Among my favorite pieces were an elegant black jacket with traditional men’s-wear lapels, on which my mother wore three cameos that had belonged to my grandmother; slouchy navy overalls that crisscrossed in the back and looked like they’d been designed for a little boy; and a “sweater” with sleeves that ended in gloves (which she had to wear beneath a high-necked jacket, since it was cropped to just above the bust line). A well-meaning dry cleaner once offered to “fix the bottom” of a dress with a deliberately raw hem, telling her with much empathy, “There’s no reason you should go around like this.”
When we went on holiday to Egypt in the winter of 1988, our luggage was lost and we had to wear our traveling clothes for our first three days in Cairo. There are pictures of my mother, in the desert astride a camel, in high heels and a sleeveless, bias-cut, billowing black-silk CdG dress.
I wore a uniform throughout middle school, so I had little need for clothes except on the weekends, when my friends and I would loiter in Canal Jean and shop Broadway’s street vendors for rubber bracelets and fluorescent socks. The annual school dance was another story, and for much of the late ’80s I ached for one of Betsey Johnson’s black Lycra tube dresses. “We have plenty of clothes at home; you’ll wear something of mine,” my mother told me more than once.
And so, my debut party looks included navy and black pinstriped men’s-wear-inspired CdG jackets with slight bustles and trains which, on a seventh grader, could be passed off as dresses.
My mother wore white for her second wedding: a fitted, handmade-lace CdG evening jacket with an asymmetric train (a more elaborate, romantic version of her black daywear), a silk skirt with a layered handkerchief hem, and a veiled hat that she now denounces as “too flowery,” copied after one she’d bought years before in Paris. I wore a skirt that matched hers and a sleeveless cotton poplin blouse that had several askew buttons going diagonally down the side, and which tied in a huge structured bow over one shoulder.
This ensemble made a repeat performance at my eighth-grade graduation, where a white dress was required. I longed painfully for prim, lacy Laura Ashley, but “you already have something white” was the answer. So in I strode, with uneven hem and a top that looked like I’d buttoned it in the dark, festooned with a bow that was competing in size with my head. Faculty eyes bulged. Parents appeared puzzled and disapproving. Classmates — who were, of course, all wearing my dream of lawn-sweeping, eyelet Laura — snickered. I cringed.
In high school, one memorable winter formal outfit was a two-piece black velvet number of my mother’s, consisting of a long-sleeve top and a pair of matching “pants” with three pant legs. One was straight and cropped above the ankle; another was draped in a blousy fashion; the third was akin to a short-short. “How do I wear this, Mom?” I asked. “Any way you want,” came her answer. “That’s the fun, baby.”
The (eventual) lesson for me was that it’s O.K. — to my mother it was preferable — to look different, as long as you look like yourself. When I think of that era when I was figuring out who I was, and who she was, it’s always in terms of her clothes. Those cerebral, poetic, beautifully tailored, utterly individual, sometimes-challenging-to-other-people pieces gave her power and confidence. (So did really great lingerie, she would lecture me as a child.) They were, and are to this day, our secret language. She didn’t look like the other moms, but I was always proud that this one, with her delicately destroyed hems, was mine. She really believed that you could do and be anything you wanted, and that, sartorially, you could get away with whatever you dared, as long as you stood up straight and wore it with a smile. Which she always did.
Sarah Brown is the founder of an independent beauty advisory and a Vogue contributing editor.