Learning to Love the Clothes My Mother Bought Me

How a mother and daughter's lifetime of fashion clashes reached a détente.

More From Lenny Letter No. 85
5 articles
When a Type-A Mom Has Laid-Back Children
Why I Tell Stories About Cannibals and Murderers
Lessons From My Serbian Grandmother's Cookbook

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Once I stopped growing — 5'4" (or close enough), size 4–6 (depending), foot size 7 (wide), 34C — it became clear how I measured up: an inch, maybe two, shy of my mother from head-to-waist, hip-to-toe, fingertip-to-tip. If I'd known just how important a role these dimensions would play in my sartorial future, I would have hung from my feet every night, eaten more vegetables, been more diligent about those bust exercises the girls in Judy Blume novels are always doing. But whatever I did or didn't do, I did not keep growing.

More From Lenny Letter No. 85
5 articles
When a Type-A Mom Has Laid-Back Children
Why I Tell Stories About Cannibals and Murderers
Lessons From My Serbian Grandmother's Cookbook
When Gabourey Sidibe Got Dissed By a Saleswoman

At seventeen years old, my body settled into its shape, bulges and curves morphing here and there but always in different places than my mother's, our aesthetic ambitions seeking different heights. Only sometimes, if I'm lucky, there will be a dress, a sweater, maybe even a shoe that we can both wear, and when my mother grows tired of this item or she is feeling generous, I'll inherit the relic for my own wardrobe, which is, of course, full of clothes my mother bought me.

My mother is both beautiful and glamorous. Blonde, blue eyes ever-ringed in mascara, she is, in my mind, always wearing lipstick in shades like Kiss Me Coral and Ravish Me Red, filling cars en route to parties with organic hairspray. It's she who taught me to consider measurements like the ratio of hair height to nose size. My mother told me that pursuing glamour is both fun and easy, unlike, for example, getting a Ph.D. or raising two children. When I was small, we would collaborate in the craft of my cuteness, but as a teenager, I resisted my mother's glamour. Somebody — was it television? — taught me real beauty was effortless. It seemed my mother wanted me to try too hard.

A hint of this dynamic surfaced early: second grade, picture day. I was wearing the outfit my mother had bought me for my cousin's bar mitzvah. A black lace mini-skirt paired with a black flower-printed blazer, gold buttons, and shoulder pads. My mother used to plait my long brown hair in braids after my bath so in the morning, once the braids were undone, my mane would be crimped and voluminous. I was missing teeth, but I looked, as my friends accused me of while we waited in line by the playground, "like a teenager." At home, I had enjoyed the thrill of that velvet collar and those gleaming buttons, but as soon as my friends at school surveyed my opulence, it was like I'd arrived on a basketball court in heels. I felt I was sporting glamour I had not earned. This was not Hollywood, or New York City. This was Brookline, Massachusetts, puritanical home to our country's academics and engineers. I longed suddenly for utilitarian pockets and no-frills snaps. With my buttons and my lace, who did I think I was?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

This indictment — that I was trying to be something I was not — haunted closets and mirrors and fitting rooms for much of my childhood, as if my mother didn't have to accommodate enough of my textile neuroses already. Anything the slightest bit itchy sent me into fits. There was my "cinch everything" phase: a compulsion for headbands and belts. I felt my body might disintegrate if not held together with buckles or bands.

Somebody — was it television? — taught me real beauty was effortless. It seemed my mother wanted me to try too hard.

It's not that I did not want to be given clothing, but I was categorically opposed to the wools and suedes and A-lines my mother pulled from the racks. I remember the flannels and five-pocket corduroys I'd finger lovingly as my mother led me through Jacobson's Children's Shop to the dressing rooms, each with our respective armful of clothes for me.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"I think you don't want to look good," my mother once accused me. Teenaged and test-driving my woman's body, I was probably avoiding a striped and studded two-piece we'd bought from a real grown-up shop on the streets of New York: '90s mod bell-bottom suit pants and a black tank top, faux-suede collar ruffled and studded with silver eyelets. Or perhaps this was later, on a visit home from college, freshman-fifteened and refusing to wear lipstick, batting away the hairspray. I had an aversion to ornamentation. It wasn't that I didn't want to look good. I wanted to look good just exactly as I was.

Most Popular

***

Now, at 30, I see the concept of natural beauty is both flimsy and shallow. Where do self and self-image part? I've always felt that life should be about more than the pursuit of beauty. Now I wonder if the pursuit of beauty is about more than I know.

I don't hunger for clothes, but I think I've come to understand them, how they really take on the value we imbue them with, be this money or memory. I'm reminded of the first outfit of my mother's I ever wore. It was a red felt overall dress and jacket, embroidered with colored thread, adorned with gold buttons. The ensemble had made it over from Germany. It was my mother's as a little girl, and even though it was decidedly itchy, I am a poised and regal six-year-old in the Polaroids where I wear it. My head is held high, my neck stretched with the strain of performance. I wear the same half-smile as in the pictures of me in ballet recitals. I don't believe I actually wore the dress out of the house but just put it on for pictures.

Did I feel, in those stiff arms, the weight of the war? Did I see, in the twirl of the skirt, my family's salvation? This red dress made it to America — unlike the red coat of Schindler's unlucky girl, from that movie my mother never let me watch. It strikes me now as strange that the only items I've ever heard about my family bringing over on the boat are luxury goods — this little dress and an entire dining set of fine china. I assume other, more practical things were salvaged. Underwear? Socks? But no one ever mentioned those.

The red dress is worn now by a doll. My father once purchased my mother and me My Twinn dolls, customizable to look "just like you," which mine did not. But my mother was rather doll-like as a child, and the picture of her, two or three years old, poised on her bicycle at the Displaced Persons camp in Bensheim, looks to me like the My Twinn sitting below on her dresser-top. The doll will keep the dress uncreased, until someone comes along to wear it again.

Meanwhile, I've worn through most of the clothes my mother bought me: like the leather jacket from Ann Taylor Loft, now ripped in the lining and fraying at the sleeves; or the Ralph Lauren jean jacket or the trench coat from Banana Republic, both stained with pens. (I wear them anyway.) I shop now in thrift stores, because I never could shake my grandmother's aversion to "waste," and after a childhood of new things, I'm interested in what's old and forgotten.

When I'm feeling brave, my thrift store of choice is my mother's closet. I may never pull off bedazzled jeans, but together we find the items from her past that might decorate my future. Like the black and tan checked wool jacket from an Italian designer, decidedly oversize, or the hot-pink lace mini-dress, which is really too much color for me (I'm a New Yorker now), but some days, anything is possible. I even started wearing her tortoiseshell glasses from the '70s, too big, of course, but oversize is a trend, we agreed. I still don't know why certain things catch my eye, how they speak to that ever-shifting me-ness. Perhaps one day I'll grow fully into my mother's glamour, but for now, I'll make do with inheriting her gratitude, her respect for the objects of our lives, these second skins that tell us where we've been and where we're going next.

Amy Kurzweil is the author of Flying Couch, a graphic memoir about her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Amy's comics appear in The New Yorker, and her writing has been published in the Awl, the Toast, Shenandoah, Hobart, and elsewhere. Amy teaches writing and comics at Parsons School of Design and at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She lives in Brooklyn.

More from Lenny Letter: