My clothes, my armor. And my mother-in-law

Photo by E. Ivanova

As I’ve always objected, there is no point to “natural” styles in make-up or fashion — if they were really natural, they wouldn’t be styles, after all: a visual concept you have to buy as opposed to something you already are.  This photo on the left I did a couple of years ago sums up the idea: first you scrub yourself of your undesirable natural state (feathers or any trace of hair?) and then you cover yourself with another layer which is supposed to represent your real self much better: your more authentic and hence, ironically, more natural representation. It reminds me of Agrado in All About My Mother,  the transsexual who is convinced that all the changes she did to his/her body are justified by the idea that they make him/her be more like herself.

But this is not about the everyday tranvesting we do to our real selves through clothes. It’s about my mother-in-law, an upper-middle-class woman, Italian at that, who has always seen clothes as her identity shell. Which means that she has always invested a lot of emotion and of herself in her clothes. She hasn’t been going out much lately and her fancy, dressy clothes, so important to her, have not been able to do their role.

What she mostly does today is relive her clothes experience. She likes to reminisce and tell the stories of when and where she bought a certain piece. She recalls in tiniest details, years after the fact, the conversations she had with the shop assistant (because she buys in local stores where someone helps you) and the occasions she wore it for. She likes to show off the best pieces, hanging in her wardrobe.

I know she is not very pleased with my wardrobe routines, although she’s never mentioned anything to me. It’s not just a generation gap; it’s also a culture gap. And a summer gap. Italians are a dressier crowd, as is to be expected, have always been, although these dictatorial restrictions have loosen up a bit in the past decade. On top of that, I go to Italy for a vacation, so comfortable shirts and pants are a must. Still, this is not a real excuse in her book. She being the mother of sons and the grandmother of a grandson, I can see in her eyes some kind of sadness that her heirloom fashion wisdom might not get to be instilled in her heirs. She would like to take me out shopping for clothes, but even that is too strenuous for her.

Yet there is one thing she can do and has been doing lately — bestow upon me the luxurious pieces in her wardrobe, one by one, little by little. She gives me each one after some unrelated conversation that has drawn us closer together. She remains silent for a moment, then goes to her bedroom and invites me in with a mysterious smile, telling me the story of this coat with fur collar or that patent-leather handbag.

And even though these are outdated things not my size that I’ll hardly wear, I listen to every story and take every single piece. I transport them in my bursting suitcase across the Atlantic as I receive them, with no intention of donating them to Goodwill. Who knows, maybe they’ll become fashionable again in the future. Or they’ll be at least vintage and funky. Or at least they’ll be a real treasure for some great-granddaughter, someday, helping her to find out who her great-grandmother was.


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