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What My Grandmother Taught Me That I'll Never Forget

This is how I’m channeling her individuality and gumption.

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photo collage of grandmother and her fashion style
Elena Lacey
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Picture a woman who encapsulates style and sassiness, who was ahead of the curve and ahead of her time. That woman was my Scottish grandmother — my family lives in Edinburgh. It bends my mind to think that she was my age when she became a grandma, as she always looked old to me, but midlife looks different now than it did in the early 1970s.

My maternal grandma was an amazing woman. I consider myself particularly fortunate to have grown up with the influence of such a strong woman in my early years. Even now, more than 30 years after she passed away, I miss her. I miss her feisty spirit, her vigor. I miss her amazing baking. Most of all, I miss her guidance and wisdom. She always told me the truth, even when that truth was unpalatable, and she never spoke down to me.

I had a busy working mom, and so Grandma played an important role in my life. She regularly stepped in to help with after-school childcare, and she used to regale me with stories about 1940s Hollywood icons and spoil me with her home beauty treatments. I would lie on her sofa, and she’d give me a mini-facial using her signature Nivea cream.

I think Grandma was the queen of self-care before it was a thing! Looking back, I also appreciate that she was way ahead of her time in terms of sustainable living. She encouraged me to wear breathable natural fibers like silk and cotton. Having lived through the Depression and World War II, she was a huge proponent of “make do and mend." I embraced the former but will readily confess that my husband does the mending in our house.

An advocate of “high/low” dressing long before the concept became popular with stylists and bloggers, Grandma exuded effortless glamour in her faux fur coat and alligator handbag, or pearls with a simple cotton sweater. She always took great pride in her appearance and never cared what others thought of her dress code (or her opinions).

A woman of limited means, Grandma bought one “good thing” at the best possible price and then wore it everywhere. She was smart enough to invest in accessories, knowing that they would always fit, no matter how bodies change, and they would be less likely to go out of style.

I bought my first leather bag as soon as I could afford to. Naturally, it was on sale!

Grandma had silk scarves in a rainbow of colors. As a child, I used to lay them out on her bed, testing out a myriad of shade combinations. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m not afraid to wear bright colors. So many women reach midlife and seem to sink into the background, but I adore vibrant shades and will proudly wear my high-waisted red trousers with a T-shirt and sneakers.

Grandma had an impressive collection of costume jewelry, which she let me play with once I was old enough. Her motto was “If in doubt, sparkle” and that has served me well.

She had a beautiful amethyst and gold necklace that my grandfather gave her. Given my grandparents were poor, this was a testament to his love for her. When we lost her tragically at just 68 years old, I inherited that necklace. Although I adore its aesthetic, what I love most about it is the story, and the reminder of the love my grandparents shared.

I also received several pieces of costume jewelry from the 1950s and '60s, as well as a charming hexagon rose gold ring. That ring encapsulates Grandma perfectly — classic with a twist. Over the years, I’ve added to my collection of vintage jewelry pieces. They appeal to my love of history and allow me to add a unique Grandma twist to my outfits.

Marie Shortt, a Parisian stylist now living in Dublin, agrees: “Vintage jewelry can be one of the smartest ways to access pieces that may be out of reach at their current retail value, or that are no longer made … I personally own several pieces of jewelry from my grandmothers, but also my great-grandmother, whose cameo earrings I love. They would not have been particularly expensive at the time, but you would struggle to purchase something like that nowadays. I like the idea of wearing something that my very fashionable great-grandmother wore in Paris.”

There is so much of who I am that was influenced by Grandma or her stories — my signature red lipstick, my love of dresses and, of course, my intense fascination with all things sparkly. Grandma always walked to the beat of her own drum. Her heroines were women like Katharine Hepburn, a true maverick, feminist and style icon. I’ve only recently realized that all the qualities I admired so much in my grandmother are the ones my friends use to describe me: authentic, resilient, honest and, of course, stylish. My small jewelry collection is the only physical reminder I have of her. But I see my grandma every day when I look in the mirror. And whenever I wear high heels with jeans or one of her vintage necklaces with a T-shirt, I know I’m channeling Grandma’s individuality and gumption. 

What did you learn from your own grandmother? Let us know in the comments below.

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