Wearing my late mother's clothes 15 years on has helped me heal

Wearing my late mother's clothes 15 years on has helped me heal

When I get dressed most mornings, I feel like I’m stepping into character.

It’s thrilling, and even though it only takes five minutes, it’s a joyful, meditative time in my otherwise chaotic day. 

I dress cheerfully; I stand out. I imagine I often look jarring in relation to my setting: a mum-of-four on the school run in a hot pink lamé cocktail dress! Then the next day, I might look like I’ve raided my three-year-old’s closet.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, texting a friend the other week about my fears of post-lockdown life, she replied: ‘I had no idea you had such social anxiety’.

As I looked down at my outfit, a colourful, pastel-hued, oversized Care Bears print playsuit, with a matching lavender jumper, I could see how I’d fooled her. 

But clothes are a form of escapism for me, even though my outfits are sometimes met with confounded expressions (and deep embarrassment from my oldest kid). 

I slink into Disney print leggings featuring all the villains, add a dramatic black dress, and presto – I’m a witch. Who cares if my destination that day is a dental appointment?

I pair a 50s-style top with a lobster embroidered on one shoulder with a crab-printed pencil skirt, and I think: ‘I’m a seafood platter come to life!’ 

Clothes are my creative outlet, and also, my armour. I’m not really as fun, confident or bold as my outfits might suggest. I’m a shy introvert who prefers a good book to a night on the town.

I remember swanning around university in tutu skirts and stilettos, sometimes en route to lectures. But that wild fashion alter-ego of mine feels trapped in time, stuck in her early 20s, when her entire world collapsed.

Though it’s been 15 years since I lost my mother in a traumatic fashion (she had a mental breakdown and took her own life), I grieve daily. I wear the grief differently these days, but I’m sure it must be imprinted permanently on my skin – a layer beneath any garment I put on. 

Can people tell I have anxiety, obsessing and over-analysing to the point where I can’t sleep, up all night picking at spots on my skin until they bleed angry tears?

Dressing in unexpected, happy, prints helps me feel shielded: people see the clothes, not the pain. I like that I can hide behind what I wear. 

My relationship with clothes is complex and evolves daily. My wardrobe is a direct route back to my childhood in New York City and to my mother, a frustrated fashion obsessive who would have quite liked to be a designer’s muse but instead found herself a single mother and doctor. 

My mother had remarkable, eclectic taste, and dressed like a million bucks, immaculate with her beautifully coiffed hair and designer wardrobe. Her clothes were a form of camouflage, hiding any evidence of the emotional demons, struggles with depression, anxiety and debt that plagued her.

It’s natural that in some ways, my biggest fear is to end up like my mother: masking my pain and anxieties until they devour me from inside.

She was also a wonderful, caring, giving mother, and I dream of having just a glimmer of her magic, intelligence and emotional depth. I’m sure that my relationship with clothes, and my need to use fashion for protection and comfort, is something she’s taught me, too, just like she used to help me to sound out words as a toddler.

After putting it off all this time, I recently unearthed all of my mother’s many belongings – I’ve had bits and pieces with me over the years, occasionally wearing a dress here, a jacket there.

I thought if I kept the earthly essence of my mother – her beloved belongings – tidied away in a box for many years, I’d be able to ‘get through’ the unbearable pain I felt whenever I thought about her.

I coped after her death by throwing myself into one distraction after another: moving to London, getting engaged and married, having a baby, then three more, in relatively quick succession.

The pandemic forced me to be still, to confront my many overwhelming emotions for the first time in my adult life. 

As I was hanging up my mother’s garments, now mine, I remember thinking that she was so full of life, even death couldn’t extinguish her. She’s become my favourite ‘character’ to dress as.

Her wardrobe is full of wonder and whimsy: Eighties-era shoulder-padded jackets, exceptionally constructed dresses with dramatic flourishes (ribbons, peaked collars, plunge necks).

I love that when I put on one of her dresses, it instantly adds about two inches to my height (and makes it look like my bank balance has a few more zeros at the end). 

I feel a powerful connection to my mother through her outfits. I touch the fabric and I’m flooded with memories, anecdotes, sounds and smells that make me feel my mother’s presence. I’m surprised at how the memories aren’t awful – they’re silly, happy ones of the inspiring woman who raised me. 

People instantly used to judge my mother because of the way she looked. She appeared arrogant; really, she was just painfully shy. Everyone assumed she had a fortune, which made the reality of her desperate financial situation all the more difficult for her to reconcile. 

Hilariously, despite wearing six-inch platform heels with her lab coat, with diamanté-studded oversized sunnies perched on her head, she never seemed to understand why people found her extraordinary and couldn’t stop themselves from staring.

She hated the constant looks, the whispered comments, being called ‘eccentric’. As someone completely mortified by her OTT ensembles, I wasn’t even a support to her – in fact, I used to beg her to tone it down.

Thankfully, she never listened to me: fashion was her art. It allowed her to be creative and expressive, to live in whatever fantasy world she wanted to for an afternoon (or a week). Dressing up brought my mother immense, boundless pleasure and she wasn’t going to give that up for anyone.

At 38, I finally understand the feeling of dressing for pleasure, and purely for me. When I put on one of her outfits I feel transformed and powerful. I don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore.

The bright colours in my wardrobe make me feel energised. Bold prints put a smile on my face, and can help soothe my turbulent thoughts.

It’s unfortunate how quick we are to make snap judgements based on how someone is dressed. I feel mothers come under particularly harsh scrutiny. It seems impossible to win in a society that derides mums for wearing milk-stained sweats while also treating mums who ‘dress up’ as indulgent and superficial.

I often feel out of place when I dress in a way that makes me feel ‘me’, ironically, often by pretending to be someone else. But I can’t tell if that’s because of my own, deep-rooted insecurities, or if people really think I’m a worse parent just because I happen to be dressed like Sandy in the final scene of Grease on the school run.

Clothes play such an important role in my life. My mum’s garments connect me to my past, and give my children glimpses of their granny at her best. I never expected to feel so close to my mother so many years after her death, but I think now, I understand her better than ever. 

Fashion choices are my favourite form of self-expression and creativity. No surprise then that I firmly believe we should dress for ourselves and not anyone else – especially because I know my mother would absolutely loathe how I dress half the time.

No matter: when I put on something of hers, I don’t need her approval. I can almost convince myself the fabric on my skin is my mum, giving me a little hug.

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