A skirt with a past — and a future

What was once Ednah's became Louise's, then Barbara's, and now Melissa Barber's

What was once Ednah’s became Louise’s, then Barbara’s, and now Melissa’s.

FIRST PERSON | Barbara Kate Repa

When retrieving the dry cleaning recently, I ran into an old friend: a brightly colored skirt, freshly cleaned and snaking down the automated trolley at Perfect Cleaners on Fillmore.

The unusual combination of colors, the nubby silk fabric and the jaunty scalloped waistband all were unmistakable. It had been my skirt before I donated it to the Victorian House Thrift Shop a few months earlier.

I had gotten the skirt years before from a friend, Louise Baldridge, who was in her late 80s when we met, but still spry and spirited and quick with a story — many of which involved one of her three former husbands.

“I always loved the rascals,” she said.

Louise was also a social hub, frequently throwing dinners for motley combinations of friends. In her later years, when shopping and chopping became too much, Louise would call to announce, “I’m having a dinner party for six this Friday — and it’s at your house. Don’t worry. I’ll bring a lemon meringue pie for dessert.”

Louise loved to spend afternoons picking her way through the Fillmore resale shops. The Victorian House was one of her favorites. She had an uncanny talent for walking directly to the best find in the place, then dickering for a reduced price.

And she loved to dress up. Until the final months of her life, which ended when she was 92, Louise primped and dressed every day with the classic care: manicured coif and nails, stockings and matching bag and shoes. She didn’t own a pair of pants. “Ladies don’t wear trousers,” she said.

In addition to tales of her skirt-chasing husbands, some of Louise’s other stories involved antics with her dear friend Ednah Root, an artist and heiress to the Simplicity Pattern fortune, who endowed the American Art Study Center at the de Young Museum.

“Ednah was a warm person — very lively and generous,” recalls Ann Karlstrom, director of publications and graphic design at the de Young. “She was a huge dog lover and had two or three. She even allowed them to hop up on the table and eat the hors d’oeuvres. And when she died in 1987, she paid for a caretaker to attend to them until they died, too.”

Karlstrom also remembers Root’s bearing and panache. “She was not tall, but she stood right up as if she were. She was blond until the very end. And she had a tinge of an accent of some type that made her seem somehow aristocratic,” says Karlstrom. “Most of all, she liked to dress in a flamboyant way, with an air of eccentricity.”

By bent or by birthright, Root amassed a huge wardrobe. At her death, she willed much of it to Louise, who went down to Ednah’s house in Palm Springs to retrieve it — although the furs had mysteriously gone missing. But Louise did bring back many items, including that full-length skirt made of raw silk in vibrant shades of pink and green.

I love dressing, too. So when Louise started slowing in her final years, she began to gift me with items of clothing — including many of the pieces she had inherited from Ednah Root. “Someone should be wearing this now,” she said one day, handing me the skirt. Louise recalled that Ednah bought the fabric on one of her many buying trips to China, then had the skirt designed and sewn in San Francisco.

In addition to possessing the Simplicity fortune, Ednah was said to be endowed in still other ways I am not. Her friends described her as “pigeon-breasted” and curvaceous. I swam in the skirt. So I took it to be altered by a family friend, a protege of designer James Galanos who had created fashions for the likes of Princess Grace and Joan Crawford decades ago, prompting him to change his name from Henry to Henri. Henri turned 93 this year and lived in Milwaukee, where he became the toast of a senior complex of mostly female residents. He sewed beautifully until the day he died in August. “I have to sew. I can’t just sit here,” he said only weeks before his death. “And I have tons of alteration work to do. The ladies here all complain they’re getting shorter.”

Henri shortened and narrowed the skirt that had come from Ednah to Louise to me, and he added his own distinctive twist: a fitted waistband with a scalloped top and fabric-covered button closing.

I wore it several years ago to a dinner Louise hosted ­— this one not at our house but at the Ritz — and she fished into her alligator purse and retrieved a picture of Ednah Root. “Ednah would be happy to see you wearing that skirt,” she said, kissing the little gold frame that held the picture and putting it on the table so Ednah could be with us as we ate.

After Louise died, there were far fewer fancy feasts to attend, so I decided I should pass along the skirt to someone who would honor it with the wearings it deserved. I donated it last year to the Victorian House on Fillmore Street. It was the kind of find Louise would have loved.

Along came Melissa Barber, a neighborhood resident and an aficionado of vintage clothing, who spied the skirt while on one of her forages through Fillmore’s resale shops.

“All of my special pieces are vintage,” Barber says. “I love the idea of clothing that has a history, that is truly recycled — and I hate seeing 10 of the same thing hanging on a rack in the store, all overpriced. Vintage is special.”

“I fell in love with that skirt the minute I saw it. It is so unique. The fabric is beautiful and I was taken with the scallops on the waistband,” Barber said. “It cost $50 — kind of pricey for a thrift shop find. But you know what? It was worth it.”

She first wore it to a dinner party in Tiburon, with a simple tucked white blouse and metallic flats. “It was a beautiful dinner — many courses — and by the end of the night the waistband was so tight it was killing me,” recalls Barber, who is tall and thin.

“I’m a comfort person — well, fashion first, but comfort, too,” she says. “I took the skirt to Perfect Cleaners and said to Wai Chan, the proprietor, ‘You have to save this skirt. No matter what.’ “

Chan did some skillful maneuvering, shortening the skirt and using fabric trimmed from the hem to fashion a placket to ease the waist a bit.

“I’m going to wear this skirt for a long time,” says Barber. “But when I do give it up, I’ll make sure it goes to another good home — and that the new owner knows its history.”

  • Deanna@tpbaz.com

    My very dearest friend, Dawn Skelly, is Louise’s granddaughter. She was given one of Ednah’s furs when she was in 5th grade. She still has this fur and it’s quite amazing in all regards! What a historical piece of vintage beauty that has been preserved. It is clearly monogrammed E. Root in delicate stitching…a remarkle piece of history.