Here are some things I recently acquired from my mother’s closet: A leopard coat from eBay. A patchwork wool pageboy cap from Scotland. A patterned silk scarf from I’m-not-sure-where. And an expensive polka dot sundress that I remember playing dress-up with when I was a little girl.
Next to the black jeans, grey jumpers, and white t-shirts of my wardrobe, these things stand out like a Met Gala gown hanging on a rack of Uniqlo chinos. When it comes to getting dressed, I have long subscribed to the gospel of neutral minimalism. If everything matches everything else, you can get ready for work faster and have no trouble packing light. Fewer clothes, less fuss.
At least, that’s what I used to think—until my mom, who is an artist, made me see that the cult of minimalist dressing can be a kind of oppression in itself. Before that realization, I tried on many occasions to espouse wardrobe minimalism to my mother. I’ve encouraged her to spend money on basics like high-quality black trousers and button-up shirts instead of corsets and prairie skirts; to remove at least one accessory before she leaves the house; and to embrace Michael Kors’ “meat and potato” theory of getting dressed. Too many women dress for the life they want, Kors says, not the one they have. So spend your money on 70% basics and neutrals—meat and potatoes—with the other 30% on dessert.
Recently, on a trip home during which the aforementioned closet raid took place, my mom mounted a resistance. “But what if I feel most comfortable wearing tiramisu!” she protested. I had to admit that she had a point.
My dad likes to joke that my mom remembers past events not based on what happened or who was there, but based on what she wore. And indeed, there have been some good outfits. She got married in a peach-colored silk dress she bought from Monsoon, a British fashion chain, the day before her wedding. (She still has the satin sash it came with, “to wear on hats.”) I recently saw a picture of her in a red-and-white leopard-print jumpsuit she wore to a Prince concert in the 1980s, cinched with a red belt. A couple years ago she dyed a streak in her hair fuchsia pink. Once, while dragging our suitcases through Paris, she insisted that we stop at a tourist shop in Montmartre so she could buy a novelty red-and-blue neck scarf to match the red sweater she was wearing.
When I think about Kors’ advice now, I can’t help but detect a whiff of puritanical judgement. My mom may not have a life where she needs sequins and ruffles on a daily basis. But who is he to say she can’t dress as if she does?
As an artist, she also creates her own worlds all the time, often inspired by individual pieces, colors, textures, or motifs she finds amidst the banality of the everyday. Some of her clothing is less for wearing than artistic inspiration. There are billowing white nightgowns from a period when she got interested in researching the sartorial habits of American prairie women. Impulse buys from vintage stores in Ventura that are waiting to be worn by a model for the figure-painting classes she teaches. Wraps and kimonos that would be super practical if you were a house-bound heiress during the Belle Epoque. And ballgowns that may or may not ever be worn again—but hang on, desperate for the chance. This is not dressing for the life you have, I suppose, but rather for the one of the many lives you create in your head.
And so I’ve finally come around to raiding my mom’s closet. Recently, I’ve been wearing that leopard-print coat as the lingering springtime chill gives way to summer. Each time I do, I get a compliment that my denim jacket or midi trench could only dream of. I find myself adding a red lip to match the coat’s grandeur, or some jewelry to scale up the rest of my outfit. Minimalism may be its own kind of cultish cool, but thanks to my mom, I know that maximalism is way more fun.