What She Wore

My relationship with my mother was sometimes combative, usually affectionate, always complicated. But we never failed to bond over a mutual passion: the clothes in her closet.
MARIE FULL OF GRACE: My mother, in the early seventies.

On the day my mother died, I found an opened Neiman Marcus box sitting just outside her closet. I peeked in and spied a stunning double-breasted Nanette Lepore jacket in a bright-pink tweed with a high, wide collar, silver zippers, and a price tag that, for a winter coat, almost—but not quite—bordered on reasonable. That brutally hot August day in San Antonio was, I am pretty sure, the worst of my life: My mother went out to walk the dog and either had a stroke and fell or, maybe, fell and broke her neck; no one in the emergency room seemed to be able to say for sure. My husband and I sat at her bedside in the hospital while her life faded away, knowing all the while that our son and my father were flying home from a vacation in San Francisco with only the faintest inkling of the shock that awaited them.

The jacket was a welcome distraction. Back at my parents’ apartment on a short break from the hospital, I reached in and ran my hand over the satiny lining, checked the size (mine and hers, or hers and mine), and, momentarily oblivious to circumstance, asked the question I always asked myself when I discovered one of my mom’s great buys: How long would it be before she got tired of this and passed it on to me? Nearly five months after my mother’s sudden, shocking death, I am still disbelieving about many things, but one of the most nagging is this: Why, when my father asked me a few days later if I wanted that jacket, did I say, “No, send it back to Neiman’s”? Surely that is not what Mom would have wanted.

It is a little too early for me to start drawing neat lines around my relationship with my mom. (“Now your work with your mother really begins!” one of my most well-meaning friends crowed.) I don’t think anyone who knew Marie Swartz would disagree that she was a complex woman, by turns inspiring and infuriating, encouraging and deflating, shamelessly vain and intensely self-critical, supremely confident and maddeningly anxious, brilliantly perceptive and blindly self-deceiving. I can say without a doubt, though, that I loved her—sometimes in spite of herself—and that she loved me, no doubt at times in spite of myself. My mother was a woman of substance: She worked tirelessly to improve her hometown and had an unquenchable interest in art, design, ideas, and just about everything and everyone that came her way. And, generally, we agreed on the basics—values, politics, books. But I think the place where all the affection and all the secrets and all the competitions and everything else that defines a mother-daughter bond really resided was in that place I found myself, all alone, on the day she died: her closet.

For most of my life, I’ve worn my mother’s clothes. Like many little girls, I played dress-up in her discarded things—gossamer evening gowns, sparkling Cinderella-like heels—but as I grew older, I never lost the habit, partly due to one fortuitous fact: Even though my mother was smaller and more delicate, we were the same size from the neck to the knees. For a lot of mothers and daughters, this probably wouldn’t make a difference; a lot of young women don’t want to dress like their mothers because their moms have fusty taste or because they want to separate or whatever. But my mom had an impeccable eye for color and form, and she had grown up in a retailing family, so she understood intuitively what cut and fabric could do: transform, protect, speak volumes that were not necessarily true. She also had a terrible jones for designer clothes, which, she used to insist, were not always as prohibitively expensive as they are now. When she was feeling low, nothing would buoy my mother more than a shopping spree—in later years she turned to catalog shopping and then the Internet—and when she found something that was beyond her budget (a floor-length Donna Karan sequined skirt, say, or an Armani suit), she often rationalized the purchase by saying she would pass it on to me. I never complained.

She liked to tell me that one of my earliest memories was of a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, where I picked up straight pins off the floor while she was fitted for a dress. While this isn’t my memory of my first memory, it still works as a general recap of our early years together. In fact, that garment is crumbling on the top shelf of my closet—a black velvet gown with a bodice of white satin roses and a matching bolero jacket, which even to my three- or four-year-old eyes was a beautiful thing. My mother was beautiful too, and as I watched her negotiate a better fit with the seamstress, she became more so, a goddess in black and white. I must have sensed even then how much she wanted to embrace a world larger than the San Antonio she had been born and raised in—to be one of the accomplished women in the photos in Vogue and Bazaar, which she read religiously, or Jackie Kennedy herself—but for Mom, there were always those pins on the floor. There weren’t so many opportunities for women when she was coming of age, and she was often all dressed up with no place to go. In later years it occurred to me that she probably loved buying the clothes more than wearing them, because that way she could embrace her own dreams, while going out to some black-tie affair in San Antonio in the early sixties belied them. “Why can’t you just look like everybody else?” one of her friends asked, and I think it was the meanest thing anyone ever said to her.

She bought me clothes too: Twice a year she would bring home big boxes from San Antonio’s best stores, Joske’s and Frost Bros. There were stylish culotte dresses with big zippers

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