Had I only known the '50s were going to be so fascinating to future generations, I would have saved all my adolescent Easter outfits to donate to the Smithsonian. I see them in a display similar to that of the First Ladies' Inaugural Gowns. My kelly-green gabardine suit with the box-pleated skirt and bolero jacket. My voluminous "topper," the color and texture of cotton candy. My lavender coat with the rhinestone lapel ornament.
The casual museum visitor eyeing these items in the exhibit might conclude that such outfits had been assembled hastily, even carelessly. But that was far from the case.
Almost as soon as Christmas was over with, the most frequent topic of conversation was "What are your wearing for Easter?" In the New Jersey climate we were at the mercy of fickle weather, which might make one's choice all wrong. If Easter fell in April, you might take a chance on buying just a dress, but since it might be cold you'd better take out insurance in the form of a "topper." Toppers, for the non-cognoscenti, were a big bulky jackets that made even the skinniest kids, which I wasn't, look chunky. On the other hand, if Easter fell in March, you usually chose a suit or spring coat and risked the danger of looking sweaty in church if it turned out to be a warm day. Especialy for the Catholics, hats were de rigeur : not the nice leghorn hats we wore in the '40s when we were little and cute, nor the lace mantillas we got away with in the '60s, but hats with flowers and jewels and even veils.
Footwear was usually the subject of a parent-child struggle that was often tearfully settled in a Miles Shoe Store on Easter Saturday. Woul it be Mary Janes or heels? White anklets or stockings and all the fascinating devices that held them up? You had to be wary about telling your mother that so-and-so was wearing high heels and stockings, since your mother would see so-and-so in her anklets and Mary Janes traipsing up to the communion rail. The march to the communion rail served as a sort of Easter Parade - a chance to evaluate everybody else's Easter outfit. After that, everything was pretty much an anticlimax, though we tried to keep the chocolate rabbits from soiling our Easter outfits until our relatives, some of whom had probably kicked in for the finery, arrived for Easter dinner.
Is the annual Easter outfit ritual as dead as the garter belt and the crinoline?
"Easter outfit? What's that?" asked nine-year-old Katherine Ransom. "Oh, well, we wear good clothes that we already have on Easter, but we don't buy new ones."
"The 4 to 6x group is very interested, but the 7 to 14 group is perhaps less interested than in the past," said Nancy Evans, buyer for clothing for girls sizes 4 to 6x and 7 to 14 at Garfinckels. "Little girls are still interested in dressing up, and the ritual of the Easter outfit is still the same: the hat, the little white gloves and the white anklets with the lace. Jacket dresses are big this year and dresses with pinafores."
"Ensembles - skirts and top combinations and dress and coat outfits - are popular this year," said Paula Davis, whose shop For Baby's Sake, on Pennsylvania Avenue SE also stocks Easter accessories such as hats and white gloves.
"The mothers really like the white gloves," said Davis. Davis' own daughter, Anika, usually gets to pick out her Easter outfit at the last minute - from the stock that hasn't sold at her mother's shop. She wears it to church and then to visit both sets of grandparents.
"We don't go to church," said Annie Berwick, mother of two girls. "But I like the pagan traditions of Easter - the Easter bunny, the egg as a fertility symbol, the idea of spring and renewal. I wouldn't go out and buy my children Easter outfits, but if I saw in a thrift shop some dresses with flowers on them that seemed to symbolize spring, I'd buy them."
On a recent thrift-shopping expedition to an establishment whose identity Berwick asked not be revealed, she found a forsythia-yellow wool spring coat with a white linen collar for one daughter at a bargain $1.95. Since Berwick onlys 100 percent cotton dresses, she failed to find any flowered Easter frocks, however. (I am not so particular, and on the same expedition bought an almost-all-cotton white dress hand-embroidered in the Philippines with yellow, lavender, pink and blue flowers. My daughter immediately identified it as her Easter dress and doesn't care that it cost only 35 cents)
"I buy my daughter an Easter outfit because I always had one when I was kid," said Maureen Raiter. "It made the day. It made us aware of spring to have a new outfit. Besides, with the season change, kids usually need something new to get them through the next round of birthday parties."
Raiter and her daughter, Amy, made the rounds of Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales, Why Not? in Alexandria and Francis-Reilly in Georgetown before they found an outfit they agreed on.
"Amy wanted an off-the-shoulder organdy with purple flowers. I like a Florence Eisman, but she protested that 'Only babies wear that.' We were at an impasse when we found a forsythia-yellow linen dress with a white organdy collar, at Lord & Taylor. She like it because it was spring and happy. She'll wear white gloves and Mary Janes, and we're looking for a hat."
On Easter Sunday, the Raiters go to church and then join the Capitol Hill Easter Parade, in which groups from the various churches march down East Capitol Street to Lincoln Park, with a calliope, balloons, a live lamb and spiritual merriment.
"The kids all look like little flowers marching down to the park. Even if the parents are in dungarees, the kids are always dressed up," said Raiter. "It's a brand-new day."
"You'll always have mothers who want their children all dressed up for Easter Sunday," said Ron Lichter, creative merchandising director for Hecht's. "It's very standard - the coat with the Peter Pan collar, the little dress, the white gloves, the patent shoes. To a degree, the children's market follows trends. We have little suits because suits are important for the mothers now. And blazers and skirts and designer jeans. There's always a mother who'll dress her kid in designer jeans for Easter."
Now how would that look in a glass at the Smithsonian? CAPTION: Picture, ALL DRESSED UP FOR THE EASTER EGG ROLL. By Ellsworth Davis.