Just two weeks ago, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly (and not the same grandmother who was unwell earlier this year). When I got the news, it was as if all of my memories of her suddenly filled a book in my mind that slammed shut. It felt as though only the strongest memories were inscribed in the half-a-second it took me to understand what had happened, and the little details that I remembered of her started to slip away. To capture them, I started writing.
I wanted to remember the taste of her stuffed bell peppers and macaroni and cheese, her insatiable appetite for ice cream and all things sweet, her stubbornness and sense of independence, her love of camellias and roses, how she’d chase me with $20 when I visited just to say “thank you” for spending time with her, and how proud she was of me. She introduced me to Martha Stewart and the idea of always having things look “just so” and offered her own example of somehow being able to make things perfect effortlessly. How she did it and raised seven children, I will never really know, though I will say that except in her later years, I rarely saw her sit down.
Mere, as we called her, means “mother” in French, the heritage of my mother’s side of the family. And she did all of the motherly things you can imagine – feed us until we nearly burst, rub our backs and hug us tight, and make sure we knew she appreciated her time with us.
On the way to the airport to fly back to New York after my visit with family for the funeral, we stopped at my grandfather’s home. My aunt offered my mom some of Mere’s makeup. My mom said she’d take the lipsticks.
When I discovered these in the car as we continued on our way to the airport, I told my mom I had to photograph them and asked her to pick a parking spot with good natural light. I think my mom thought I was crazy but was willing to humor me as we dug in the trunk of her car for props to create a makeshift backdrop. Lipsticks, as any woman knows, are incredibly personal. Each of us leaves our signature mark and shape on our lipsticks through use. My grandmother, it turns out, was a rounded, yet slightly angled lipstick shape. (I, on the other hand, am a very sharp angle…)
The lipsticks reminded me of all of her fashion rules, of which she had many. She truly took as much pride in her appearance as she did in her home and in her family. Here are just a few of her rules, almost all of which I must admit I break frequently:
1. Your shoes and bag must always match. Never, heaven forbid, should you wear black shoes with a brown bag or even brown pants. This is strictly prohibited. Black with black, brown with brown, and navy with navy.
2. Never leave your house without looking your best. You never know whom you will run into! Make sure to pass this sense of pride on to the people around you.
3. Know what looks good on you and stick with it. In the years I knew her, she almost exclusively wore separates, especially structured jackets, rather than dresses. Know what works on you and own it.
4. Get the fit right. Find a good tailor (such as your daughters) and make it fit your body type.
5. If you love something, buy multiples. In fact, you can never have enough ¾ sleeved white boat neck shirts, even if your stuffed closet tells you otherwise.
I agree with each of these rules to varying degrees, but they undoubtedly play a significant part in my memories of her. I think she would have been very proud to see how well we all looked as we came together to celebrate her.
This past Christmas Day, my mom and I found an hour to sit down for a style interview. While she wore her Christmas apron and things cooked away in the kitchen, I asked so many questions about her style that really revealed more questions I had about who she was before I was born.
With family, we often take for granted that we know them so well! My mom and I share a birthday (it’s today!) and have always been very close, but there were still stories she shared, especially about her time growing up in New Orleans, that I had never heard before. While I had to trim A LOT out to post it here, I hope our conversation will inspire you to do the same with someone you love.
Happy birthday, Mom! I’m so glad I get to spend our day together this year.
Here’s the interview…
Name 2-3 of your favorite items from your wardrobe.
Two of them would be scarves. The one that I brought back from Hong Kong for my mother. I bought it, thinking of myself, but then I thought, “Well, she would probably like this too.” And then after a few years, she gave it to me saying she had never worn it, why didn’t I take it back, and I was glad to get it.
Do you wear it often?
It’s a big scarf, so it really takes the place of a jacket. Same as that Hermes scarf, that would be another one.
What Hermes scarf?
The one that I got for $9 at the consignment store.
