Saying Farewell To a Tradition

One of my first “grown-up” clothing purchases was a black pencil skirt and a blush color silk blouse. I was barely eighteen years old and had been in the workforce for only a few months when I realized jeans and a tee with my navy cardigan were not going to be appropriate for every situation. I visited Masengill’s Specialty Shop to invest in my first important clothing purchase. Even at that early age, I must have instinctively known that the basics would allow me to be appropriately dressed for many life events. I wore these pieces separately and together for the next ten plus years until they fell apart from use.

The skirt and blouse were worn when I modeled for a friend who was building his photography portfolio. I was about twenty-four years old in this photo, taken in the park by my little apartment in Norfolk, Virginia.

I was deeply saddened when I recently read in the newspaper that Masengill’s was closing after more than one hundred years at the corner of North Roan and East Main streets. Founded in November 1916 by John Masengill, the store celebrated a century of business in December, but now Ambers Wilson has decided to close the store he has owned and operated since 1958.

On Saturday, I made a final visit to walk through the elegant building and make one last purchase from the store that has supplied all of the most important clothing purchases of my life.

When I was in pageants or going to a prom, I didn’t think of going to any other store. I always purchased my gowns in the salon on the second floor. Many of my coats and jackets were purchased in the first-floor boutique.

With a big lump in my throat, I paid for my final purchase. I chose this fabulous streamlined, lightweight black trench coat by Linda Richards. Traditional trench coats in tan with all the trim never work for me because I carry most of my weight in my torso. The typical trim details add bulk where I already have size, and the tan color is all wrong for my complexion.

Later in the day, Mr. Mickey and I took a stroll, remembering all the stores from our childhoods that were once located downtown. When the local mall opened in the early seventies, it became deserted overnight. The town is slowly experiencing a renaissance, but retail shopping is drastically changing with the current attitude of always casual, anything-goes way of life for many people.

I have always dreamed of sitting in the Café de Flore on the boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, sipping a glass of wine while watching the well-dressed people passing by. I will have to settle for Capone’s for now.

I wore a blush color Trophy Jacket from White House|Black Market last year over a gray tank from Chico’s for this shopping trip. The jeans are by Lior Paris from The wicker bag is from J.McLaughlin purchased last year. The shoes are by Vince Camuto purchased last year.

There are many art installations placed throughout Johnson City, and new restaurants and cafes are frequently opening. I hope that the growth continues and that the new path the city is taking will serve generations to come. The elegant stores may never return to downtown, and people may never get dressed up to “go to town” again, but I will.

  1. When I was a student at Sullins College in the 60s, I bought a fabulous Cocktail dress, it was lime green worsted silk with rhinestones at the cuffs. I wore it to a winter formal at W&L. It was the nicest dress and I always felt so pretty wearing it. I later purchased a dress and jacket suit to wear to church, which was smart and I thought Very Audrey Hepburn. I wore those clothes for years. Massengill’s was a real tradition and I have very fond memories as well.

  2. I so enjoy seeing your modelling photos. Do you still have your comp sheet? I threw mine out years ago – I was so overly critical of myself back then. If only I knew then what I know now!
    I started modelling at 14 and continued till my early 20’s, and did a lot of showroom and runway. Toronto had a huge fashion industry back then and my mother was always writing me excuse notes to get out of school for shows. I remember having a little change purse to hold my subway and streetcar tokens to take me downtown.
    And for us Torontonians, Eatons College Street and Simpsons Queen Street were THE stores for dresses and gowns. Oh, such great memories….. feeling nostalgic now.

    1. Mostly I modeled for friends who needed a “talent” but rarely got paid anything. There was never a fashion industry here, so there wasn’t much call for a professional model. Your adventures sound wonderful Yvonne!

