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Rips, tatters and other matters of style
Now and Then
roger branch

It is a sign of age and being “out of it,” I suppose, but there is a lot that I do not understand about contemporary styles in dress and decoration.

Colder weather has arrived, but I see people — mostly young people — dressed in hoodies and shorts, very short shorts. It is obvious that bodily comfort is not driving sartorial choices. Without evidence from interviews or scientific polling, any opinion that I might have about the “why” of such choices would be speculation. My mother — who was not prudish — would voice an unflattering explanation, so it is well that she has been gone from this earth for many years and does not have to see these things.

Mother would be more troubled by people wearing brand new clothes made of “distressed” material. Some are bleach-spotted. Some have holes at the knees. Some have big ragged and torn spots with dangling threads. From regular experiences with husbands and children, she and others like her understood that accidents happen and were happier to see torn clothing than torn hide. But rips had to be repaired because her family must not look “thrown away,” an ill reflection on her character and devotion.

Mother could mend a rip so that it hardly showed, maybe not at all. She would turn the garment inside out and sew by hand, making small, close stitches using thread the color of the cloth or as near to that color as possible. I worked and played hard and heedless, wearing out britches at the knees and snagging clothes on barbed wire. She saved cloth for patches or took some from part of the garment itself to cover holes at the knees and elsewhere if the spot was too big to stitch shut. She could do quick repairs with a “whip stitch” to stop further damage until there was time for a better fix. Thus, we have the term “in a whip stitch” for action to be taken quickly.

To move from the sartorial to the tonsorial, I am amused at the use of the word “bun” for a contemporary hairstyle adopted by both males and females. I know a hair bun when I see one. This thing is not a bun. It is a skimpy ponytail pulled up onto the top of the head instead of sticking out behind. I have nothing against the style itself, just the terminology. Language is full of potential. Invent something appropriate.

  In the world of my childhood, many females wore their hair long, although most of them in my mother’s generation were emancipated and adopted shorter styling. Long hair interfered with vigorous work or play. In some religious groups, it was seen as wrong for females to cut their hair. "Pigtails” or plaited hair was a common solution for them and others who elected to keep their hair long.

My memory of hair buns is firmly attached to my paternal grandmother, Sarah “Sally” Wilkes Branch. I watched her “fix” her hair. She was petite, about five feet tall, and for years her hair hung down nearly to her waist, trimmed occasionally to remove split ends.

Each day she brushed it thoroughly, turning her head slightly and pulling it over her shoulder so that she could reach all of it. Then she bundled it into a long strand and wound it into a tight circle at the back of her head, using one hand to guide the hair into place and the other to hold it there. Finally, it was secured with hair pins, not bobby pins but thin, steel shanks two to three inches long with decorative heads. 

The result was a bun, round like a hamburger bun but much larger, four to five inches across, depending upon how long the hair was at the time. It fit well into a bonnet and was cooler and out of the way for work. At night, she removed the pins, unwound the strand of hair and bound it with ribbons for comfortable rest or let it flow free.

I never knew how she washed her long hair before the modern age of running water and bathtubs, which she never knew. My best guess is that it was done with a basin, much water and help from someone. Having worn her hair shorter when she was younger, she finally gave in to the overtures of family and had it cut, then had a beautician “put in” a permanent wave. 

Having seen those hairpins that held the bun together, I think the change was wise.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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