The Picture Skirt

Dad found it on one of his cramp-induced, nocturnal walks through the park one summer, back in the 1970's; a grubby bundle of fabric dropped, for whatever reason, in the long grass down by the river. There must have been something about it that struck him, even in the dark, because he brought it home and gave it to my mother, and when she gingerly shook it out, it revealed itself to be a rather unusual skirt.

Many women would have shuddered about the possibilities of how it had come to be in its most recent location, and would have dropped it, from a disdained pinch, straight into the dustbin or fire. But money was tight, it was Mum's size and the pattern beneath the dirt, which glimmered with the promise of colours that she knew suited her, had caught her imagination. Added to that, the label said Keynote which meant it had originally come from Littlewoods who, whilst obviously not Marks and Spencer, were an acceptable alternative. So she washed it carefully, by hand, and unearthed its buried treasure.

It couldn't have been described as particularly stylish in either cut - it was A-line with a medium waistband and came to just below her knees - or fabric - which was a typical 1970's 'man-made' stocking knit. Its originality and magic came from the pattern, a dozen, maybe thirteen pictures each about six by four, repeated over and over like tales round the fire. Pre-Raphaelite, Italianate, fairy tale pictures - a knight in pewter-toned armour on a chestnut horse with a flowing mane, a girl in a smoke blue dress kneeling in the embrasure of a gothic arched window with evening sunlight burnishing her fair hair, a silhouette of a prince and princess about to kiss, another girl in medieval red, with a circlet in her long dark curls and other princesses in varying guises. There were also two bouquets of flowers, one toned with blues, mauves and cream; cottage flowers, delphiniums, roses and the like. The other had red poppies, seed-heads, oats and wheat, like something gathered for a Harvest Festival. The colours were rich and warm and the overwhelming impression was pure gold.

Mum wore it for years with either chocolate brown or gold tops and, when I got to a size 10, I took it over and wore it regularly. As the second youngest of five female cousins second-hand clothes were a fact of life and didn't bother me at all (apart from that orange wool jumper with the high round neck, that itched like a flea-ridden blanket and left me with a violent, life-long antipathy to high round necks, wool and the colour orange).

In the end it was the coincidence of the supremely fashion conscious mid 1980's, and my supremely self-conscious teenage years that made me stop wearing it, much as I still loved it, because it didn't fit with pedal pushers and frilly blouses and the New Romantics. But I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it and I tucked its stories away; initially in the drawer where I kept my winter hats and scarves and, later, in one of the memory boxes I made to store old school reports, letters and diaries, my baby matinee jacket, first teddy, my old poetry folder, and the rest of the bits and pieces that are too precious a part of childhood and girlhood to throw away.

Years later, before moving into a home of my own I had to condense the two memory boxes down to one, and had to decide between the matinee jacket and the picture skirt. I kept the jacket on the theory that it could actually be useful one day, but there was a wistful pang as I consigned the skirt to the charity bag and I hoped someone would find it and love it as Mum and I had done, though somehow I doubted it.

I've never had the opportunity to use the matinee jacket - it's still tissue-wrapped in the memory box in the loft. Dad, when I asked him recently, couldn't remember either the picture skirt or the circumstances of how he found it, but Mum does, and its pictures still glow like Tuscan summers in our minds, although neither of us can quite remember all of them any more. But they're still very useful for a part-time writer of fairy tales - the girl in the smoke blue dress kneeling in the embrasure goes by the name of Saris and will be in need of rescuing from an enchantment sometime fairly soon and I've a hunch the rescue may well involve a knight in armour on a chestnut horse with a flowing mane.

© Samantha Newbury 2008