A Mother-Daughter Bond, Through Clothes

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When I was still in diapers, my visual memories of my mother were completely entangled with those of Mary Tyler Moore. Back then, my favorite television program was The Dick Van Dyke Show, mostly because I thought Moore, playing Laura Petrie, was actually my mother. Not because she perpetually had a roast in the oven, or a high ball extended when Rob got home from work. And not because she was so easily reduced to tears by an on-the-fritz vacuum cleaner. It was Laura's side-parted pageboy that had me all confused. And her black Capri pants and ballet shoes. They were the same emblems of style my mother wore.

Later, in the hippy-dippy 70s, my mother grew out her hair, migrated to a middle part, and, to my TV-addled brain, turned herself into Cher. She wore a suede-fringed vest and a lot of macramé jewelry. And Biba cosmetics. My friends assumed she was famous and so did I. In 4th grade, when I dressed up as Cher for Halloween, I was really paying homage to my mother.

Around that time, she opened Artichoke, Inc. the trendiest clothing boutique the Bermuda bag-toting women in West Hartford, CT had ever experienced, and her wardrobe and style continued to evolve.

Occasionally, I mirrored her style, turning myself into her smaller-boned, blonder Mini-Me in a jean skirt patched together from an old pair of Levi's. Usually, though, I fought against her edicts--rejecting anything olive-colored (a shade that brought out my hazel eyes, she insisted) and all attempts she made to dress me in herringbone wool blazers with suede patches on the elbows--a big look for Ralph Lauren in the 80s.

Always, though, I watched from the sidelines. She was the fashion leader, whether I followed or not.

Having a mother who is and was a style icon (for me personally, and, with her boutique, for our town) made it practically impossible for me to develop my own sense of style--and ultimately, sense of self. Loving what she loved (gauchos, boots, the color black), and loving what she hated (Doc Martens, in particular) made me question what was at the core of my me-ness. At times, I still wonder. Recently, during an interview to promote my book, a reporter asked, "Who are you wearing?" Even though I was wearing a vintage Pucci dress (which my mother scored for me off the grandmother of one of her customers), I had to stop and consider the larger ramifications of her question. Who am I wearing? Or, more precisely, who exactly is wearing me?

Analyzing the sartorial style within a family gets at much deeper issues. Ones of image and identity; love and allegiance. And, of course, the essential, eternal connection between a mother and a daughter.

These are matters Jeannette Montgomery Barron considers in a heartbreakingly literal fashion in My Mother's Clothes. As her mother, Ellie, struggles with Alzheimer's disease, Barron, serving as both writer and photographer, creates a visual diary of her mother's cherished wardrobe. My Mother's Clothes features stills of lovingly arranged couture (Bill Blass was a friend) and assorted personal belongings (her mother's hairbrush on one page; her gold-framed reading glasses on another). Facing each photo is a snippet of personal recollection. The copy that accompanies a photo of stockings draped over a chair reads, "One year my mother was voted 'BEST LEGS' of Atlanta. I read it in a newspaper."

Though Ellie eventually fails to recognize loved ones as her illness progresses, Barron discovers that her mother can--remarkably--remember where and when she'd worn a particular item, whom she encountered while wearing it, and what music played in the background. As a mother loses her memories, a daughter seeks to preserve them. Clothes originally chosen to express her mother's style and taste now serve an entirely different purpose, saying less about the shopper and more about who is left holding the bag.

My Mother's Clothes is not as maudlin as I'm making it. There is something comforting and familiar to me here--the image of her mother's blotted lipstick, crimson and open mouthed on a piece of paper--is so much like my mother's own stained souvenirs.

Still, as I read through Barron's book, I kept coming back to one of my favorite quotes, which I'm now forced to contemplate with a more nuanced eye. "Fashion," said Quentin Crisp, "is what you adopt when you don't know who you are."

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Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney'sMore

Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney's. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood (Crown) was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (Atria) was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.

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