Personal File January 2001

My Mother’s Dresses

Searching for the unattainable amid the comforting chaos of a bargain basement

I'VE been known of an afternoon to set off on a walk -- to clear my head, take a break from my desk -- and eventually find myself at Filene's Basement. The Basement, Boston's famous discount store, the first of its kind in the world, accommodates a peculiar mood of mine: a jumble of dreaminess, despair, and distraction. At the office such a cluttered malaise is unbearable. But at the Basement my mood seems to find its reflection in the store's carnival of disorder, and something like calm takes over.

All those piles of turtlenecks, their arms splayed like the arms of supplicants. All those unabashed bras. Two floors of racks jam-packed with motley decadence: corduroy vests, linen shirts, satin pants, velvet skirts. Bins of suede gloves, walls of straw hats. The store nearly vibrates with commotion -- elbows elbowing, purses slinging, while silently, here and there, silky shirts slip from hangers to the floor. And everything is discounted.

Filene's Basement is, after all, what it is: a bargain basement. Yet to go there and buy an iridescent emerald shirt with silver cufflinks marked down from $79.99 to $14.99 is not about acquisition, or even consumption. It is about immersing oneself in a bedlam laced with promise.

Such a place leaves little room for self-indulgent melancholy. So utterly obvious, so literally out-on-the-table, the store's offerings seem a monument to forthrightness. Even the main fitting room is blatant, a communal space crowded with half-dressed women stepping in and out of skirts, sticking arms through sleeves. Among them I feel closer to my own sex than at any other time, and I am hard-pressed not to turn to the matron beside me who is tugging at a stubborn zipper to ask if she thinks my pants fit right. Sometimes I do ask, with a warm rush of embarrassment over my surely transparent neediness (I am reduced to a motherless duckling in this room), but I am always dismayed by the reply. What I am asking for, I realize, is an echo of my mother's voice, not the opinion of a stranger.

MY mother would be chagrined to know that I feel closest to her when I'm at Filene's Basement. She was not "a shopper." She did not "like clothes." Year-round she favored a certain kind of pastel-colored cotton/polyester-blend polo shirt emblazoned over the left breast with a crestlike insignia. She had many such shirts and wore them with pleated khakis, nondescript sneakers, and a drugstore watch. The watches were forever breaking. When, as I was growing up, I would ask her to drive me down Route 1 into Boston for back-to-school shopping (we were partial to discount outlets such as Marshalls and TJ Maxx, which lined the route), she would occasionally supplement her shirt supply with one in winter navy and indulge in a new pair of khakis, but that was usually it. Her bras she cared about, but only because she needed to have a pocket sewn in one cup to hold a synthetic breast -- a smooth, jiggly pear half boasting the lifelike bump of a nipple; she'd had a mastectomy when she was forty. True to character, her underwear was a practical, modest affair -- baggy nylon balloons.

Our retreat to the fitting room was her first defeat. Basement veterans both (she had shopped there with her own mother), we were accustomed to simply parking ourselves next to a mirror amid the clothing racks and the other shoppers and trying things on in the open. We wore outfits suited to this -- slip-on shoes, and skirts under which we could pull on a pair of pants. When one of us was caught contorted in an ill-fitting garment, at risk of exposing more than mere shoulders, the other would stand with her coat spread wide as a shield.

But after my mother's second mastectomy -- she was fifty this time -- the gymnastics necessary for discreet public changing tugged at her scars. It hurt too much. So we started waiting in line with the tourists and the faint of heart, and we grew used to the averted eyes and territorial vigor that were customary in the fitting room. Neither of us much liked the new routine; changing clothes out on the open floor had been intrinsic to our Basement experience. But for her the retreat was more than distasteful; it was a capitulation. Dispirited, she would wait impatiently as I modeled yet another sweater. At the time, I couldn't see defeat in the fitting room. In fact, I viewed all those mirrors as some repeated promise, an affirmation of our familiar selves reflected twenty times over.

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Kate Bolick is a writer in New York.

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