I went to that little consignment store in Covington, which has since closed. I saw this scarf on the counter, and I liked the colors in it. And the lady said, “Oh, I just got that in. I’m going to look it up and price it.” So then I found a few things and went back to the counter, and when I looked at the scarf again, I saw the Hermes signature on it. I’m just staring and holding my breath and asked “Did you get a chance to price this scarf out yet?” “Oh, let me see. $9.” [laughing] I said, “Okay, put this with the other things that I’m getting today.” And I went back to work and looked it up on eBay, and they were going for $325! So all those people at work are after me, “Well, you’re going to sell it, right?” I said, “Absolutely not.” I would never go out and pay $300 for an Hermes scarf, but if I could get one for $9, I’m going to wear it and enjoy it. So they all think I’m crazy.
Any other favorite items?
Well, the problem is, the things that I really love like that, I almost tend to protect. It’s a shame to do it, because I do enjoy wearing them so much.
I feel like I want to dress for the way I want people to perceive me. So for work, I want them to perceive me as a professional woman. I would say one piece would be that black-and-white houndstooth wool jacket that I have that I mix with different black skirts or pants. It makes me feel really good when I wear it. It makes me feel accomplished, like I look good, more confident.
When you look back, is there a favorite outfit that you used to have that you wish you still had now or that you have fond memories of?
I was just thinking of this Madras outfit I had. It was a blouse and a matching skirt. Usually, you think of Madras as being brighter colors, but this was a very pale, bland yellow and off-white. I think I remember it because the comment that [our neighbor] Jeannie made when I was wearing it, saying, “Oh, I can’t believe you found [panty] hose to match that outfit.” And I said, “Jeannie, I’m not wearing stockings. My legs are just that pale.” But it was just a comfortable outfit.
I don’t know why, out of all the outfits I’ve ever had, that would pop into my head, except like I said, because there was something associated with it. I wore it to see President Reagan when he came to Lafreniere Park on a field trip with [my sons].
When did you learn to sew?
I was around eight, I think, when I first played, at least, on my mom’s sewing machine, and maybe nine or ten when [my sister] Lynn and I took sewing lessons at the Singer Sewing Center together. I made a shirtwaist dress. Lynn never finished hers, but I actually wore mine.
How has your style changed over different life eras?
All I remember from high school are those gray wool pleated skirts and the white blouses. I do remember early high school, ninth grade or so, we were still sewing, and that’s when bell bottom pants were in. My grandparents were taking me on vacation with them over to the Gulf coast, and I made a pair to wear for the trip.
I remember also ninth grade or so, my parents used to buy us an outfit for Christmas. And that year, we went shopping and bought a dress with a coat, really kind of Jackie O. looking, you know? In those days, number one, you wore stockings, and there were no pantyhose. To get rid of lumps, you wore a girdle. So my mother had me in a girdle.
After graduating from uniforms, what did you wear in college once you had to figure out what to wear every day?
We would go to All American Jeans because there were no women’s jeans at the time, only men’s jeans. They were all hip hugger style, so you didn’t have to worry for a man’s shape versus a woman’s shape having the waist so much smaller. My friend, Mary, made me a macramé belt in blue and pink, so I wore my macramé belt with my hip hugger blue jeans and a polo shirt for class.
But then after you dad and I got married and I was working, I really admired my mother-on-law’s clothes.
At that time in your life, did you feel stylish?
Yes, I did. And you can see how a lot of people dress, a lot of people just don’t have clothes sense, it seems like, or they look sloppy. I just liked to always feel like I was put together; things match or went together, that it was intentional.
Do you feel someone taught you how to do that or it was just something you knew?
Probably just watching [my mom] and [mother-in-law].
Did your mom have style?
I remember being in high school, and we went to D.C. when my dad had to go for work. We drove up there in the station wagon, me, [my sisters] Cindy and Lynn, and my parents. Mom had made this pink shift dress because she had to go to some evening thing with Dad. Just an A-line shift and pink marabou feathers around the bottom.
