Wednesday, July 20, 2011


My mother has always been a petite little thing. And she's always loved clothes. Somehow she manages to find the perfect well-made garment among all the masses of cheaply made clothes at our local TJ Maxx. My mother never, ever pays full price. She's a hunter - watching her wheel through racks of clothes, eliminating them one by one, until the perfect piece appears before her, is a lesson in stealth concentration. She's a pro.

When we were small and all throughout our school years, we were the best dressed kids around. We didn't have tons of clothes – just nice little outfits that Mom put together from a wonderful designer discount store called "Arthur's". I remember shopping there for days before the new school year began in the fall, watching Mom pluck tartan skirts and matching sweaters from bins. I had no idea what she was doing. But I remember the end results: a windowpane plaid skirt with a creamy background, a soft a red cashmere pullover, navy tights, and shiny brown brogues. She bought my first handbag at Arthur's, a chestnut accordion file affair with a double gold chain. Perfect for my first day of 7th grade at the grown up Jr. High School. Mom knew just what I needed to look confident. I didn't even know I needed a purse - thank goodness she did.

When I was about four years old, a box arrived for my mother. "This is for me", she told us as we jostled one another (there were four of us), to peer inside. Out came a green and blue Pucci like shirt, some slim pants, and a dress. It was magical to me that clothes could come out of a box delivered to the front door. We all loved that blouse but the one item we couldn't get enough of was the grey and navy striped shirt dress Mom wore the day she brought my youngest brother home from the hospital. It had short sleeves, a self-belt and full wide skirt. Rather plain in tone, but we always associated it with the day she alighted from that cab with my father, holding a small and warm bundle in her arms. We didn't even know she was she was expecting! At least as far as I recall. So it was quite an event and she looked lovely with her soft hair in a shadow of waves around her head and her knowing, sweet smile as she walked toward us three holding my new baby brother. On our birthdays, Mom let us pick out her dresses and invariably for years, it was the grey striped dress she wore the day she came home from the hospital. Eventually, she began to yelp "Not again!" But wore it she did until it mysteriously disappeared from her closet and wasn’t there one birthday.

Mom’s father was the general manager of Filene’s Basement and he provided Mom with boxes too. They contained a burgundy tweed suit with matching crocodile pumps she wore to work at our school’s Christmas bazaar, some jodhpurs similar to those that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing at the time, and pristine white wrist length gloves for church.

My mother never let us tamper with the cotton candy pink crinoline and satin prom dress that hung in the attic even though I was itching to pull it over my head and parade around the house in it. Mom went to two proms in it; one with my father and one with another boy. I have both prom pictures of Mom in the frothy confection with each of her beaus. It was a gorgeous dress that cost my grandparents a pretty penny for their pretty daughter. She looked like a princess.

Mom had a storm blue shearling lined car coat and wore it when she took us ice skating. She accessorized with a scratchy red plaid scarf and red galoshes. She looked chic even out in the freezing cold, herding us all onto the ice where she would skate with us on winter afternoons. Always chic.

I remember watching Mom fret one year about finding a dress for herself for a family wedding. We looked everywhere: Arthur's, of course, then Filene's Basement, the local shops, and finally Kennedy's, where she found an apple green shantung silk dress with a square rhinestone buckle on a dropped waist. It was a mini and she wore it with subtly patterned off white hose and dyed to match shoes. She looked 60's gorgeous with her now blond swingy hair. I remember her pronouncement "I always find special clothes at Kennedy's" which was actually a men's store that had a few dresses. Later, whenever she was in hunt mode for another special occasion dress, one of us kids would invariably shout out, "Try Kennedy's!”

My mother knows the perfect thing to wear for any occasion. While I stand at my open closet door, ruminating and then rejecting all possibilities while the clock ticks, Mom already knows ahead of time what she'll be wearing and it's always just the thing. She showed up in the driveway for the family's first camping trip wearing slim mushroom colored Capri’s, a sleeveless shell, and a Liberty print cotton kerchief on her head and tied in the back. Always perfect and in line with the event, she was.

In the summer, I recall beautiful sundresses, cotton with some lovely touch such as rick rack, a great pattern, piping, or embroidery and always showing off that great tiny waist. I remember her deep blue swimsuit stitched to look like small quilts of bubble wrap. It had two burnt red flowers scored into evocative places. But the colors were so subtle, and the fabric so unusual and rich, that it didn't startle, it merely suggested. Unfortunately, it became known as her rainy day swimsuit because it seemed that every time she wore it, the skies opened up and poured on us at the local lake.

Mom taught me how to achieve a monochromatic look when I saw her in her cream separates in the 80's. She made an entrance to my party with her shiny blond hair highlighted by the threads of gold in her wool coat, matching pants and sweater. It was a great look for her with all the textural contrasts.

Last Easter, we picked up Mom and she was wearing a Chanel looking jacket in celadon and gold tweed with a small fringe around the collar and sleeve edges. "You look like an Easter egg", my brother called out jovially. And she did, all pastel and cheery. Perfect Easter finery.

Whenever I see her now, she is wearing a great pair of tailored pants, a colorful shirt, and ballet flats. She still does skirts but rarely a dress. She says nice dresses are hard to find. I saw one on the rack recently that would have been perfect for her and I would have bought it if they had it in size 2. It met all the Joan criteria: crisp quality fabric, nipped in waist, beautiful embroidery. Perhaps it would only have been ideal for the diminutive and stylish mother of my childhood and not for the sporty chic grandmother of today. Like all timelessly fashionable women, Mom has gracefully let go of the things that no longer suit her and has let her look evolve and stay current. She never looks back whether it is in life or in clothes.

The grey and navy striped shirtdress lives on in the massive collection of family slides along with the rainy day swim suit, and all the other clothes that tell the story of a suburban goddess who knew how to dress to enchant her tiny private audience.


  1. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. I enjoyed reading the descriptions of her outfits so much, each one telling its own little story. Your posts never fail to trigger sweet memories of my own past...and remind me how wonderful it is to be a woman.

  2. Again, I love the stories you tell, and how you tell them. So beautiful, and a wonderful reminder of a time gone by.