Dressing Like My Mother
Dressing Like My Mother
The New York Times
Written by Anna Nordberg, Illustration by Ji Hyun Yu
My mother used to dress up for airports and emergency rooms. When I was 3 and cracked my forehead open on a doorjamb, she had me change — I believe into a smocked white dress, an interesting choice for a child with a head wound — before we drove to the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian.
Dressing up was my mother’s way of taking control, and making sure that she felt her best going into a situation that, though she didn’t betray it at the time, left her shaken and scared.
There is a lot I wish I remembered about my mother that I don’t, but what does stand out, in precise detail, are her clothes. What she wore to work each day, in her job as a magazine editor and, later, as the editor in chief of two academic journals, fascinated me. There was the pink and black houndstooth Chanel suit that she put on for important meetings (my favorite). A knee-skimming skirt in bold checks that she paired with boxy power jackets. The parade of high-waisted tweed and dove gray Katharine Hepburn pants she wore with tailored blouses.
Diagnosed with colon cancer at the ridiculous age of 44, she underwent a successful surgery and afterward adopted a what-the-hell attitude toward expensive clothes (my mother was not usually associated with what-the-hell attitudes). It was the late ’80s and early ’90s in Manhattan, when the power suit was still ascendant, and with her long legs and slim wrists and ankles, she could pull off the bold colors and knifelike shoulders.
One day she came home with a purple sequined evening jacket. A few weeks earlier, her doctor had found something during a follow-up appointment — a growth that, my mother informed my brother and me in her calm medical-information voice, was “95 percent noncancerous.” After a biopsy confirmed it was benign, she got the jacket. “When the doctors said everything was all right, I thought, well why not?” she said, spinning from side to side in her purple armor. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how scared she had been.
She died when I was 17. In those first months after it happened, I used to lean into the closet where she stored her fanciest clothes and let myself be swallowed by the crush of evening gowns. My favorites were a gold lamé strapless number with an intricate, woven bodice — so outlandish for my mother — and a black and white polka-dotted gown slashed with fuchsia that had an enormous crepe rose fastened to the shoulder. Clothes were one of the few indulgences she really embraced, and this ritual comforted me because it let me remember my mother, who spent her final months at home, chained to an IV, at her most glamorous and powerful.
Now that I live in San Francisco, land of the billionaire hoodie, I never see anyone who looks like my mother. It’s clear that in Silicon Valley, there’s a strong relationship between informality and innovation, and I wonder how my mother would feel about that. I know she would despair over the acceptance of jeans at every life event except, perhaps, funerals. To her, dressing well was not about vanity, but about respect — for herself and everyone else.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the past two years, since my own son and daughter were born and I left a staff job at a magazine to go freelance so I could work from home. What’s become clear, as I’ve transitioned from a long commute to an office filled with meetings and deadlines to working at home, is that it’s too bad my mother is not alive to stage a wardrobe intervention. When I left my job, I abandoned a uniform of print blouses, jackets and tailored skirts and jeans for the ultimate mom cliché: yoga pants.
I’m sure there’s a study that shows a negative correlation between productivity and wearing Lycra at 3 p.m., and yet, I find the slide hard to fight. Motherhood already does a number on how you feel about your appearance, and without the uniform of a workplace, I’m a bit lost. Especially when my husband walks through the door each night, the last man alive in San Francisco to wear a suit to work.
I remember thinking this on the morning — and there is no graceful way to put this — that I had my first colonoscopy. I was getting the test much earlier than most because of my mother’s medical history, and while I wasn’t scared, I felt fragile as I stood scrambling an egg for my son’s breakfast, wearing a gingham pajama top and plaid bottoms. When the sitter came, I opened the door to my closet. Blazing past the machine-washable button-downs, I plucked out a blue silk shirt with a delicate pattern of birds. I put on my good pair of jeans and a navy wool blazer with a nipped waist. Instead of the inevitable canvas sneakers, I slotted my feet into buttery, robin’s-egg-colored flats.
When I got to the test center, the nurse instructed me to change into a gown but leave my blouse on. I took off the blazer and jeans I had put on an hour before and tucked them into a skinny locker that reminded me of elementary school. When the nurse returned, she started to roll up my sleeve for the blood pressure cuff and IV.
“What a pretty shirt,” she remarked, smiling. She was very kind, so perhaps she said this to all her patients, as a way to get them to relax. It didn’t matter. Because it made me feel good, sitting on a gurney and tethered to a blood pressure stand.
“Thank you,” I told her. But I was speaking to someone else.