But they put it in a garment bag on top of the car to travel, and it didn’t get wet or anything, although it was snowing. It just got dirty, just from air going through it or something, with streaks of black.
Poor thing after all that work! I don’t remember what she did, if she found somebody to clean it for her. But nice and something special for an occasion that she would look dressy in.
Did she care about her appearance?
Oh, definitely. Her mother used to wear housedresses all the time, with the stockings rolled below her knees, [wearing] a lot of the dresses like you would see from the 30s, where the belt matched the dress.
So I don’t know where my mother got her style so much. Not that my grandmother didn’t look nice, but I think my mother went a little farther and cared more about how she looked. My dad never went out without a jacket and a tie. He always dressed up to go to church. So it’s not just her, the whole family would look nice and dress up for an occasion.
Is that the difference between the time periods though?
I think so. My dad told me that about his father who never went out without a coat and tie. That was a sign of the times. So things have gotten more casual. People are not dressing up so much, so I guess I’m really a throwback, but I like doing it. I feel better about myself when I’m nicely dressed, so I’ll keep doing it.
I remember Patty, who lived next-door, and she kept a lipstick in a drawer by the front door. Whenever that doorbell rang, she would whip that lipstick out before she would open the door.
Do you have something you can’t leave the house without wearing like that?
Earrings and mascara; definitely mascara because I have no eyelashes. I need to go put some makeup on right now, even though I can’t see myself. Because I know I’m not wearing makeup, I feel like I’m missing something. Not the real me.
What would you say have been the significant life moments that have influenced your style?
Going to work in a professional office in downtown New Orleans.
In that time period when you were transitioning back to an office (after running your own business), you were also in the divorce process. Do you feel like that significantly impacted your style?
Yes, I think it did, because actually, when I finally said I’ve had enough, I felt empowered. For so long I had just kind of blended into the background. Just don’t make waves. At the point I stood up and said, “No, I’m not living like this anymore. Yeah, I’m ready for a change.” I guess that’s why I like that power business suit kind of a look, you know? Obviously, you can choose what statements you’re trying to make when you select your clothes.
How has cost influenced how you shop? On the one hand, if you know how to sew, you kind of know what things are worth or that you could make it yourself.
You know I’ve always let cost dictate a lot of my wardrobe too, which is probably why I sew a lot. But I always managed to find nice clothes at a price I was willing to pay. So I tend to invest money in something like a well-tailored jacket as opposed to a skirt because I could whip up a skirt. I would invest in pants that fit well because I know that’s difficult to accomplish.
But cost matters, as I said, because I like variety. I don’t like to invest too much in one piece. I won’t buy a $300 coat; I’ll wait till it’s on sale for $125 because I know they do go down too. Everything eventually is marked down, or if I miss it, I miss it.
What’s one thing, regardless of cost, that you wish that you could add to your closet?
I tend to stay away from everyday clothing that has to be dry cleaned, because I just don’t like to pay for dry cleaning. So I would add things that were dry clean only. Maybe some cashmere sweaters, something I really liked. They’re beautiful, but I can buy merino wool for much less. I’ve always shopped price.
Who taught you that?
Well, even growing up, we just didn’t have that much money. Then after I was married, it was still the same situation. There wasn’t that much money to invest in clothes, or maybe just because the bargain mentality, that it’s got to be a bargain for me to buy it.
You maybe mentioned it already, but what was one of the best deals you ever got?
Yeah, definitely, that scarf.
Is that part of the appeal of that scarf, that it was such an insane deal?
Part of the appeal of that scarf was that it’s the Courtyard at Versailles, so it was the memory attached to that trip that we took, so that was a large part of it too. Maybe if it had been something else, it wouldn’t have been quite as attractive, but that’s all built into that too. The memory.
Here’s my challenge to you now: ask someone you love to sit down with you and let you interview them. Consider recording it (I use iPhone voice memos!) so you can share with other family or just listen again later. If you want help holding yourself accountable, share in the comments below who you want to interview and by when! I promise it’s worth it.
