Looking through old family photographs, it recently dawned on me that not only do I look more like my mother everyday, but that I have also inherited her pragmatic and minimalist style of dress. She will laugh when she reads this because she doesn’t consider herself as stylish at all and is certainly not very confident about it—at least not anymore.
It was different when she was a young woman and newly arrived in this country in the 1950s. Leaving a difficult war-torn childhood behind, she was embarking on a new life full of promise. She met her husband to be — my father— married him and together they bought a house and started a family. They had very little money, but she knew how to use it well to achieve their ambitions of making a better life for their children. And a large part of that was to assimilate. Outwardly, that began with how she dressed.
Senior Style: A Few Good Pieces
It was my mother who taught me the value of amortizing a few good items in your closet in contrast to the waste of buying an “outfit” for every occasion. I remember shopping trips to Lord & Taylor — our local upscale department store in West Hartford, Connecticut — where I would beg for things like the latest pink frilly party dress. And she would direct me to the sale rack and pick out the plain dresses with simple cuts. There was one A-line gray and white knit dress that I remember wearing to everything. It reminded me of upholstery and I thought it was horrid. But now I find it difficult to resist a classic A-line because of its versatility. My mother would say she was just practical in her frugality. Others would have described her as elegant in her simplicity.
She would direct me to the sale rack and pick out the plain dresses with simple cuts.
As she approached her fifties, my mother started to change the way she dressed, and she no longer seemed interested in style. Now that I have lived through my own changing body and suffered through the accompanying altered image of myself, I understand why she just wanted to be comfortable, and with the tuition demands of four children in private schools and college, her frugality took precedence over style. Thus the downward spiral began, and she began to lose confidence in her appearance. Her sartorial solution was to live in hand me downs from my brothers — more specifically, their old t-shirts and sweatpants. One of my brothers was a coxswain through high school and college. Wearing his competitors’ branded university t-shirts, she dressed like she might have been the rower in the family.
Senior Style: Forgetting Her Own Rules
Paying their last tuition bill in the mid-’90s coincided with the beginning of globalization. Clothes cost less, and my parents had more disposable income. My mother began to shed her comfort clothes for a new wardrobe. With few budget constraints and no longer confident about her image, she’d forgotten her own rules. She began to buy too much because she could. But she still never knew what to wear.
I realized that our roles had reversed: I was the one steering her toward buying well and less. Now suffering with irritable bowel syndrome, she has become even less sure about herself. Like all of us, if you don’t feel physically strong, you often don’t feel mentally strong, either. She would wait for my visits from London to L.A. to help her cull through her closet and put outfits together.
We laid the clothes on the bed and collaborated on styling the outfits.
On my last visit, we decided to create a look book with the clothes in her closet. A talented photographer and stylist friend of mine had given me the idea when she told me that before packing for a trip, she takes snapshots of herself in outfits she is considering wearing and then edits by scrolling. My tech-savvy mother — she has made many genius friends at her local Apple store — embraced this idea with enthusiasm.
We laid the clothes on the bed and collaborated on styling the outfits. My mother then started to try them on and model them down the runway of her hall. If we thought the outfits worked, I took a photograph. We mixed and matched and through our laughter, we edited as well. By the end of the afternoon, we had come up with about ten outfits that she could wear to casual or formal events. We also managed to create a large pile of clothes to give away. At the end of the session, she said, “This is great. You’ve given me outfits that I know will work.” I’d like to think that I gave her some of her confidence and style back.