Driveway Dress-Up: A Detroit Tradition

My mother poses next to my dad’s two-tone 1958 Ford Thunderbird in the driveway of our home in northwest Detroit. She’s dressed in a shimmery gold outfit with a quadruple strand of white beads and a wide-brimmed hat trimmed in colorful cabbage roses. Her outfit is the perfect complement to the coupe’s aqua-and-white exterior. Clotheslines intrude into the picture, a not-so-subtle reminder that my mother was most often dressed in capri pants and a sleeveless blouse, busy tending to household chores and children, and looking more like a mom than an auto show model.

Even though my mother and grandmother didn’t drive and had little interest in cars, dressing in their best and posing next to new vehicles was a family tradition dating back to the 1940s. The images chronicle our always-homemade fashions and changing automotive tastes.

The earliest example is a photo of my preteen mother and grandmother beside a 1940 Ford sedan parked in front of their house on St. Lawrence in Detroit. My grandmother is wearing a navy dress with a contrasting light blue polka-dot yoke, her hand placed lovingly on the car’s rear window. Next to her, my mother is wearing a simple patterned skirt and blouse. These were the halcyon days before World War II. The family would be forced to sell the car in 1943, when my grandfather was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Lee, near Petersburg, Virginia, to serve in the Quartermaster Replacement Training Center.

A 1950 Studebaker pickup truck was one of the first vehicles Grandpa bought after World War II. Grandma went back into modeling mode, wearing a white silk blouse, cardigan sweater and black skirt. Her Boston terrier Wimpy got into the picture, appearing to be more inclined to hop into the driver’s seat than Grandma. Another photo shows the dog posing on the hood.

Always ready to embrace the latest automotive trends, Grandpa bought a 1957 Chrysler with monster tailfins. Knowing my grandmother, she would have carefully selected her driveway outfit to make sure it didn’t clash or compete with the car’s gold-and-white exterior. She’s wearing a gray glen plaid dress with an asymmetrical front, accented with a wide black belt and open-toe red pumps. Cat’s-eye glasses round out the look. 

My sister and I got into the act on the Thunderbird photo shoot, too, the following year. My grandmother made us matching blue dresses with full skirts. We wore blue, lace-trimmed anklets and black patent leather shoes. The Thunderbird was sold after my brother Michael was born in 1961 and traded in on a much more practical – and boring – sedan. There are no photos.

In fact, the driveway photo shoots gradually faded away. My first vehicle was a canary yellow 1968 Ford Maverick with black-and-white plaid seats. I was a newly licensed driver and my dad bought me the car so I could chauffeur my mother to the grocery store and to church. She was still refusing to drive at the time. I was more likely to be in my Catholic school uniform or bell bottoms, so sprucing up and standing next to a car probably seemed a little ridiculous.

When my mother finally learned to drive in her late 50s, she bought a magenta Ford Escort that she said matched her favorite shade of lipstick. Fashion was always at the forefront of automotive choices and driveway pictures.

I can’t imagine resurrecting that quaint custom. I don’t wear hats and prefer flats to heels. Nice yoga pants are among my dressiest clothes. I’ve also come to think of cars as appliances. I would not dress up and take a selfie next to my washing machine. Nor would I do the same with the compact SUV or pickup truck in the garage. But looking back over those old photos made me nostalgic for a simpler time when people took great pride in their appearance and the vehicles in the driveway.

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