Swapping, swishing, shwopping. There are many new buzzwords all pointing to the same idea: exploring alternative ways of adding to our closets without spending money or adding to our environmental footprint. When we need or want something new in our wardrobe, the first impulse might be to head to the store. But what if we could get what we needed without worrying about the sustainability and ethical issues or costs that come with buying new clothes? And we could make some new friends or reconnect with old friends in the process?
Swapping lets you exchange clothes you no longer want for clothes someone else no longer wants, usually for free and often in the context of a swap party. While there are a number of online sites that now let you consign or swap your clothes (I’m personally excited about Bib & Tuck), I still think the best way to swap is in person among friends.
Last month, I attended a swap party hosted by Moishe House, Barrie Schwartz of My House, and Stasia Cymes of Ladies Night Out to figure out the ingredients of a successful swap party. If you’re like many of the party attendees, you’ve just cleaned out your closet and you may have a pile of clothes to share. But a truly successful swap party is a social event and gives guests peace of mind by knowing that even if their contributions don’t get adopted that night, they’ll find a new home through donation.
Stasia Cymes, in addition to founding Ladies Night Out, runs a professional organizing service called Clear the Clutter. When finding your swap contributions, she recommends bringing an item…
– If you haven’t worn the piece in a year
– If you’re holding onto something in hopes that you’ll fit into it again
– If you have multiples of the same item (such as the ubiquitous “black pant”) but only feel good in one or two of your collection
– If you’re holding onto something because of its value in dollars and not its value to you
– If you’re keeping something because it might come back in style, but it doesn’t actually make you feel good or comfortable
– If it fits you physically but no longer fits your personality or where you are in your life right now
If you’re ready to try swapping, here’s how to plan your own party:
1. Clean out your closet and ask your friends (and their friends) to do the same. For a successful party, guests should bring at least 1-3 pieces each. But the more you bring, the more fun everyone will have.
2. Send the invitations. I recommend making the party single sex to make sure you have a good selection for all of your attendees and because stripping down to try on clothes is somewhat inevitable. But don’t worry about inviting guests of different sizes and with different styles. Swapping is about getting creative, and a range of sizes and tastes usually works itself out.
3. Once you’ve got a location, set up the space like you would a shop. Designate a “fitting room” or make sure you have a full-length mirror or two. Create areas for each of the product categories. If you have less than 20 guests, separate items into tops, bottoms, dresses, jackets/outerwear, and accessories/shoes. If you have more than 20 guests, you can break these categories down further (example: “bottoms” becomes denim, dress pants, casual pants, skirts, etc).
4. As guests arrive, ask them to place their items in the different categories. At this point, they can browse the items already there but no swapping yet! Cocktails or snacks will help your guests get comfortable with each other while waiting for the swapping to begin.
5. Once everyone has arrived, start swapping. Guests can begin browsing and trying on items. If you have just a few guests, let guests take as many items as they like. If you have a larger group, perhaps guests can take a piece for every piece they brought in the first round (whether by the honor system or by tickets), and then any leftovers are fair game for all.
6. Donate any remaining items. As an added perk to your guests, take care of making sure any remnants have another chance by dropping them off at a local donation center.
The perks of a swap party as both a social experience and one that is free of cost makes me think this trend will only continue to grow. And none of the guests seemed too concerned with what they went home with. Guest Annie Jackson found two items to bring home, but it was the social aspect and the opportunity to unload unwanted clothes that drew her to the event. Brittany Hunt was looking forward to getting some clothes for free, especially clothes that might be more interesting than what she’d find in stores, but she was most looking forward to the community aspect too. Brittany also pointed out that she’s more willing to try on things out of her usual style and to take things she isn’t totally sure about. So a swap party can be a fantastic way to play with your own style at literally no cost or risk. And in Brittany’s words, “You can’t really have expectations. I see it as a way to get rid of stuff that you’re not wearing and then if you don’t get anything, at least your closet is a little cleaner.” It doesn’t get anymore win-win than that.