  3. The town I live in had the most wonderful stores downtown and on Saturdays that was going to town day and even if you couldn’t afford anything it was exciting to look at all the windows displays and dream then the mall came to town and slowly the downtown died. 30 years later the downtown is slowly being revitalized but it will never be the same. I dont enjoy going to the mall as Im not 16 and a size 2 as everything is geared towards young people so I shop online and shop when I travel.

  4. What you described about the downtown stores leaving is true in my town and probably many others. I miss the downtown specialty and department stores so much. Each one was unique and LOCALLY OWNED. Now all the stores in the mall are the same as every mall in every city. And “going to town” was a special event that didn’t happen every week so we definitely got cleaned up ad dressed up for the occasion. I don’t go to the mall a lot, but recent visits have shown that there are many empty spaces where stores once were, and the news reports indicate that many brick and mortar stores are closing due to online shopping. The ease of online shopping is great but another factor is the many reports we now hear about gangs of thugs terrorizing mall patrons. Who wants to risk that?

  5. You were indeed a beautiful young lady and you still are gorgeous. Most eighteen year-olds don’t have enough common sense to purchase classics. The elegant stores of years past were a joy to browse. There was a special scent in the air, classical music playing and attentive salespeople.

  6. I noticed that you mirrored the blush top and dark bottoms of your previous modeling photo in Mr. Mickey’s photos.

    Love, love the black shoes with the black trench coat. I hope you wear them again soon.

    Here in Florida I miss Maas Brothers. It had escalators and all the ladies in the store, to work or shop, wore wonderful perfume and fancy dresses. Those are my child-sized memories of a department store.

    1. LH Carter – I also miss Maas Bros. Remember their Blockbuster sales? We would go on our lunch hour from work and the fire marshall would be there trying to get people out of the store before something happened. It never did.

  7. You must go to Paris! You mentioned sitting in a Paris cafe, your scarf is carriage ride in Paris and your jeans have the name Paris attached to it. I think Paris is calling you! It is a magical place.

  8. I visited a big outlet mall recently that is half-empty. It opened only five years ago to much fanfare, but now it’s a sad shadow of its former self. Who wants to shop in a place that’s nearly deserted?

    The downtown department stores of my youth are all gone, except for one. The window displays alone used to be a draw, especially at Christmas.

    I really don’t know what I’ll do if all the clothing stores convert to online retail. I’m one of those people who needs to try things on for fit. I can’t tell the quality of fabric from a photo.

    Maybe this is a sign of our aging population, as much as the economic downturn. Older shoppers don’t spend much. Or is it a sign of my own advancing years, and sentimentality?

    For me, shopping for clothing started to become a chore when manufacturing moved offshore. Domestic clothing manufacturers understood Canadian bodies. Now it’s near impossible to find sleeves long enough, tops long enough not to show my belly, hemlines long enough, armholes that don’t gape ridiculously, etc. On one recent shopping trip, I couldn’t even get my arm through one sleeve of a blouse. I told the clerk, and she just put the item back on the rack, saying that’s how it’s supposed to fit. Really?

    Is it silly to long for the past?

  9. When I read this poignant post, I recalled a book I have that you would love. It is called “Dear Emily, My Life in Fine Stores” written by Louise Thomas. Both Louise and Emily grew up (born around 1915) in small towns in North Carolina and also Virginia. Louise worked her way up, starting with Ivey’s in sales and enjoyed a wonderful career in various stores. She wrote frequent letters to Emily, which is the subject of this charming book.

  10. I miss locally owned department stores so very much. When I was still in school, I dreamed of working, making my own money and shopping in these beautiful stores. I only got to enjoy them for a few years, as one by one they closed when malls came along.
    Great post Susan- have a great weekend

  11. To lose a good clothing store = the worst! What an outstanding trench coat. I can’t wear the tan ones with buttons and a tie. Never had one. You are wearing a lovely outfit and the scarf is making my eyes run up and down, just like you said it would.

  12. Susan,
    Would you kindly post information on shoulder pads in jackets? I’m always concerned when there is some. Should I stay away from these or not. I have very small shoulders with a big chest. Not a great combination!
    What is in style now?


