Fashion lessons from our grandmothers


Both of my grandmothers sewed, and I was lucky to have my grandmother Ida (that’s Nonna, pictured above in Brazil) to teach me to sew. She is a very classic dresser who always manages to look put together and lovely, even dressed in her most casual clothing. My other grandmother, Ruth (aka Nana), adored clothing and had a huge wardrobe (mostly pantsuits).

I was thinking about all of the lessons women of other generations have to teach us about dressing well, and how those might be applied to sewing and wardrobe planning.

This is me and my amazing Nana. We all miss her a lot.

1. Think outfits, not garments. Nana always bought entire matching outfits, so there was no worrying about whether a new blouse would go with what she already had. Even if coordinating pantsuits aren’t your style, I think there’s something to be said for coming up with an entire outfit plan when you sew or buy something new.

Nonna, in trousers and shirt

2. There’s no shame in dressing for comfort.
Sometimes there’s a tendency to believe you must choose between chic and comfort. It’s simply not true. You don’t need to sacrifice.

3. Wear signature colors. Nana loved blue, and almost always wore soft and light shades. When I think of Nonna, I think red. As I’ve grown older, I definitely feel a pull towards colors that speak to me.

4. Know what you like. I think specific taste and an aesthetic point of view often come with maturity. We waste less time “experimenting” with other people’s ideas and stick to what we love.

Nonna, center, with friends in Alexandria, Egypt

5. Wear appropriate shoes. It goes without saying, right? Save your back and wear the right shoes.

6. Scent is powerful. Maybe it’s because we hug and kiss a lot in my family, but perfume always seems to be a part of the presentation of the women in my family. The soft scent of Shalimar instantly recalls Nonna to me. I don’t wear perfume most days, but I do love it and always will.

Do you have any tips passed down from older generations? Any fashion advice your moms or grandmothers gave you that stuck?

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 35


Both my grandmothers were about the same height and build (plump in their older days) but their personal style was miles apart. My father’s mother is still with us – she wears denim jumpers and has an old-lady perm and sucks her teeth. We love her, but she is very nearly style-less. My mother’s mother died of breast cancer when I was in high school. She was elegant to the last, I think because she always dressed appropriately for the occasion, whether dressing up to go into the city (San Francisco in her case) or dressing down to garden or hike, and was always neat and well-groomed. She wore trousers, dresses and skirts but whatever she chose was always RIGHT in some way. The pictures of your Nonna remind me of her.

Mary Beth @ Yarn U iPhone app

White Shoulders sends me right back to college. I used to “borrow” my roomie’s WS and she’d get mad because I didn’t buy my own. Later on I did.


My maternal grandmother was born in 1923, we lost her in 2006. She was classic and elegant no matter what the occasion. The right accessories and jewelry to go with the most simple outfit, she always looked lovely.

Her signature perfume was Emeraude, and her signature lipstick was Revlon Fire and Ice. She had dark brown hair in her younger years which she always made the best of (we have thin hair in our family) by wearing rollers in the bottom to flip the ends either under, but most usually out. Jeweled hairclips, and in her later years silky scarves adorned her head.

She had tiny size 5 feet, and liked a small heel, but kept things sensible. She also ironed her underpants. :)

My grandmother was beautiful, but it had nothing to do with what she wore- that just made it easier to see who she was inside.

Ahh Grandma I miss you…..


I loved this post! Thanks for sharing.

Both of my grandmothers were farm girls raised in the Depression. Stylish wouldn’t be my first choice description–but I have taken away valuable lessons about sewing, mending and cleaning my plate.

Two things I have taken away from my mom’s mom is to always look nice when you’re out shopping, even if it’s just Target or the grocery store. People will treat you better and be more helpful. And that rarely do women with an ample bosom look good in tops with front pockets.