Special thanks to Barrie Schwartz, Stasia Cymes, Annie Jackson, and Brittany Hunt for sharing their insights! And to our readers: I’ve seen the success of swapping among women, but I’m insanely curious to know if this idea can work with the gents too. Comment or tweet @ThisIWear to share if you think this works for both sexes (and if you’ve seen it in action), or if swapping really is a lady thing.
I met Kendra Jones Morris a few months ago through Propeller (formerly, Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans). Kendra runs Rural Revolution, a social enterprise that creates job opportunities locally for sales ambassadors who in turn sell beautiful jewelry by female artisans from around the world. Kendra’s professional and personal background is so interesting that I had to find out how her life experiences have influenced her style. We chatted about how style evolves with age, her closet confessions, and why you shouldn’t wait for a special occasion to wear something you love.
What are you wearing today?
This [top] I got from Hattie Sparks, which I love. It’s a see-through white button-down. White pants from the Gap. And the shoes I wear with this are black and gold. I’m really into white, black and gold.
Are those your signature colors?
No, but with children, I’m really desperately trying to find a uniform, so that I can everyday have everything go together.
Tell me about three of your favorite items in your closet right now.
 I really like this skirt, because it’s so flowy.  Trenches because they cover up everything, and it doesn’t matter how sloppy I am underneath.  [This jumper] is one of my favorite things that I’ve never even worn. Basically staples. I am constantly looking for staples.
Is that part of being a mom?
Absolutely. In my 20s, I had my closet completely organized by color, texture, and lots of different items. It was fun. But now, I’m constantly giving away all of my clothes, because I’ve got to zero in on and find a style that works. I’m looking for a uniform. White, ivory, grey, and black. You can do all white in New Orleans and be very appropriate.
How would you describe your style in general?
I feel like I’m the messiest I’ve ever been in my life, but right now with my age and position in life, I’m looking for my new norm. I’m looking for my style.
If someone saw your closet, what might they say or learn about you?
I thought she had more! I get a lot of compliments on my clothes, but I don’t really have that much in my closet.
Once something ends up in your closet, how long does it stay there?
Sometimes it hasn’t even stayed two months, if I don’t think it’s going to work. If I like it, it can stay for years.
What are those pieces that have stayed?
Classic denim jeans. The ones you find in vintage stores. I can never seem to part with vintage “Made in America” jeans.
What is your closet confession? Do you have any secrets in your closet?
I think holding onto clothes when they’ve started to get tattered. It’s something that you think nobody will notice [laughs]… But sometimes people notice. That’s a closet secret.
Is it because it’s a piece that you just can’t part with?
Yeah, because if it’s a piece you love and you can’t find something to replace it, then you think “I’ve gotta hold onto this until I can get it replaced.” And then I may or may not wear it, but I think that I can’t let it go until I get it replaced.
Have your travels and the places you’ve lived influenced your style?
Definitely. I never had the backpacker look, but I love the European [look] – it’s all very uniform. Everything is black and grey. They always look sleek. I think in America we typically go for quantity as opposed to quality. We get pleasure out of consuming as opposed to enjoying [the use of the items]. My philosophy has always been, I never know if tomorrow will come, so dress accordingly. That’s what I would think everyday: if you buy something, you have to use it, because there is no “tomorrow I’m going to be a glamorous person.” Today you’re a glamorous person.
How did you develop that philosophy? Did anyone influence you?
My mom always looked really sexy and I was from a farm town of 1500 [people]. While all the other moms wore fuzzy sweaters, my mom always looked like she was going to the office, even though she wasn’t. She always wore high heels… She was just a really attractive woman. She was from a small Missouri town too, but she was a Peace Corps volunteer. She and my dad had traveled and that was when people didn’t really travel. She always looked glamorous.
