Grandma’s lessons for effortless style

Grandma, rocking the finger waves at her college graduation

Grandma was remarkable; a farm wife who raised four children, grew an enormous garden, led a 4-H club, was an active member of her faith community, helped Grandpa run the farm, and regularly got dinner for her family along with any number of hungry farm hands. Oh, and did I mention that in her spare moments she worked full time?

Grandma didn’t plan on teaching high school. In her small farming community it was hard to recruit teachers. When the home economics teacher had a nervous breakdown in 1956, Grandma was one of only a handful of people in the area with a college degree. While she might have preferred to stay home and get her chores done, she recognized that there was a need that she was uniquely qualified to meet. So Grandma taught Home Ec for the rest of the year. The next year they needed a PE teacher, and then an English teacher. All in all, Grandma taught for nearly 20 years without ever intending to.

Grandma’s farm-to-work style is something I’ve thought a lot about, because Grandma just did not fuss about clothes. She could get dressed in an instant and always looked appropriate for the situation.

Here is the best advice gleaned from Grandma’s closet.


Buy what you need, when you need it

I wish you all could have met my grandma, so you would understand how ludicrous it was that she was asked to teach PE. It’s not that grandma wasn’t plenty active, she was. It’s just that when you think of the typical hardened athlete that chooses to inspire by teaching PE, you don’t think of my grandma.

But Grandma could step up. When she did so, she bought a uniform of pin cord seersucker A-line skirts, and matching sleeveless blouses; adorable, practical.

She didn’t try to make her current wardrobe work for something it didn’t have the capability to cover. She didn’t postpone her shopping trip because of someone’s soccer game, or (more likely in our family) someone’s state fair 4-H project. No, Grandma went out, bought a reasonable amount of clothing for the new task at hand, and did her best.

Was Grandma ever comfortable teaching PE? Probably not. Did those adorable ensembles make the whole thing easier and more fun? Absolutely.

If you need mud boots, get mud boots.

Modern translation: Buy what you need for the task at hand. Suddenly roped into coaching softball? Go buy a few pairs of nice joggers, fitted t-shirts, and a mid-weight jacket, immediately. Have to wade through a muddy field to get to your chickens? Get mud boots, now. Find yourself cooking for the extended family every holiday? Buy an elegant hostess outfit, comfortable flats and a coordinating apron, do not wait for post-holiday sales.


Wear a work dress

In the summer, my grandma would wear one of a number of light colored shift dresses she made for herself. These dresses were knee length, made of cotton, with a yoke neckline and, of course, pockets. The dresses were easy to move in, washable and looked nice enough if anyone happened to stop by the house. I’m not sure I ever saw my grandma wear anything but a dress in the summer, certainly no pants or shorts. Illinois summers are hot and muggy, and Grandma preferred the windows open to the chill of air conditioning. These dresses were perfect for work, play and relaxation.

Patagonia makes a cute shift. Grandma wouldn’t judge you for buying new, rather than making your own.

Modern translation: Find a light summer dress that looks good on you. Buy a few different versions and don’t make yourself wear anything else. Turn off the A/C, open the windows, and let life be easy in the summer.


Take something off your beauty list

In 1956, Grandma decided to treat herself to a regular set and curl. Once a week, she would stop by the beauty salon and her friend Jean would do her hair. Jean continued to style Grandma’s hair for the next fifty years. Fifty. In all that time Grandma looked good, and she spent zero days fretting about her hair.

Imagine, not fretting about your hair, ever. What could you do in the world if you spent no time or energy thinking about your hair?

It’s not that Grandma had a ton of money for this indulgence. She and Grandpa kept a family farm afloat through the 70s and 80s, which is no small feat of frugality. But this small luxury allowed Grandma the time and energy to conquer so many other, more important tasks.

My sister and me – not worrying about our hair, either.

Modern Translation: Whether it’s a blowout, a monthly pedicure, wax or laser treatments, pick a beauty issue and hand it over to a professional. You are supporting your local economy and making an investment in your own time and sanity.


Spend money on a perfect dress; wear it to 12 graduations, 8 weddings and every other occasion until it is out of style.

When my oldest cousin graduated from high school my grandma bought a lovely dress to wear. It was a 1980s classic, with lightly padded shoulders, a belted waist and pleated skirt. It wasn’t cheap. Grandma then wore this dress to the high school graduations of her other 11 grandchildren, assorted college graduations and weddings. By the time my younger cousins were getting married in the 21st century, Grandma invested in a couple of new, more current dresses that still suited her style.

Should I buy this dress and wear it forever? Yep.

Modern translation: Don’t let the fashion industry tell you to buy a new dress for every occasion. Go into a high-end store, find a dress or two you love, and let them be the go-to for the special occasions in your life. Keep an eye on current trends, and invest in a new dress when styles change.

Choose calm focus over anxious busy

Make no mistake about it, my grandma had a lot to do; kids, work, chores, farm, church, grandkids, friends. She saw more sorrow and hardship in her life than most of us will ever have to face. But I never, ever saw my grandma lose her cool. She was grateful for her life. Despite the fact that she had to drive ½ an hour into town for sports, band, 4H, the Miss Pleasant Hill competition and/or a gallon of milk, Grandma got it all done. And then she’d sit back and do the crossword puzzle, in pen. I think it was Grandma’s calm assurance that she was doing the right thing, and that she was lucky to live such a full and rich life, that kept her from the anxiety that plagues so many of us today.

Grandma, looking good at a wedding in 2001

Modern Translation: Be grateful. We are busy in this frenetic world, but women have been busy for generations. When you feel frustration building, think about how lucky we are to have our full and rich lives. Take time to care for yourself and your appearance, but don’t let it be the focus of your life. When you need to, draw in a deep breath and channel the spirit of a smart Midwestern lady with a beautiful smile and great hair.