The joy of wearing my mother’s clothes

Published in Refinery29 on April 25, 2016

I am suffering from absent nest syndrome. Consider it the opposite of empty nest syndrome, when parents pine for their fledged offspring: my parents have moved out of my childhood home, and put their stuff in storage, and gone on a gap year.

Actually, they’ve so enjoyed mooching around Morocco and sunning themselves in Spain, that they’re now technically in their second gap year and show no sign of returning to Blighty.

We Skype, we email, and we EasyJet, but even in this hyper-connected modern world, it’s not quite the same. The nest is gone; there are no more weekends home in Wales, no more hopping on a train when London gets too much. Sometimes, no matter how grown up you pretend to be, you just want to see your mum – and it’s strange knowing she’s on a different landmass.

We’ve always been absurdly similar, my mum and I. After watching us devour pudding while putting the world to rights with our 100mph nattering, my boyfriend shook his head and remarked that at least he knows what he’s letting himself in for…

But it’s not just our personalities. We’ve always looked similar, with the same body shape. I am exactly the size my mum Lynda was at my age, and I have the wardrobe to prove it. I’ve been wearing her clothes since I was 14, with different items drifting in and out of fashion, but everything that suited my mum has also suited me. Thanks, genetics!

I’ve always been a fan of vintage clothes, and have long-prized items liberated from mothballs – a yellow crepe shirt with a mad 70s collar, cheesecloth embroidered blouses, a green Kashmiri cape – for their retro look. But as I’ve got older, these items are valued less for the fact that they’re unique one-offs, and more for their sentimental weight, and for the stories stitched into them.

As a teenager, I wore my mum’s cotton flares, with washed-out purple and grey with swirling embroidery round the hems. She stitched that herself when – how perfect is this? – on the Orient Express, on her way to Afghanistan in 1972. They may have long since hit the recycling bin, but I do still own a gorgeous hand-made wide leather belt from the same year, and which never fails to win compliments. Such original stories also confer bragging rights; someone once ran after me to ask where the belt came from, and I won’t deny that it felt way cooler to say smugly “my mum had it made for her” than “the Zara sale”.

Other items I resisted for years, including a dress which was her favourite as a student; despite my dismissal, she couldn’t bear to throw out. Thank god she didn’t. It’s a flower-sprigged, floor-length sheer maxi with wide scalloped sleeves. It always seemed too batty for me… and then the 70s revival happened, and suddenly near-identical garments were wafting down every catwalk.

But I don’t just love that dress because I’m a fashion victim; I love it because as I slip the zip up and look in the mirror, I think about my mum. I think of all the parties she went to and all the dancing she did in this dress, and I think of how happy she’d be to see me having the same kind of time in it.

The dress is a conversation-starter, and the conversations it lets me have, joyously, are about her. I’ve been known to accessorise it with her leather jacket, and tell of how she used wear that while tearing around Welsh hillsides on her motorbike, or how the dress once prompted a man to ask her to join his witch’s coven (true story). My counter-culture mother is an excellent source of party chat, and it makes me feel closer to her when I tell those tales.

It’s the sort of hippy notion that she would spout, but I do believe that clothes can carry a peculiar charge. Shoes can make you walk taller, coats can telegraph your personality; that dress you were wearing when you fell in love, or that jumpsuit you always have amazing nights out in, have their own hum. Pre-owned charity-shop buys can call out to us, demanding to be brought back to life – or can feel a bit creepy, as if someone else’s personality still lurks within them.

Clothes can be more than just clothes – they’re an extension of self. Or, when I’m wearing my mum’s passed-on items, they can be a sharing of identity, a way to bring the past into the present. When I wear the white dress my grandmother bought my mother for her 21st birthday, I feel connected to them both; I’ve seen the photographs, I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve made my own stories in that dress too (let’s just say, it’s not quite as Daz white as it was in 1973).

So, while I may be an absent nester, with no childhood home to go to, my sense of being part of a family, a line of women, is feathered by these garments. They’re the perfect fit for me, in so many more ways than one.

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