Has that influenced you a lot?
Definitely. And with my daughter, I want to look presentable in front of her, as often as I can, because that influences her. I think it’s ok for children to get sloppy and experiment, but I think there is something about having your mother look like she’s intact. So I’m always trying to make sure that at least I look like I’m together.
So it’s more than just clothes. It’s really about self-respect?
Does your daughter Gisele like to play dress up? Are you seeing her develop her own style?
Yes. She is her own person. She’s always the princess.
You’re collaborating with Hattie Sparks in New Orleans for Rural Revolution. Can you tell me about that?
The trunk show will include leather clutches that are handmade by female artisans in Indonesia. We work with female artisans throughout the world and then we give back in their name and in our name to their communities. In Indonesia, it’s helping an orphanage that is right in the girls’ neighborhood. In New Orleans, it’s going back to the Redeemer Presbyterian Church that has helped to rebuild 500 homes. So every piece has a story, and we think Hattie Sparks is a great place to showcase affordable high-end quality goods that tell a story.
Amber is a recently returned NOLA native with the perfect mix of confidence and self-consciousness. While Amber’s style will pull you in, it’s her stories that will hold your attention. (And we didn’t even get to her colorful Toms wedges!) Like many of us, she’s shopping on a budget and trying to find clothes that fit well. She’s not afraid to show off her rocking little body or talk about her love of pockets. And I am happy to report that all of the (two) interviews I have done so far have references to housedresses.
What are you wearing today?
It’s a 50’s style denim-looking [dress] and a little woven belt.
How long have you had the dress?
I actually got it in New York at some random place. I think it was $15. It was near where I worked around 36th in Midtown in the Garment District.
What made you pick it out?
At that time, I had to dress in business casual, but sometimes those clothes are expensive. I went in to see what they had. It looked really comfortable, and it has pockets, which is really important to me. And it actually fit, which is pretty hard to do because I’m small.
What part of your outfit is most special to you?
The belt. It belonged to my long-term boyfriend’s mother’s best friend. She was a wonderful woman, and she recently passed away. She was tiny like me, so I got a lot of her wonderful hand-me-downs.
Do you think of her when you wear the belt?
Yes, but I didn’t know her so personally as my boyfriend’s mom did, but I like to wear things that have a story.
[Note: I did not pay her to say this!]
Do you have any good memories of her?
I actually got to know more about her through [her husband] after she passed away. You can tell by the clothes she used to wear that she was like a little “Jackie O.” She [had] all of her housedresses, perfectly buttoned up, and the best accessories. Just going through pictures of her and her old things, I got to learn more about her than I knew when she was with us. And I think it’s more for my boyfriend’s mom that I continue to wear these things. She gets very excited whenever she sees me wearing one of Mary’s dresses or Mary’s belts.
Because it reminds her of Mary?
Yes and that these things didn’t cease to exist. Somebody’s using it.
Name one item you’d love to add to your closet.
Recently I’ve been searching for a maxi dress that doesn’t have the low-v. And I’m really short, so everything I try on is really long.
Do you have to tailor a lot of your clothes?
I try not to. Tailoring can get really expensive, and just because you get it tailored doesn’t mean it is going to fit perfectly anyway. Tailoring feels like such an investment. I actually bought a sewing machine, but I actually broke it a week later. It’s gone now.
Were you planning to learn to sew?
That was the intention. It was when I was in New York, and I saw a cute little vintage compact sewing machine on Craigslist. I trucked all the way out to Brooklyn and carried this thing – it was like 30 lbs – on the subway. I got home, downloaded the instruction manual from a website, and then broke it almost immediately.
Did you leave it in NYC?
No, I brought it to Indiana, but my boyfriend’s mom threw it away for me, because she knew I had a hard time parting with it.
Thanks to Amber for the interview. Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share times you’ve been disappointed in Brooklyn, things a mom has thrown away for you, and/or your tips on finding petite clothing.