    1. I often replace oversized shoulder pads with smaller, more tailored ones that give a nice shape but not so much width. Small shoulders mean shoulder pads can balance your look beautifully. Just be certain that they are in proportion and not too big. The difference between pads and no pads should be very slight.

  13. Amazing photo reminded me of the great photos of the 1940’s. Life has certainly changed since the seventies however good tastes and style will always win out for me. Thank you for your reflection of years gone past.

  14. I love the pink/blush jacket and was thinking of purchasing it. Does it run true to size? I personally like a fitted look. Thank you for another great post!

  15. Always lovely & beautiful new coat. Love the styling of the trench. Our town has had the same things happen. A revitalization for our downtown has been underway for over a decade, and is moving forward but very slowly; mostly seems to be with a youthful artisan vibe. Your post reminded me of one of our old drugstores where you could sit at the counter on a red stool and order a cool fresh orangeade for a downtown shopping break.

  16. I dress up to go to town too–or even the mall or grocer–but I even wear hats, but I no longer wear my little white gloves.

  17. I love this post. It made me think of when I was younger and getting dressed up was something you just did. I still get dressed up and try to look my best- it is part of who I am. I agree with your sentiments – thank you for sharing

  18. Dear Susan:

    What an absolute beauty you are at 24 and 60. And, at 60, an inspiration. I just can’t get used to those shoes, but they look great on you.


  19. Always lovely, Susan! I hope a movement will occur and people will start dressing up for special events again.

  20. What a beautiful but bittersweet post. I too believe we ought to dress for going to town because we feel better if we do. How sad to say goodbye to the social graces. Keep being your elegant self and I’ll continue to enjoy admiring & aspiring to your example!!

  21. This post made me think of Robinson’s in Newport Beach. 45 years ago my mother worked in the fur salon and eight years after that I worked in designer sportswear (do they still call it that?) It was such a spacious, elegant store with each department designed like its own little boutique. Then Macy’s bought it and crammed every inch of it with (IMO) junk. It breaks my heart whenever I have to walk through that store.

  22. Sadly, malls have taken their toll on our small towns. However, we live in such a busy time that it is nice to have many, many choices in one area. The town I grew up in had a locally owned department store that was ‘the place’ to purchase your clothes and shoes. The store went out of business during the 3rd generation of family owners. Marriott is now building a 3 story hotel in its place. There has been a lot of revitalization over the past few years but I miss the town I grew up in. Have a great day. I always enjoy your posts.

  23. Beautiful story! I will definitely “go downtown” sometime when we move back to Tennessee!

  24. Oh, Susan. We had two stores in our small town in Western KY. FH Lewis and Co. and Noffsingers. Locally owned by members of the community. Always carried name brand and high quality clothing. My grandmother would take me to one of the two and buy me a nice outfit for my birthday most every year. I always looked forward to that. Sweet memories!!!

  25. I found this to be poignant, but I think you are also a positive, forward looking person. This is one of my must see blogs.

    I spent a week in Norfolk recently and I wonder if you remember where your apartment and that park are? I had a wonderful time.

  26. So sad to watch the retail greats disappear. Everyone just orders online now which is convenient but not the same. I remember how amazed I was when the saleswoman at Gus Mayer in New Orleans pressed a raised panel in the wall of the seond floor fine dress department and a hidden door swung open. We were shopping for my mother’s gown for my wedding. I had shopped there for years and even used the service a few times but I had no idea there was a special showroom by invitation only. Behind that door were some of the most beautiful clothes I’d ever seen. She invited mom and I to use a special service she provided. She kept a ring binder with the names, sizes, color preferences, and all the major occasions you’d be attending in the upcoming months. It was fabulous. She found the perfect gown for mom in her favorite color, periwinkle. They altered it to perfection. When Gus Mayer closed on Canal Street, I went there to thank her, she was in tears. Someone had taken her book of customers from the drawer off the lovely French desk that stood in the entrance to the dress section. She had lost her job since the store was closing and she had lost her only way to contact all the ladies that had been her life for so many years.

