Almanac

Community - July 3, 2013

Memories: When it was 'an occasion' and fun to go downtown

by Marie Wagner Krenz

In my youth it was great fun to go downtown, and we dressed for it. One of my earliest memories was Mother helping me into a little matching hat and coat, shining my Mary Janes with a dab of salad oil, and handing me my white gloves for a shopping trip.

I loved riding downtown in the lumbering old streetcar. A motorman stood at the front of the car with a black shade pulled down behind him for privacy. He frequently tapped a bell with the heel of his shoe to warn someone or something to get out of the way. In the back, the conductor guarded the coin box and watched as we dropped in our nickels. He also kept an eye on the rear cowcatcher where rowdy neighborhood boys tried to steal rides.

Sometimes my brothers went along with us, and when we were shopping for shoes, the first thing we did was to run for the X-ray machine and stick our feet in to look down at our bony toes. Years later we were to learn that numerous unnecessary X-rays were highly dangerous.

Over the years, Mother and I continued our forays into the marvelous San Francisco downtown. A shopping expedition was a time to dress up and we loved it. We donned dressmaker suits, hats, heels, gloves, and even scarves of furry creatures with glassy-eyes. One never saw women in pants, and few went without gloves. Only tourists wore white shoes after Labor Day.

Shopping itself was a joy. We didn't have to sift through crowded racks and hope for someone to help us. In many stores, and not necessarily in designer departments, a saleslady greeted us and asked exactly what we were looking for, then invited us to sit down while she disappeared into the back to gather the desired garments. In those halcyon days the saleslady returned with an armload of dresses, lay each across a settee for our inspection, then carried our selection to a fitting room.

A new dress or suit called for a new hat. Here again and perhaps in a different store, a salesperson brought us a fascinating variety to choose among, always straw in the spring and felt in the fall; some with veils, some with flowers.

The purchase of gloves involved a special procedure. Again the lady behind the counter asked our preferences and quickly found them in nearby cabinets. She lifted a pair from a tissue-lined box and smoothed them over our waiting fingers as our elbows rested on a satin cushion. We might try several pairs before deciding.

Buying hosiery involved an elaborate ritual, which we began by requesting either seamed or seamless. Because there was no such thing as panty hose in those days, stockings would be held up by garters attached to panty-girdles. The saleslady brought boxes of stockings and inserted a beautifully manicured hand in one of each pair to show the color and denier. Even if this was our only purchase of the day we had the package sent. No charge, of course.

If we had driven downtown that day, we would wend our weary way to the Union Square garage and rest comfortably on leather banquettes while the attendant went deep into the earth to find our car and bring it up.

Downtown San Francisco is still a fascinating place with undeniable energy and excitement along the streets and in the stores. New buildings have appeared and the facades of other structures have been transformed, but the whole area is much the same as in my youth. The Emporium has become the site of Bloomingdales, the City of Paris corner today houses Neiman Marcus, Macy's has risen from O'Connor and Moffat and I. Magnin, Saks occupies the location of what was once an office building. Joseph Magnin, Livingston's, and Liebes are gone and other businesses have moved into their places. The area may look like what it has always been, but there is a difference. The people have changed.

Most women now wear pants with a jacket and seldom wear hats. Gloves appear only on the coldest days. Some businessmen, of course, wear the regulation suit and tie, but a large number extend casual Friday to every day of the week. As for shoes, many women opt for comfort and wear clunky athletic shoes or what we once considered old lady flats. On all sides, people walk along chatting into cell phones.

People no longer dress for downtown San Francisco. Times are different and so are the requirements of our lives. I must admit that I, too, occasionally wear pants as I join the throng of shoppers.

But as I walk along the crowded streets I look about and long for the days when it was an occasion to be there, and we dressed for the joy of it.

About the author: Marie Krenz is a freelance writer from Orinda who spends weekends at her family home in Woodside.

Comments

Posted by Gertrude, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. Although I grew up at the time when women stopped getting dressed up for for shopping, I sometimes long for a time when people took pride in how they dressed. I believe that people are much better behaved when dressed like ladies and gentlemen. I also long for the days before cell phones when people seemed to be more connected to each other, when it was customary for men to tip their hat to a lady and people smiled and nodded to each other instead of walking around with their heads down focused on their smart phones, oblivious to the people around them.

We've come a long way, but somehow along the way we've unfortunately lost life's niceties.


Posted by Jenny, a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Yes, Gertrude, I remember it well. And whatever happened to "Sunday best"? I am shocked to see what people wear to Sunday church - one leap from bed to beach or tennis court or whatever to the service. In the 'good old days' it was hats for the ladies, white gloves in the summer, and leather gloves in the fall and winter. Going to a nice restaurant meant getting 'dressed up' as did the other diners. Now one sees patrons with cutoff jeans, or jeans with holes in the knees, or sloppy T-shirts, and diners babbling on cell phones during dinner. Atrocious table manners - parents and children and children out of control. Recently I ate at an upscale restaurant on my birthday. I was disappointed by what I heard and saw. California has changed. San Francisco is an embarrassment. I know there are those who will disagree, but once upon a time, it was a lovely time.


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