Spotlight: Suzanne Mahoney

(I would like to start posting “articles” written by our members.  They can be about anything as long as they have you at the center of the story.  I think we have much to share with each other and learn from each other. 

 

This article brings up an issue that is rarely talked about, but it is real and even disturbing.  I want to remind everyone that whatever gets written and discussed here, stays here.  This article does not name names, but the subject matter is here for our discussion only.  Can I stop you from discussing things written here with other people?  No.  But I ask that we all respect the privacy of this blog by not posting about our discussions in other places.  This is supposed to be a safe place for us all now that it is private…if our discussions and/or subject matter show up outside of this blog or our forum, then our safety and privacy is null and void.  So here I invoke the Vegas Rule.

Now, after that totally ominous introduction, please enjoy Suzanne’s piece.

Cheers, Ann)

 

 

 

Lifting the Veil 

 

Long ago, when making an ID dress was much less technique sensitive, I dove in with youthful zeal! Trained in the necessary skills of the day, I bought the crepe gaberdine , skeins of floss, and mailed off an order for the iron on pattern of shamrocks surrounding a harp. The days waiting for the embroidery pattern were happily filled with family conferences around the dining room table (a.k.a cutting table) as my mother, sisters, and I planned the best, most efficient way to proceed. My mother was my ‘partner’ in the beginning and this first little class costume made it’s St. Patrick’s Day debut right on schedule. Deluged by requests from the ’non-sewers’ in the school, my mother smartly bowed out but encouraged me to do ’a couple for pin money’. Many a night I wonder where my life would have led had I bowed out too!! Just as many nights I wonder why we ‘decided’ that moving to a more competitive school was a good idea!!! 

 

The first time someone ‘lifted the veil’ for me was in the vestibule of the ‘new improved’ dance school and it was less than fulfilling. The Irish matriarch of the TC made it clear that there was only one acceptable path to a class costume and that path ran through her doorway! Two sisters dancing multiplied by the cost of two new costumes was beyond our families means. At that moment, my mother was DONE with Irish dancing. In a full frontal assault by myself and my sisters, we hammered out a compromise which involved a budget and me taking responsibility (at 16!!!) for the transportation.

 

The second time the veil was lifted was glorious! Another matriarch from Ireland who also had several daughters in dancing took pity on us ‘orphans’ and gave me the name of a recently retired dancer who might be convinced to part with her costume for a fraction of the new price. At 16 I had already been taught the values of a resale market! That ‘officially’ made dress became the template for my first ‘knockoff’!  I spent countless hours dragging this dress to commercial embroiderers and finally found an African-American tailor who agreed to tackle the job for a price within the budget!

 

In the day, I had more time than money and more stubbornness that sense. The hook for my addiction to this crazy world of ID dressmaking was set when the ‘knockoff’ went undetected at the first feis! At the venerable age of 17 I embarked on my first solo! The silent society refused to move the veil a fraction! In the many years that followed I stubbornly tried to force the veil open. Once in a great while the secret society would slip and the veil would crack for a moment and I tried to use the information to my best ability.

 

I experienced the same ups and downs as most dressmakers. Pride at the first ‘stranger’ to trust your skills and place an order. Pride-hurt at the first public criticisms. Giddy when the first little girl hugged her new dress in joy! Tearful when the first Mom slammed the dress down in disgust. In those years my connections to TC’s also grew and evolved. Then one of them ‘lifted the veil’ and showed me something so revolting that I still wrestle with the implications years later.

 

 

I still relive the moment and it has been over 14 years since the phone call that rocked my world. The TC opened by explaining that her established school was looking to develop a new school costume to ‘update’ their look.  I had some doubts since I was the person who had designed the competitor’s team costumes but vanity can cloud one’s judgment. We talked at length and then the reality struck and I asked how many dresses she was talking about, in what timeframe, and at what price point? The number of dresses and timeframe were reasonable BUT then came the discussion of money. She really wanted the price her dancer’s paid to be $X and she EXPECTED at least a $Y KICKBACK from ME for every dancer she sent to me!!!!!  I reacted with such negativity (and am still to this day DISGUSTED at the thought that a TC would expect to make money off of the sweat of my labor) that she ended the call. When I brought this information to the TC’s in my family they condescendingly informed me of my naivete. Everyone of them had some anecdotal and/or personal experience with the practice! One, in all earnestness, encouraged me to consider the “overwhelming benefits” of giving a TC kickbacks!!! This was one time that I wished I hadn’t looked behind the veil! My life used to be so black and white, and I found I did not like the gray palette! I no longer wanted to be in the ‘business’ of ID dressmaking. I had lost my reverence for An Comisun and most all of it’s members……how could they ‘do that’ to their dancers? The very few people who had the courage to talk with me about the subject fell into two camps:

  • 1) Forget about it. Don’t talk about it. It’s a sacred cow not to be disturbed and you will be targeted by those with the most to lose if they feel threatened! (Such sages! It played out just as predicted.)
  • 2)Fish or cut bait! Either join/condone the practice or get out of the business.

 

It must have been one of the survival genes that I wasn’t given because  I cannot ‘go with the flow’ on this one! A depression has waxed and waned for years, and I used to blame my Irish ancestors for donating a little bit too much moodiness to my mix. In a rare moment of clarity, it came to me! I have been avoiding having to acknowledge that the person I have spent 30 years forming must now change…and significantly. I had to ‘fish or cut bait’! I would never ‘fish’ so I guess it’s ‘cut bait’ time.

 

Just how does one just walk away from that much of their life? Especially when so many family members are still so very active in ID? Is there a compromise position I could accept?  I’m actively working on the new me. Some of my closest ID dressmaker friends have been some of the best help! They’ve given me ‘permission’ to re-invent myself and promised to support my decisions no matter the direction they go. Some things I do know include:

 

  • 1)I’m too addicted to walk away cold-turkey! Hopefully my gradual retirement will be graceful?
  • 2)I love to play with material! Like in the Sound of Music, “somewhere God will open a window” and the new venue will include sewing!
  • 3)I’m not in the ’business’ anymore. The very FEW dresses I make are for my enjoyment not for my bank account. 

 Some things I haven’t resolved are offered for your discussion…please.

 

  • 1) Trying to decide what factor my age may have played in all of this! At what stage in your life did you come to ID dressmaking and what place does it hold in your identity (be truthful with this part if you don’t want to ‘fess up to the first part)?
  • 2) Was a “veil lifted” on any part of ID that has shaken you to the core? …and how did you address the knowledge?
  • 3) Did you ‘know’ about the kickbacks? How long had you been in dressmaking when you found out? I’m open to any discussion on this since it has been a conversation killer within my circle!!!
  • 4) Would you/do you ‘lift the veil’ for other dressmakers and/or clients? How has that gone?
  • 5)Anyone willing to share other sewing venues that do not involve stage mothers, business models, competition and bashing? Oh, one more criteria…can it produce enough income to at least pay for the materials?? Going broke sewing fleece blankets for poor children which is the current project!!!