Oh, I love this post, Sarai! My granma taught me to use what I have and to be creative. My granny taught me to invest in quality, classic pieces. They both taught me not only to be a lady, but to dress like one. I miss them both very much. :)


I love this! I learned to sew from my grandmother, too, who had more sewing tips than wardrobe tips, including “make sure your seams (and especially your plaids) line up perfectly!”. If it’s worth sewing, it’s worth making the best garment you can, she thought. You can buy the cheap stuff in any store.

seeks corey

I feel particularly fortunate to have had a fashion mavin for a grandmother. Not always classy, but always stylish and distinct. My father’s mother passed away in 2007, and I am the only woman in the family small enough to have inherited her clothes. Which were aMAZing! I had my choice among home-sewn burgandy velvet evening dresses to half shirts and terry cloth pantsuits. I loved it!
My father said that she really relied upon her looks, and you could tell she valued her appearance a great deal. I love getting to celebrate her by bringing her style to the rest of the world.

My mother’s mom tends to dress like a nun these days (jumpers with turtlenecks), but I love to look at her style when young. She always took pride in her fine needlework too, so I have often hoped to learn her skills in this arena. Top that off with stylish great-aunts and sewing diva great-grandmothers, and I have my work cut out for me. :)


I’ve recently been thinking along the same lines in terms of my wardrobe. You summed it up perfectly. This is the first time in 4 years I haven’t been pregnant or nursing and I need new clothes to fit my changed body. I think I’ll bring your little guideline with me when I go shopping (for fabric and patterns that is).

Alexandra Mason

What a wonderful post! My Mom’s Mother always made her own clothes she was very stylish and everything matched, she lived in Egypt for a number of years and i remember seeing photos of her in tailored suits, in that heat! My Dads Mom lived in the middle of the country and would wear pretty floral dresses with her wellingtons :) I’m going to have a look through our old photos the next time i go to my Mom’s!


Nonna lived in Egypt too! She grew up in Alexandria.


My grandmother’s style like it is now is totally not for me, but her wardrobe when she was younger is amazing! I have a few of her cocktail dresses and a skirt and it makes me so incredibly proud to wear them! People always compliment me on them and I beam when I get to say “it’s my grandma’s dress!”. And my grandparents are so proud when I were them too! My grandma will be so happy and my grandpa will say “you see what a beautiful wife I had, I mean, have!”
She’s also supportive of everything I make, she taught me how to crochet :)


*when I wear them


My grandmother on my mother’s side emigrated from Russia in the late 20’s and after some traveling, found asylum in Persia, now Iran. She met my grandfather, an American Solider, during the war, and she and her younger sister moved to the United States while my grandfather finished his tour of duty. My grandmother was a very wealthy woman in Persia and she had a lot of clothing made for her. When she moved to the United States she brought with her a bunch of fabric, I suppose she assumed she would have someone make her clothes here. I recently uncovered this fabric, and vowed to improve my sewing to the point when I would be good enough to feel comfortable using it.

She loved fashion and clothing and shoes, and she was the person who taught me that black and red and tan are an effortlessly chic combination, that you should never give someone a pocketbook without slipping a little money into it, that skincare matters, that it doesn’t look good if it doesn’t look good on YOU. I miss her.


my grammy pointed out that “all colors go together” (not *exactly* true, but ya know…) and that “if they’re looking that close, they shouldn’t be” about minor imperfections. it gave me a lot of confidence in dressing.


what a lovely post!

My Grandma was german, she met my Irish Grandfather in Germany when she bumped into him on the street. He said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and they were engaged within the week! In later years i remember her thick, heady perfume, rich fur coats and strings of coloured pearls. I can still remember the feeling of the fabric-covered buttons and tight satin material of her dresses on my face when she used to hug me so tightly i couldn’t breathe. Strangely though, she was totally opposed to makeup – she thought it was a form of deception!!!


I didn’t have any king of that relationship with neither of my grandmothers. I guess, that would have been nice…..I learn style and colors and trust in myself with my friends and my friends’mothers and grand mothers….


Sorry to hear that you weren’t close to your grandmothers, it seems you have good friends and their mothers to give you inspiration though. I’m sure you’ll be a fab granny when it’s your turn


This is a beautiful, inspirational post. Thank you for sharing your grandmothers’ style tips.

