I was raised in a house of women with strong opinions and where appearance, if not everything, was certainly a lot of things, and neither my sisters nor I were trusted by our mother to manage our own. As a result, there were rules — little girls did not wear jeans (and pants only rarely), hair should be long, black and grey were for funerals — and an extended childhood punctuated with outfits I hated. There were also upsides to this: Trends were largely ignored (I made it through the ‘80s without a perm or a crimper) and I learned early on the value of picking my battles (jeans were never worth it and I won a sweeping decades-long victory against wearing the color pink that stands to this day).
My mother is tall and blonde and beautiful, with all of the imperiousness brought to bear by that particular combination. She’s also German and came of age in the ’50s and early ’60s, which means she’s a generation or so more old-fashioned than her North American counterparts. Her opinions on style (and everything else) were accordingly vociferous. Things — like, say, ladylike cuts or crisp white collars — were either chic (pronounced SHIK) or furchtbar (the appropriately onomatopoeic German word for “awful”). The latter was most often accompanied with a grimace and a dismissive shake of her head. A hypercolor T-shirt borrowed from an elementary-school friend once elicited such a strong reaction I worried she might actually throw up.
She spent several years as a sales associate at a Chanel boutique, her sense of style and strength of opinion a lethal pairing that translated to commissions paid — by her choice — in chain-strapped bags and size-11 flats stacked neatly in her bedroom closet. In other words, my mother literally made a living telling people what to wear.
She personally favored color and metallics: bright blues, mint greens, electric reds and oranges accented with jeweled collars and costume clip-on earrings. I remember sitting on her bed as a teenager as she thumbed through her closet, pulling out the pieces she’d accumulated over the years. One, a faded lilac and robin’s egg Pucci dress she’d had since her early twenties. (Shoplifted, she’d admit to me years later after a few glasses of wine, from “Bloomies”; she and her best friend had each taken one, shoved them under their fur coats and ran.) Next, a ‘70s Yves Saint Laurent skirt striped with pink and blue and flecked with gold that now hangs in my sister’s closet. Another, this one a heavy black Escada jacket with white piping, matching skirt and oversized gold buttons, resplendent in all its early 90s power suiting glory. I may not have agreed with what she wanted me to wear, but her taste, as it related to herself and especially in hindsight, was admirable in its consistency.
Amidst all the rules and sartorial disagreements were small pearls of wisdom I uncovered slowly, and often by accident, not realizing until years later the actual source. For starters: it’s almost impossible to insult someone by overdressing—something I have to remind myself when my animal-like desire to wear jeans (a direct result of years of denim deprivation) threatens to override my manners and good sense. Plus a few more: full eyebrows are the fountain of youth, one or two high quality handbags are a legitimate investment, and fake jewelry most often looks just as good as the real thing.
A few years ago I was home for a visit when my mom, now in her early seventies, called me into her bedroom. We were about ready to leave for dinner. “I don’t know what to wear,” she complained from her seat on the edge of her bed, hands tucked between her thighs. “You girls always look so good.”
I paused in the doorway and looked at her, wondering if I’d misheard. “What do you mean?” I asked her. “You know what to wear.”
“No,” she answered. “I don’t. Can you pick something?”
I was stunned.
This was the same woman who, in 1989, told my then-19 year old sister she wasn’t allowed to leave the house wearing a pair of ripped Levis; the same woman who, in high school, called me on her borrowed cell phone while I was out at a party to ask if my hair was up. “You look better with it down,” she told me, before I could answer. “Be home by 11.”
I realized, suddenly, that my mother—always so strong, so seemingly immutable—not only wanted my opinion, but needed it. I pulled a pair of blue jeans from the closet, a light blue cashmere twin set from her drawer. “Wear this, with your black loafers,” I told her. She did.
My mother isn’t old or infirm. And she certainly doesn’t need anyone to take care of her. In fact, she still cares for my grandmother, her mother, who lives with her. And 360 days (give or take) out of the year, clearly, she picks out her own clothes and wears them with aplomb. But with that one question, my mother and I have started that inexorable role reversal that happens with all parents and all children, from caregiver to receiver.
Now, if I’m visiting or we’re together, it’s rare for her to wear anything without checking with me first. I’m still always a little bit stumped when she asks, the implicit admission of her uncertainty never not catching me off guard. I try, mostly, to guide her to monochromatic looks—white on white, black on black, cornflower blue on cornflower blue—to keep things simple and her comfortable. She always adds her own accessories, adamant that every look needs both a necklace and earrings.
Every so often, it seems like she asks me just to be able to disagree with my answer and pick out something on her own. And when she does, I just tell her what I think. Sometimes it’s chic. And sometimes it’s furchtbar.