Name a boutique in Baltimore, and my mother is probably on a first name basis with its owner. In fact, she’s probably awaiting something they ordered “just for her.” She takes shopping seriously. And while she shows her love in many ways — daily phone calls, lots of affirmations/nagging, extreme worry when I don’t answer the phone — she gets especially excited when she can buy things for her only daughter.
The last time I ever willingly let my mother shop for me was in 2010 when she visited me while I was living in the Bay. I had just finished grad school. I was at my first “adult job” (well, paid fellowship), I was paying my own rent, and I had a new serious boyfriend. My parents were in town on business, but they were also eager to see what their suddenly adult daughter looked like.
And their “suddenly adult daughter” was a serious mess. I showed up at their hotel on the night of our fancy meet-the-boyfriend dinner wearing faded black skinny jeans, Bass lace-up shoes, a vintage boy’s blazer, and no makeup. When my mom opened the door — dressed in a navy-blue sheath dress, heels, and diamonds that you could see from space even if you had astigmatism — her face crumpled. “Your jeans have a hole in them, Allison,” she sighed.
Despite what you might be primed to believe at this point, my mother is not some country-club WASP stereotype. We’re black. My mom is a woman who takes pride in her appearance — and, after a childhood in which she didn’t have a lot but made sure what she had was impeccable, she can’t understand why I don’t feel the same way. I care about style, of course. But back in 2010 I was living in the Hippie City by the bay, commuting by bike, working at a mostly male publication, and just so happy to not give a damn about how I dressed. My mother took one look at me and said, “Where is the Nordstrom?”
An hour later, I was wearing a sheath dress from 3.1 Phillip Lim—navy blue, the same color as my mom’s. My face was painted in the same Shiseido products she swears by. I shot a panicked text to my boyfriend: “If you have a blazer, for the love of God wear it please.” But you know what? I didn’t feel that bad. It was a special occasion, this guy was meeting my family, and my blazer had been missing pretty much all of its buttons. I was kind of stoked to get dressed up and show it off, like a lady.
“Huh,” said my boyfriend when he saw me. “Fancy. I don’t even recognize you. You look just like your mother.”
We subsequently broke up — and though it was two years later, I swear this incident contributed.
I decided she would not shop for me again.
That dress was a perfectly practical, stylish wardrobe staple that I probably should have worn 80 times. Instead it became a symbol of the difference between how I intended to live my life and the way she intended me to live my life.
Despite my refusal to shop with her, my mother didn’t stop buying. I’d come home to visit, and there would be new twinsets and dresses in the closet of my childhood bedroom. I moved to New York for a new job, at a fashion magazine, and she took it upon herself to buy things she thought were appropriate for my new glamorous life: a sleek fur-collar coat, sky-high heels. She could see that I was unhappy and out of place at the new job and wanted me to feel like I belonged. I wanted none of it. My style was more relaxed, more Bird than Bergdorf. I greeted every unsolicited twinset with something like: “You do not get me at all, woman” or “Stop trying to improve me. Or “This is anti-feminist.”
I’m the first to admit I was a jerk. She liked picking things out for me, and was excited for me to be excited, and I couldn’t even do that. With each item I rejected, it was like I was rejecting a relationship with her. Eventually she gave in to parallel shopping: In the same store, in different sections, with no sharing of opinions.
This year, for the first time, she has not attempted an epic mother-daughter shopping trip. Maybe she’s thinking more about her retirement years instead of my wardrobe. Or maybe we’re just, you know, getting along like adults who make an effort to understand one another.
During my most recent trip home, we all went to the mall as a family. My dad took off for the Apple Store, and I dragged her into J.Crew — they don’t sell St. John’s suits, so I assumed she wouldn’t buy anything. She waved to get my attention and pointed to a pair of drape-y navy drawstring pants (actually, the perfect eating pant). “Those might be comfortable.” I ignored her.
“Allison, what about this?” I turned and saw she was holding a conservative denim dress: “Ugh. No. Seriously? When would I wear that?”
“I meant for me.” She paused. “But, what would I wear it with?”
I helped her find a twinset — navy — and as she paid, I sneaked the eating pants onto the counter: “Um, Mom? Can I still get these?”