I was five years old, and it was time to take a stand. “I am not going to wear ribbons in my hair anymore,” my mom remembers me saying, removing one of the satiny pink or white ribbons that had been on my head for almost my entire life at that point.
My younger brother had a similar moment of rebellion, refusing around the same time to wear an outfit with scissors or trucks or anything else stitched on the front. What can I say? Thanks to my mother we were particularly well-dressed children of the early 1990s, but even her powerful influence could only last so long.
As my mom, Sallye Rich, remembers it, the late 80s and early 90s were a particularly competitive period for childrens’ fashion in Aiken. Prince William was born in 1982, two years before me, and the perfectly pressed outfits Princess Diana selected for him and Prince Harry were an inspiration to millions of mothers around the globe, mine included. We were going to Easter egg hunts at St. Thaddeus and the tricycle race on Laurens Street, not Westminster Abbey, but that didn’t mean my brother, sister and I couldn’t have royal-worthy fashion.
It started when we were babies with smocked gowns and dresses, which my mom stitched by hand from patterns sourced from Nashville’s Children’s Corner Store. “It was just what all the little girls your age were wearing,” she tells me, mostly to church but also simpler, more durable handmade dresses for preschool or playdates. It was a lot of pressure, she admits, but “it was very satisfying to show up with your most beautiful handmade dress.”
Far more mothers I know work outside of the home than my mom’s generation did, but many of them still seek out projects to spark their creativity once the kids are in bed. For my mom, raising three children under the age of six by the end of the 80s, the painstakingly smocked dresses and hand-sewn overalls were a chance to tap into something that otherwise might have laid dormant. “It was a creative outlet. For a mother with three kids, I could stay up and smock that stuff and feel like I was creating something.”
She was in good company — she remembers showing up at church on Easter morning and laughing with a fellow mother about the children wearing dresses so fresh off the sewing machine “there were puffs of smoke coming out of them.” In the immortal words of A League of Their Own, the hard was what made it great. “They’re very impractical and probably not nearly as comfortable as the wonderful knit clothes kids wear today,” she says. “But I wouldn’t take anything for seeing y’all prancing around in those clothes.”
Some of those clothes my mother made have hung in there for the past few decades, and when my first son was born in 2016, there was a smocked gown ready for taking him home from the hospital. This was in Brooklyn, where fancy baby fashion was much more likely to be a miniature version of a designer shirt or a high-end onesie that looked simple but somehow cost $60. No parent is immune to the appeal of dressing a baby or toddler in something gorgeous but impractical. But the Southern traditions of smocking, bows, jon-jons, and bubbles were as foreign in our Brooklyn neighborhood as a Yankees cap would be in Aiken.
By the time my second son was born in 2018 we were living back in the South, but with a toddler and a newborn I was inevitably drawn to the practical — onesies with snaps, white T-shirts that could be bleached, rugged pants with built-in knee patches. For devotees of classic Southern kids clothes, though, they’re the ones that are practical. “For a mom of a boy, if you do a short set and you do two shortalls and a couple of shirts, you’ve got their wardrobe,” says Leslie Gouge, who has owned downtown Aiken’s Pitter Patter Children’s Boutique since 2004. With unpredictable Southern weather and blistering heat, there’s an obvious advantage to flowy girls’ dresses or wrinkle-proof seersucker. “When you see kids, and they look like they’ve been dressed from the South, it’s just beautiful— but it’s simple,” Gouge says.
And even if it’s a hassle in the moment, the photos — the inescapable fact of childhood that have only become more ubiquitous in the age of Instagram — speak for themselves. “Whether it is a bubble or just a one piece, kids are always going to be comfortable in what they wear,” says Gouge. “So if they wear it and continue to wear it, that’s their safe place. That’s where they feel like themselves.”
There are magical pictures from my childhood in which we’re all wearing muddy T-shirts in the backyard or stretched-out bathing suits on the beach, but the dressed-up photos have an extra glow about them. They evoke the smell of summertime peaches and pine straw crunching under your feet, a specifically Southern childhood — really, a specifically Aiken childhood — that only a handful of other people can understand. They evoke the pride my parents felt in us, the place in our community they made for us. They feel, simply, like home.
When I was about 4 years old, my mom and her friends organized something that felt, to me, like pure magic: an Alice in Wonderland-themed tea party, complete with a White Rabbit and a local girl dressed like Alice. I still can’t really wrap my head around the logistics of putting this event together, something even bigger than a birthday party but for no occasion other than a chance to dress up and play pretend on a grand scale.
In the pictures you can see that magic seeping right through the frame. It’s me and a bunch of other little girls, every single one of us with our hair brushed up into a bow, taking in the spectacle that had somehow landed in our small hometown. We’re transported not just to Wonderland but through history, celebrating a hundred-year-old story wearing dresses and lace collars that feel entirely timeless.
When you have kids, you’re encouraged to celebrate the little moments, to want to freeze time and stay with them exactly as they are. The cruel irony is that it’s impossible. Kids don’t just get older, they get opinionated, ripping bows from their hair and refusing even the cutest appliques on overalls. The time you have to dress them in the gown their grandmother wore as a baby or to choose the ribbons that coordinate with their dresses is far more limited than anyone ever wants to admit.
My mom chose to spend some of that time smocking, carrying on a handcrafted tradition that’s been part of Southern culture for centuries. I’ve spent much more time perusing the Cat & Jack line at Target or Oxicleaning T-shirts. But I’m incredibly grateful for the handmade clothes that my mom has passed down to my children, my nieces, and my nephews — the unbroken chain of history they represent, and the promise that kids, no matter how grubby or willful, also deserve to look their best. “We all have that same experience— we put on something that’s our favorite and we look in the mirror and it’s like, we’ve got this,” says Gouge. “It’s just a style that seems to put us all with our best foot forward.”
“When you see kids and they look like they’ve been dressed from the South, it’s just beautiful- but it’s simple.”