluminum hair snap-ons (with teeth) that could create overnight waves.


My mother’s hair then was long and naturally wavy. With her finger she would shape a half-moon wave (onda) on her forehead and another on her temple, flapper style. The rest was caught in a snood at the nape. (A snood is a small hairnet made of fat threads to capture the knotted hair. Later on it came in many colors.)


I particularly liked watching mama getting ready to go partying with my daddy. She would put each foot into a silk stocking, glide a garter to her thigh and slide the foot into a pointed side-buttoned shoe.


Of course I didn’t believe in many of my mother’s beauty rituals. To the day she left this earth, for instance, mama had peaches-and-cream complexion, and I could never comprehend why she still hankered for fairer skin. Women carried umbrellas, not because it was raining, but because they mortally feared getting dark and sunburned.


The only post-WWII bleaching product then (unlike the proliferation on the shelves today) was something called Stillman’s Freckle Cream which my mama used to fade her four freckles. Then she realized that it could make the rest of her face and also her neck lighter! Needless to say, I, too, was soon ordered to plaster my face and neck with that goo. (Yes, neck too, because she claimed that face and neck were a unit, it shouldn’t appear like a different head was connected to one’s neck).

Bedtime was difficult because I was afraid the cream would wipe off, and so slept with my head excruciatingly immobile. And I was constantly reminded to powder the inside of my ears.


I couldn’t relate to such an obsession for beauty. For a flat tummy, mama encouraged standing up from table immediately after each meal and walking back and forth the length of the sala, ironing one’s belly with the palms of one’s hands. Don’t slouch! She’d admonish me and my sister. Sit up straight all the time! (To this day my sister and I are ramrod straight like PMA plebes.)


There was an abundant supply of fruit daily on our table because mama believed it “cleared the skin.” She gave us enemas and laxatives regularly for the same purpose.


Fashionable mama designed jewelry for a faithful clientele, and she loved making earrings, bracelets and rings for my sister and me from the odd pieces of leftover/defective stones. She was always able to create something beautiful. We just took for granted that we would always be supplied new jewelry for important occasions. Thankless me, though, I sometimes rejected mama’s jewelry creations as “too sweet.”


When I became 17 it was rebellion time. Henceforth I didn’t want to look like part of a race I didn’t belong to. I gave up all mama’s bleaches, creams and lotions, juices and enemas. I refused to powder the inside of my ears. The petticoats that made me look like Marie Antoinette I secretly packed for donation to the school’s Christmas drive.


Henceforth I would design my own clothes and let the seamstress at the corner execute them. I would eat three Babe Ruths instead of lunch. I would walk in the sun and the rain. That was when I began to really look awful.



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