What My Mother Taught Me About Style

When I was growing up, my mother was never interested in fashion. She had a silk scarf or two, which I enjoyed waving behind me as I ran around the kitchen island, but aside from that I remember very little about her wardrobe aside from the paint splatters that covered her work clothes. She was – is – an artist, at that point a painter, and her basement studio in the house where I grew up was always a riot of half-mixed colors that covered walls and floors and clothes and everything she was working on. 

She didn’t teach me how to dress, or anything like that. I remember asking her to take me to the Gap for jeans while I was in elementary school, because I’d shown up on the first day of the new year and I was the only person still wearing sweatpants – lime green, the same pair that I continued to wear to gymnastics class, and which once fell down when I was on the trampoline, scarring me forever.

Generally, I wouldn’t be shocked if she’s the font of some of my own stylistic influences, both in the way of embracing the a bit of artist’s dishevelment and in rebelling against it. I wear a combination of messy, slightly disarranged clothing and some easier tailored pieces, although I think I tend to make all of it look about the same when it goes on, and if I covered it all in paint I think I’d cut a figure that the childhood me would recognize with ease. My father hates shopping – hates clothing, generally – and will only occasionally go to thrift stores or malls (grudgingly, mind you) to try to find, with limited success, clothes that are soft and comfortable enough for him to wear without complaint.

Neither of my parents ever told that I should look a certain way. On occasion I was made to tuck in my shirt or, even more rarely, comb my hair, but that ended by middle school. My father never wore a suit or tie to work (in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him wear a tie), so I didn’t grow up admiring tailoring, nor was I forced to join groups or attend events that would have demanded that I change out of baggy jeans and oversized skate shoes. There were no classes on manners, no Sunday School; instead I went to places like the art gallery where my mother showed, and of my father’s co-workers that I did meet, 90% of them were, like everyone else in Boulder, wearing Birkenstocks.

For better or worse, I’ve never been taught to baby anything I own. Or, if I was, I suppose I’ve always been determined to ignore the advice. Instead, I was taught that experiences are a more valuable currency than cash, and that most objects can be replaced. I try to take care of my belongings, but I don’t fret over the state of my clothes. In fact, I don’t really think I own them until I’ve cooked in them or worn them to a deserving occasion. Of course, one of the side effects of this is that I rarely look pristine, but I find that preferable to spending my time worrying about scuffs on my shoes, pulls on my sweaters, or tears in pants and shirts. My mother has always shown an impressive ability to destroy things, so perhaps in some ways I’ve rebelled by not dressing entirely in tatters.

Only in the last few years has she embraced a little bit of the fashion world, no doubt partly due to my damning influence, and she now owns a handful of pieces from brands like By Walid and Yohji Yamamoto. One of my old Silent by Damir Doma hoodies remains a favorite workout sweater. Even so, she’s still most often found in the slightly random collection of items I remember from my youth. Instead, her interest in fabric and fiber has led to a fascination with quilting and hand-stitching inspired in part by American quilts, Middle-Eastern rug designs, and Japanese boro techniques.

Her hands have always been busy, and patching, stitching, and quilting was a natural draw for her. She used to – and still does – repair all my jeans, but she’s moved on to other projects now. If you’ve been on the forum for a while – or if you’ve been to our yearly Proper Kit trunk shows – you may have seen a few of them already. I’ve claimed a handful of her completed pieces for my own, and they’re by far the most special garments I have in my wardrobe. Sometimes I’m tempted to baby these items, both because of the sheer amount of work that went into creating them, and because of the obvious sentimental value. Then I remember everything she taught me, and I go out of my way to wear them to whatever it is I have to do.

I took a boro jacket she made with me when we visited Japan, brought a full-length many-colored cloak with me to Pitti, and one of my most-worn garments is a Banana Republic shirt she bought for herself back in the 80’s, and which is more patchwork than shirt at this point. It’s tissue-thin, and in the places where it’s not covered in stitching, doodles, or scraps of fabric, you can almost see through it. Even so, I don’t spend my time worrying about keeping them clean, or even in ensuring they stay intact – instead, all of those experiences have been made sweeter because I’ve been wearing an emotional connection on my shoulders, and I attach even more value to those garments because of the places they’ve gone along with me. Besides, whenever I do inevitably damage one of these garments, I know exactly where I can take it for repairs – and then the story will continue.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, at almost thirty years old, I’m still wearing clothes my mother has made for me – and I couldn’t be more proud of it.

Why You Should Repair Your Clothing

It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle. You see something on Styleforum (or anywhere else), you think “I must have that, this purchase will make my life complete,” and not long after you’ve bought it there’s another must-have on the horizon. Eventually, you have more clothing in your closet than you can possibly wear. At that point, you either embrace it, or you start downsizing.

What happens to the favorites, though? If you’re lucky, you eventually land on garments that you keep returning to, and they turn into something special. At this point, we’ve all heard the raw denim marketing pitch: that it molds to your body, that you write the story of your life into the fades of the denim. That’s all fine and good – clothing holds memories the same way that scars do, albeit less painfully, and far be it from me to take the romance out of your favorite pair of jeans.

One problem we run into when we’re surrounded by so much newness is that it’s hard to be content with what we have. Not taking the time to enjoy your clothing has several effects, one of which is that your clothes don’t get worn before you give them away or try to flip them. Used clothing, regardless of brand or trend, has a magic that new clothing doesn’t. It’s not just denim – the worn spots on the elbows of a jacket, a frayed cuff or collar; all of this is enticing in a way that proves the wearer is real, is human.

Personal style changes over time. There’s no point denying that, and I don’t know why you’d want to. However, part of personal style comes from combining garments in interesting ways, and in developing a look that suits you. Just because your favorite shirt – the one you wore to death – doesn’t really go with your newer interests, doesn’t mean you can’t say the hell with it and wear it anyway. So, when I say that you should patch your torn shirt instead of throwing it away, it has the twin benefits of bringing you more use out of a piece you love and adding a personal touch to a garment that makes it 100% your own.

Styleforum is no stranger to threadbare elbows and patched denim, and for good reason. Well-worn clothing encourages you to take a little bit of your past along with you as you enter each new chapter in your life. Patches, stitches, and repairs – it all adds to the personality of the garment, and it’s a fine reminder of where you came from.

Of course, everything dies, and that includes clothing. Eventually, you’ll come to the end of a garment’s life, and no amount of darning will be able to save it. That’s when you lay it out, thank it for its service, and let it retire honorably. Unless you don’t want to do that, in which case you end up with something like this:

My mother purchased this shirt from Banana Republic at some point in the early 80’s, and she wore it and washed it until the fabric turned see through. Then she wore it more. Eventually, it started ripping – everywhere. The hems unraveled. The collar isn’t much of a collar anymore. Every seam has, at some point, come undone. At last, the entire back of the shirt started to give way in a spiderweb of tattered fabric. She retired it, until I insisted a couple of years back that it could be saved. Which it more or less has been, thanks to endless patching, darning, and stitching. Now it’s an heirloom, a work of art that’s spanned two generations and almost four decades.

The next time you think about throwing out an old garment, think instead about what you stand to gain from repairing it: not just a functional piece of clothing, but a testament to life, and proof that you lived one.

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