Notes from the Wardrobe: My Mother, My Closet
One of the interesting things about working on a show that seems at first glance to be a collection of scenes and monologues is that when you look closely enough you find that there is, in the best of them, always a structure. This is absolutely the case with Love, Loss & What I Wore. As I have dissected the script I have discovered that the stories are divided into sections based on subjects. The first section is all about mothers and daughters. This makes sense to me.
Mothers and daughters and clothes are often the first battles in our war for independence. Deciding what we want to wear and how we want to look are the first steps we take away from our parents and into ourselves. It can be an acceptance of the roles and expectations laid out for us or it can be a rejection of them. These battles run deeper than fabric. They have everything to do with how we see ourselves, how we want to be seen, and our deep desire to claim a place for ourselves in the world.
When I think of my own mother and clothes the words that come to mind are impeccable and conservative. My mother loved beautiful clothes, something she definitely passed along to me. She loved nothing more than a beautifully cut suit, with a skirt not too short and a heel not too high. She never left the house without her lipstick on and perfectly placed accessories.
In her gentle way she encouraged her daughters to emulate her. Cheap fabrics, clothes from tacky teen stores, and anything too short, tight or garish was absolutely discouraged. Appropriate was the word when it came to clothes. You didn’t wear pants to church or a job interview and you never ever bragged about wearing a new outfit. Naked attention seeking was tacky and embarrassing. And always, always make sure your hair has some height to it. Having me for a daughter meant that there were more than a few skirmishes over clothes. From the three piece pantsuit she made me wear when I was five to the stiletto heeled sandals I insisted I wear to my sixth grade graduation (I won that one, thank you very much).
It’s taken me a long time to understand that my mother’s feelings about clothes, her desire for conformity and appropriateness were about a lot more than mere appearance. My mother grew up dirt poor in Mississippi. The kid of poor where you go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier. Where you live in a place with walls so thin that the wind blows right through them, and you hate it, but you realize that you’re lucky to have even that. On top of that she was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital birth defect. One of the main hallmarks of Marfan’s is elongated fingers and toes and a tall extremely lanky frame. (For reference both Abraham Lincoln and Jonathan Larson had Marfan’s.
Dire poverty and a disease so rare that most doctors can go an entire career without seeing a case of it made my mother a marked woman. She was treated as an oddity by doctors who would bring their colleagues around to examine her without a thought of asking her permission. Her peers mocked her and called her Olive Oyl. It was not a happy childhood.
For my mother to marry, have a house in the suburbs and a closet with lovely clothes was a triumph. Clothing was her armor. To conform, to be “properly” dressed was security. It meant that no one could make fun of her. It meant that she would be see as something other than an illness. If she did’t stand out in any way she would be safe. She didn’t want her daughters to suffer the way she had and so she tried to pass on these things to them.
What makes me sad is that it took me so long to understand this. In many ways my mother would be absolutely shocked by a lot of what I wear. I worry much less about attracting attention to myself and more about what pleases me on any given day. And as for my flat hair...well, the less said about that the better. But because of things she sacrificed for me I get to indulge in the privilege of being a non-conformist. And it is a privilege.
She also left me with valuable lessons. Appropriateness to the occasion is just good manners. LIfe is too short too wear bad fabric. Always look your best when leaving the house, it will make you feel better. And never underestimate the value of a well cut suit. In these things I think she’d be proud.