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.

January 2010By Comments

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 for school, along with what we called “dressy dresses” in organdy for parties. When I turned thirteen, we flew to Dallas for a shopping trip at Neiman’s, complete with lunch in the Zodiac Room; for my fifteenth birthday, she bought me a high-collared pink organza dress I’d swooned over in Seventeen. The author and screenwriter Nora Ephron recently said that the clothes a woman chooses are either something her mother would never let her wear or a version of something her mother wore. I think I was somewhere in the middle: I wanted to please my mother—and I did love almost everything she bought me—but I lacked the perfectionism to go the last mile, the drive that made her glamorous and left me short of the finish line, a girl in a pretty dress. “You have to suffer for beauty,” my mother often said, combing the tangles out of my long brown hair or trying to coax me into a scratchy wool Russian czarina number. I just couldn’t do it, and—as she would later point out—the world was going my way. By the late sixties, women had more choices, a fact that was reflected in a new aesthetic, one that wasn’t quite so demanding.

By the time I reached my teens, my parents’ fortunes had improved: My father had left my grandfather’s clothing store to work for HemisFair ’68 and then for a local philanthropist who did business in New York and London. At the time it didn’t strike me as odd that my mother and father were flying around the country and that our house was filling up with art and opera stars; I was too busy trying to figure out how to get a very cute boy in my geography class to ask me out again. My parents were gone a lot then, and my mother’s picture began turning up in the paper, even once in Women’s Wear Daily, a validation of her taste if ever there was one (“Mrs. Arnold Swartz . . . in her embroidered Chester Weinberg organza, complete with pantaloons”). We moved into a bigger house, where my mother carved out a bona fide dressing room for herself (in our old house, my closet had taken her overflow, very handy for dress-up). It was octagonal, with four closets and a “dressing table” in the center, a room fit for a movie star, I thought, and my favorite time to hang out there was when Mom was on a trip and I could try on her makeup and clothes—a low-cut yellow chiffon evening gown, a camel-hair coatdress by Nancy Reagan’s favorite designer, James Galanos. (When and where had she come across that?) Her scent was there, a mixture of perfume and skin against mine; the more rebellious I became, the more I’d wrinkle my nose. Sometimes I would help myself to a few things to wear to high school—a navy-and-white Pappagallo minidress that made all the popular girls swoon.

Mom approached cotillion, a boy-girl party, and my first job interview like military assaults, and finding the perfect outfit was a victory greater than, say, V-E Day; sometimes, in fact, deciding what I was going to wear served as a much-needed cease-fire in our relentless, if conventional, mother-daughter war. My college years, when dirty, baggy painters pants were de rigueur, probably drove her mad. (Once, I invited my parents to a party my roommates were giving, and Mom suggested I could have looked as pretty as one of the prettiest girls there if only I’d “fixed myself up.” The problem was, I thought I had. We didn’t speak for the rest of their visit.) It wasn’t until I joined the working world and my mother went back to work, raising money for civic causes, that I began to lay down arms. The age and style gaps between us were not so large then—I was in my twenties and she was in her forties, and I started hanging around her closet again like a hungry stray, eager for any and all castoffs. “Take it,” she’d say, sometimes when I knew she wasn’t really ready to let go but she knew that a particular skirt or blouse or sweater might give me what I needed. She found my wedding dress at Bergdorf’s; I found the same gown marked down on vacation in Los Angeles. I picked out fuchsia bridesmaids’ dresses, while she’d had black velvet in mind; we compromised on navy. In the ensuing years, we might have argued over my work hours or why I couldn’t part with her grandson for one weekend, but we could always come together over one mutual interest. “How was the party last night?” she’d ask me. “No good clothes,” I’d tell her, which, for the two of us, explained everything.

I don’t know exactly when I started being less covetous of my mother’s clothes, but I suspect it was as I approached forty and she approached sixty. She had given up high heels and décolletage by then, while I was (finally) confident enough to try and make up for lost time. The boxes came to my home in Houston from the exclusive locale known as Marie’s closet, but I was using less and less from that venue. With a fee from a freelance piece, I bought my own, impossibly expensive Ralph Lauren suit. I wouldn’t say it then—not to myself and not to my mother—but I just didn’t want to look . . . old.

Not that she didn’t still have it going on. My mother went all out the night the new library opened in San Antonio, in 1995. She’d worked on the building every step of the way—fighting for that enchilada-red structure by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta—and that night was her triumph. She honored herself with an Issey Miyake gown of shimmering black pleats and a train that flicked and flashed like a serpent’s tail. “It looks a little like a giant cockroach,” she joked, but she glowed that night, lit from within, the last moment, I think, when the dress and the dream matched up.

And then my parents moved again, selling the house and buying a condo in a high-rise, and four closets once again became one. My mother’s infirmities took control—her back, neck, and shoulders were stiffened by a painful arthritis, and she spent her good days making photo collages on her computer, which didn’t require much in the way of designer clothing. On a trip to Houston, she couldn’t walk the length of the Galleria, and I snapped at her, something I will never forgive myself for. I still wanted to play, and I could not accept that the game was over.

As her only daughter, it fell to me, of course, to pick something for my mother to wear for eternity. I walked into her closet and felt instantly befuddled. An evening gown? A black suit? My mother had told me years ago when revising her will that she wanted no extreme measures taken, and a few months back, on a particularly bad day, she had said she didn’t want a funeral, just a small gathering of friends at the house. But it hadn’t occurred to me to ask her the most obvious question. I settled on something comfortable, a long linen skirt and matching blouse that she’d looked so pretty in earlier in the summer. It was the first time I had ever picked out something for my mother to wear.

We haven’t started dismantling the closet yet. My father keeps the door closed, but when I come home to visit, I love to walk inside. At first I thought there wasn’t much there I wanted—she had a lot of black suits and generous Eskandar sweaters at the end, none of which fit my needs—but I kept trolling, and far in the back I found what I was looking for: the velvet dress she’d worn at my wedding, the Galanos coatdress, the gloriously silly Miyake. My guess is that when I put them on, they will fit perfectly.

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