I’ve never really understood why I love fashion. People have asked me before, and, upon reflection, I don’t think I’ve ever given a wholly genuine answer. There’s the obvious retort that my mother’s effortless “the South meets New York” tailored dresses and skirts coupled with big hair and diamonds inspired me. Or my perennial fascination with “That’s So Raven”, and the impact that Raven Baxter’s desire to be a fashion icon had on my still forming hippocampus in the 2000s. I also often describe my mother’s close attention to detail in getting myself and my siblings dressed for church and professional family photos. Seersucker, blackwatch and her certainty that “it’s always best to just dress classically if you’re unsure” flutter in my mind every time I attempt to parse why I love fashion.
Oddly enough, I’ve never considered my father or his personal style when I think about my connection to the world of fabrics, textures and pantones. But, I don’t draw a blank for him in this area. On the contrary, I visualize his penchant for monochromatic looks consisting of turtlenecks coupled with the perfect suit as the basis for my personal winter style (I stand by my statement that turtlenecks are the t-shirts of the winter.)
My connection to my father via clothes was less on the nose than it is with my mother. I’ve watched her carefully select her outfits before we go to the movies, suffered being late to events so that she could find just the right pair of black D’orsay pumps and anticipated seeing what fashion confection she put together when she picked me up from school.
For my father, being an OBGYN remedied some of the arguable fuss of getting dressed. His uniform consisted of sky blue or muted teal scrubs and tennis shoes, with the addition of only the most sensible accessories once the temperature began to drop. So when he wasn’t wearing this, I took special note – but he typically was. He worked incredibly hard, and babies come at all hours.
Increasingly though, since his death, I have begun to associate him with my clothing infatuation, and some of my most vibrant memories connected to clothing come from during his battle with stomach cancer. I’ve realized that fashion is unconsciously a source of comfort for me and that the reason behind that comfort is not as important as letting myself embrace the safety that I feel in clothing.
The day after my mother came home to alert my brother and me of my father’s illness, I began a hunt for a pair of traditional Adidas black and white sweatpants, but with a raised stitch going down the center of both legs. As I was sitting in the hospital lobby waiting to visit with my father, (COVID-19 restrictions only allowed one of us upstairs at a time), I scoured the internet until I found a pair of the pants. After clicking purchase, I bought a couple of shirts to go with the sweats in a daze. I then went to GQ and Vogue’s websites and read every article in the style sections. I don’t recall any of what I read that day, but I remember the distraction of the words on the screen and the hope in the clothes that I pretended I was reviewing for the publications. I had injected myself with a droplet of serenity in the midst of an incoming hurricane of restless nights at the hospital and concentric circles of uncertainty.
Ironically, I can’t remember a single thing my mother wore during that time period. Now I often hear her begin to order something online or get dressed chicly and then stop to say, “Who am I getting dressed for if he’s not here?” She says this in a way that frightens me because so much of her I associate with her God-given style, and to see her neglect it makes me think she is becoming a shell of herself as she grieves. But at the same time, I heavily relate to her sentiments, but not for the same reasons. Like her, I have lost an affinity for getting dressed, and it’s almost a defibrillating realization when I notice I’ve pieced together an outfit for Zoom classes or a run to the Walgreens around the corner from our house.
But because we must all get dressed, I have not stopped getting dressed. The process has just evolved for me in a way that I’m still understanding.
When my brother, mom and I cleaned out a small section of my father’s closet, I took at least 10 pieces back to my room. They are the only pieces of clothing I have reached for repeatedly since. I’ve spent many days wrapped in his black cardigan or sporting his very vintage V-neck varsity sweaters with jeans and relieved by the simplicity of pulling one of his long-sleeved polos over my head with gym shorts. And it is in these outfits and further exploration of his side of the closet on my own, that I realize my father and I are certainly related in personal tastes. His influence on what I’ve worn and my comfort in fashion is far greater than I’d ever respected. The clean lines, cashmere cotton blends and sophisticated colors that stock his shelves and sway on racks, no longer to be worn by their original owner, mimic and explain some of the very same stories I see when I open my closet door just down the hall.
Often, I would buy a new shirt or jacket, and he would say, “Is that mine?” I would almost be offended because I knew it was certainly new and certainly not his. I have a distinct memory of ironing a brand-new black vacation-style shirt with greige style stitching outlining its silhouette. I pretended I didn’t hear the smirk in his voice as he said, “I see you’ve found my shirt.” Quite eerily, as my brother and I combed through his things, I found a shirt that was almost identical in design to my vacation shirt, but it wasn’t actually mine this time — it was his.
In understanding my father’s wardrobe I have learned more about my connection to him than perhaps he could have told me. And, while I am still lingering in the fog of grief, it is entirely too early to say that I’m over what’s happened to the anchor of my family. But it’s exactly the right time to add a new reason as to why I love fashion and why I’ll always love my father.
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