I love looking at old photos of my Nana – she was so glamorous. A few months ago we were lucky enough to discover some old cinefilm footage of Nana and her family from the 1930s and 1940s. I posted some clips on my blog if you want to see – she even had great style at 14! The clips are posted [a href=””]here[/a], [a href=””]here[/a] and [a href=””]here[/a].


oh my gosh! I love those clips of your family! Thanks so much for sharing.


i LOVE this blog. Today is my Grama’s 86th birthday and she’s still pretty stylin’. She has always been pulled together and has had an unwavering affinity for the color “orchid” (lavendar, really). I’ve never seen her in a pair of jeans or tattered anything. She’s always coordinated, pressed and presentable. In “her day”, she was the height of fashion. I have her prized pair of shoes that she bought on her trip to Hollywood in her teens – they’re in perfect condition – alligator ankle strap sandals – they’re a little narrow for me, but I’ve worn them a couple times.

My other Grama – Lucille – was a Montana rancher’s wife. She sewed everything she wore, I think, and looked amazing, but not necessarily fashionable. Always. She did wear jeans to garden, and she wore them with style on her petite 4’10” frame. She was always making something. Or, to paraphrase from my Aunt, “She was always busy, even if she was making nothing out of something.” She was an avid quilter, crocheter, knitter and seamstress. I miss her.


Oh! and Grama Lucille ROCKED her minnetonka moccasins. She was darling.


My nan is still going strong, 92 next week(my mums mum). My mum was born at the end of the war and they spent time in safety in Hampshire until it was safe to return to London. My nan was a beader, often finishing dresses for Miss World contestants and it is said Shirley Bassey?!
She made me party dresses as a kid and matching ones for my doll! And used to supervise little projects for me.She continues to collect material and passes it on to me now. My dad’s mum died about 10 years ago and I have many photos of her in her twenties with her little pin curls and fancy hats.

Jen Robinson

My grandma sewed virtually everything. Her favorite color was purple, though she loved all jewel tones, and I remember a purple pantsuit in the 70’s which she’d made. When she was younger she was extremely stylish; later years she looked a lot like Barbara Bush and wore that deep blue-violet color that Mrs. Bush was often seen wearing. Her signature scent was L’Air du Temps, but she sometimes wore an inexpensive Tea Rose perfume, which she would spray on my pillow when I stayed overnight at her house because I liked it so much. I learned a lot of my sewing from her and now I wear Stella McCartney perfume because the scent is so reminiscent of that Tea Rose smell. I also have her trusty old Singer – all metal and it only does a straight stitch but I’ve never had a problem with it, and even used it to sew my wedding dress.

Hannah {Ola}

What a fantastic post, Sarai- thanks so much for sharing. SO MUCH is to be learned and appreciated from the women in our lives!

I loved everyone else’s stories, too. I think a lot about how my family has influenced my sense of style. I recently posted about my mom’s style and will do a monthly “family fashion icon” post of other influential family members. You can see my mom’s post here, if you like. =)

Loved this post!


I have the wonderful chance that 3 of my grandparents are still alive and my sons know them. My dad’s mother (Didi) is a small but strong woman who raised 7 children. She was my second mother. She is 80 and still live in her house with my grandpa, gardening and cleaning her house. She always sewed her own clothes, but she is more practical than stylish. But when she go to church or other occasions, she dress up and wear pretty dress or trousers with scarf, gloves and hat, and ruby red lipstick! My mom’s mother is a fashionista, really! She buy expensive clothes, jewels, heels and bags. I never saw her with trousers before 3 years ago. She decided to buy some because she gets cold in winter. She always wear makeup and perfume and have her hair done each Saturday morning. Both are sources of inspiration for me and they are proud that I make my own clothes and wear vintage style, it remains them their young years.

Sarah Louise

Wonderful post, Sarai! My grandmother grew up with very little money on a farm, but she managed to dress very well by sewing her own clothes. She knows what styles suit her, and she sticks to them without forking out huge amounts of money. She always wears bright-red lipstick and perfume. I have to say I didn’t inherit her love of perfume – I cannot stand the stuff (I know, it’s weird!)


Both my grandmothers were stylish in their own way and sewed their own clothes as they did not have much money. My father’s mother was quite the fashionista when she was young. When I was a child, my mother’s mother let me play with her old shoes, purses and costume jewelry from the 30’s and 40’s. She had a great pair of peep toe shoes that I loved to wear. I still love peep toes to this day. She gave me loads of fabric scraps which started me on my path to designing and sewing.


