Lost and Found: Why I Care What I Wear

My mother has dementia; she is no longer the powerful woman of my childhood, the mother I had such a difficult relationship with, the woman whose wardrobe I longed to grow into.

Instead, she is in a nursing home with three dresses to her name and shoes with Velcro straps; but she hasn’t lost her connection to fashion. On my first visit to her new care home she recognised me by my pink boots, a slow dawning coming to her from my feet upwards. I had chosen my outfit to catch her attention, as I have always done. My mother’s estimation of how I look is as important to me at fifty-two as it was at five. Her approval can make the day sunny, her disapproval — a more common theme — still reduces me to tears.

The dementia has softened her views. She smiles at my dresses, plays with the hem of my skirt and asks about the designer of my jacket, all with an endorsement of my sartorial choices. I choose to dress for her in the bold colours that she now prefers, mixing patterns and make strong statements; in the past she would have considered this ‘unnecessary’, not what we do; I always felt that she disliked me drawing attention to myself, preferring me when I wore black or navy: when I didn’t attempt to upstage her. For the past few years, as she has descended into dementia, her moods haven’t always been so conciliatory. She has greeted me more often with the words “what have you done to your hair?” or “you look terrible…I don’t like that dress (shoes, jumper, coat…)”, continuing to express her views until the daggers hit their mark and I dash to the loo and sob.

And yet we share this love of clothes. This is our bond; I suspect that without fashion we wouldn’t have had any relationship. As a child she would dress me to match her look, a mini version to compliment her stylish life. I learnt about fabrics, colour combinations and what to wear to impress from her clever wardrobe planning. She was deft with a sewing machine, knitted exquisitely and could conjure up a new frock overnight, but her greatest love was shopping in the West End. As I grew older our Saturdays were spent in Selfridges or John Lewis. She was an independent successful career woman at a time when most of my friends had stay-at-home mummies, and lavish with her purchases for work-wear. Looking back I feel that she was trying to convince herself that she was up to the job by wearing the roles she appeared to manage with ease. In the seventies and eighties I remember her in weekday power suits, her hair in a pleat, her pearls: in control, aloof, absent. Her holiday look was in complete contrast, terry towelling two-pieces, white shirt-dresses, floaty evening gowns with silver dancing shoes. She was just as generous with my clothes. I always had a new dress to celebrate any occasion; my childhood is illustrated in my mind with clothes; the outfits my clearest memories, a timeline of what I wore when there was a significant or mundane moment to recall.

When I rebelled from her control of who I should be, the fallout was severe. Slaps when my skirt was too short, public humiliations intended to show her greater elegance, withdrawal of any pretence to love a child who wasn’t going to conform.

None of this behaviour is unusual; how many haven’t had the same tug-of-war relationship with our mothers? For years it made me angry, still wanting her to see me as beautiful; I choose instead to defy her style advice at any cost and become anything but ‘pretty’; I opted to be outrageous, eccentric, a rag-bag of mismatched ideas that I changed daily as I struggled to discover who I was with what I wear. Just as I had witnessed her doing when she was learning to be a decision-making dresser deserving of her position on Fleet Street.

The ebb and flow of our relationship to fashion, and each other, continued as I grew into a more stable identity. Over the years we shopped again for important garments that signified our joint history. Weddings, christenings, first communions, and then my father’s funeral; an event which renewed our bond as we expressed our emotions via shared sartorial choices. She had a new lease of live for a short time. She stayed frequently and we would saunter along the King’s Road, a mother and daughter connected through consuming fashion, dressing up for each other, taking pleasure in discussing seam finishes and bias cut.

But it passed too quickly. More funerals took their toll on her mental health; my suspicion is that stress exacerbated the dementia’s progress. I was shocked when I opened her wardrobe to pack for her stay in hospital only to discover it was empty, her treasured clothes gone. Her once-stuffed flat is void of the life she formerly had; whether she has given things away or disposed of them in the rubbish shoot makes little difference. I feel an acute loss.

So when I visit the jolly home where she is temporarily resident I dress to make her happy. I want to be a colourful dutiful daughter who can make her laugh with delight at my silver shoes. I reminisce with her about the clothes we wore: we talk of a favourite red velvet long frock in mother and daughter versions; her white, pleated, Halston skirt suit which she teamed with a pleated broderie-anglais dress for my seven year old self. She remembers how much she loved her silver dance shoes, and I tap my silver clad toes as she sings in a voice that is still surprisingly clear.

She can recall dresses in astonishing detail: when she bought them and wore them, what she dressed me in, how we made an impression when we entered a dining room together. She was always so aware of the effect she wished to create, of being at the centre of an adoring male gaze. I realise that I too must have understood that power at a very young age, a power I have never felt able to reproduce on my own. Even now she can capture an audience and when I am in her shadow I have a sense of being more seen than when I am alone.

There are times when I purchase a particular piece that seems so close a copy to a memory of one of her dresses that I wonder if I have made up the recollection. I look in the mirror and see her looking back. I cannot escape my mother’s gaze. My wardrobe echoes her lost closet as I mourn her vanished dresses instead of dwelling on her lost mind.

She is eying another resident’s pink cardigan, mentioning it frequently, sneaking glances longingly. I shall buy her one of her own and new shoes to take when I next visit. And I shall dress to reinforce the seams of our fragile relationship in the hope that she will approve of how I look and I can feel that I am visible to her for a little longer.