  27. This so brings sweet memories of my hometown. There are no stores in our downtown area now BUT I keep hoping it will be revitalized. Thanks so much for sharing.

  28. I enjoy reading every post and have started to blend my wardrobe down to the basics as you suggest: royal blue, red, white, black, etc. I have been told I am a “Winter”.
    (I am surprised that you are wearing a blush jacket…I thought you were a “Winter” also.)

    My only qualm with your pictures is the high heels. I’m 5.5″, 81 yrs. young, and just don’t have the balance for the high heels. I think it would be of great help if you had pictures showing a photo with high heels and then the same photo with flats.

    Thanks so much! Love your blog!

    Glenna in California

    1. Any color can work for you if it is the same undertone as your skin’s undertone. I have a cool undertone, so I always try to repeat cool, vivid colors near my face. I am no longer able to wear the heels for long periods of time, so there will be many more flats in future posts. Thank you for visiting!

  29. I thought you looked lovely in your blouse & skirt!! and cheers to all of us who still want to dress up! Thanks for your great blog.

  30. Love your looks. I agree with your comment about getting “dressed up”. I am caught somewhere in the middle. I still enjoy dressing up for many events, however, I also like the more casual relaxed ” less stressful ” way of dressing. I KNOW I can get into any restaurant without being refused for not wearing Dressy shoes. Also, with everyone dressing so casual I feel that I am more “dressed up” even when I’m not.

  31. Also, I forgot to mention that you looked very elegant in that older photo of you. That’s your “sexy secretary” look. Thanks for sharing the photo.

  32. So enjoying your web site! Went shopping today at Nordstrom’s …always fun! Kept thinking, “now what would Susan pick out” Bought a pair of shoes very similar to what you are wearing in several pics!! Felt very proud!!

  33. Susan, I found your blog a few month ago and could hardly believe what I was reading; a woman from NE Tennessee (I grew up in Carter County), Navy veteran (I enlisted in 1978), pageant savy (many myself in the area). It was like reading a portion of my bio. I too bought many a pageant gown at Massengils and am sad to see it go. I no longer live in the area, but although I have traveled all over the world, it remains my favorite place on earth. FYI, having sat at a street side cafe in Paris, I can share with you, the people are not well dressed, women in particular are extremely casual. My husband of 38 year told me I was he most beautiful women in the city. Not the truth, but in his heart that’s all that mattered. Thank you for continuing to inspire women to be their best. Karen

  34. It seems that all of us commenting on your blog today have had similar experiences. Life as we knew it included getting ‘dressed up’ to go to church, to go shopping and to go out (on those rare occasions when that happened) to a restaurant. I grew up in a small town and have such fond memories of an annual trip to ‘the city’ to see the beautiful Christmas window displays at a major department store. That too became a thing of the past once the fancy new shopping malls were built on the edges of the city.
    Although I’m happy to be able to dress in a more relaxed fashion, I still want to look nice – even when just going to the grocery store and I want to be able to dress up if we are going somewhere special for dinner. It makes me sad that this seems to have become a ‘lost art’. Another cost of growing older I guess!
    As always Susan, you look lovely! I do hope you get to Paris if that is a life-long dream.

  35. I never saw this until tonight and I love all of it. The picture of you at 24 is beautiful. I’m still flummoxed by what Pinterest chooses to show me and when.

  36. Susan, I love your writing Abe the changes through the years that you document. On Pinterest they are all out of order, which is fine, but I just found out you had Covid-19. Are you okay now? Prayers for you .

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I share tips and inspiration for using what you already have in contemporary ways. Defining words include effortless, classic, refined, discreet, and elegant. My style is chic, minimal, and timeless with a bit of edge.