My paternal grandmother was born in 1860 and came to the US from Ireland as a mail-order bride due to the potato famine. She died when I was three years old. I remember seeing a rare photo of her as a young adult and was startled to realize we share the same body type — tall, thin, long-waisted & hourglass figure. And we also shared auburn hair, blue eyes and freckles.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1888. She was not a flapper but her sister was. She was one of the kindest people I ever knew but very sharp. You just couldn’t fool her though many tried. What she told me about fashion was that if you didn’t have much money, to use solid colors for slacks, suit jackets, skirts, etc. Use prints and contrasting colors to liven them up. That way, everything mixes, especially in an office environment. For the come-and-go stuff, only buy or make a piece or two –they will be tired next season. There is no substitute for well-fitting, clean clothes. When everything coordindates, you always look good. She gave me this advice in the 1960s and it still works today! How I miss her!


What I great post!

I’d have to say that, of my grandparents, my husband’s grandmother has the most influence on my style as of late. As my hubby put it, she was a “close horse” and was always in full make-up and jewelry even though she spent most of her time in the kitchen. I didn’t get to meet her until her Alzheimer’s had set in, so I didn’t get to know her very well. However, I have inherited some of her jewelry. I think it helped kick-start an awareness of how much accessories enhance an outfit. To my husband’s delight, I much more interested in jewelry now.


Put some lipstick on before you go into the grocery store. It wakes up your whole face.


My grandmother passed on in the 70’s. I spent every weekend with her as I was the only girl, and I loved her and I miss her so much. She was French Canadian, always wore red, and regularly drove, alone, out to California to visit her sister. She was a seamstress and sewed intricate dresses for antique fashion dolls, for a rich collector. I remember crates – crates! – of vintage dresses, ribbons, and lace they would open, to use these beautiful materials for the doll dresses. To think of that bounty now, when it was considered at the time only useful for cutting up! (though the collector’s collection was worth well over a million dollars at the time). … My mother always told me to avoid the discount stores and spend a little more on good clothes (i.e., Macy’s) and ‘simple’ over fussy and gaudy. A basic simple pattern for a shift dress can be made from any material, 60’s psychedelic pucci print to herringbone tweed, to any color – basic black, purple, forest green with a silk rust color blouse…I’m 60 now and still enjoy sewing. I like finding nice things in the thrift store and fixing them up, altering them if need be, adding new buttons or trim. Learned that from my grandmother, too.


I’m coming to this post rather late, but I’ve recently discovered Colette and rediscovered sewing, and I’ve been reading through the previous posts pretty obsessively. This one blew me away. My grandmother (also Nonna – she was born in Sicily), grew up in Alexandria as well. She was a professional seamstress with her own atelier in Egypt. I have a photo of her walking down the street arm in arm with her sister and a friend that is really reminscent of the one posted. I wish i could include it here! In any case, already deeply appreciative of the Colette aesthetic and the patterns I’ve bought, this post has fueled my enthusiasm with a sense of shared history! Thanks for a totally inspirational post – I miss my Nonna greatly and feel like I’ve retrieved a little snippet of her here!


I wish I had been closer to both of my grandmothers growing up. My mother immigrated from Guatemala so I’ve only been able to see my maternal grandmother every few years when she comes to visit, but I love seeing old pictures of her when she was young. She wore beautiful full dresses and always had her thick hair nicely curled. I love her style, very feminine. I don’t know much about my paternal grandmother, unfortunately.


My two grandmothers were polar opposites; one a glamorous actress in the early days of motion pictures and the other a hard working widow raising six children by working as a seamstress. Guess which one taught me to sew? Even though Granny hadn’t much time for “fashion”, in her wedding picture (she was still in her teens, her husband was 40) she wore a beautiful Edwardian embroidered gown with huge leg-o-mutton sleeves.
Mimi’s photos include posing in evening wear and furs. Istill ahev some of thsoe furs, which I can’t feel comfortable wearing but I can’t get rid of them either.


My grandma on my dads side sew, crotchet & knit for fun back in her old days, but she said when she was young all she wore was done by her (including her bras – she crotchet them) . She lived in Lima, Peru (South America) She taught me some sewing and a lot of knitting & crocheting. Every time I do any of these 3 things I feel her next to me, feeling proud of me doing it. Even though hardly ever I do something wearable.

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