All The Pretty Dresses

October 21, 2015
mom's dresses

I thought women only fought over dresses in movies. But it turns out that two otherwise rational, peaceable fashion lovers can unleash their inner demons when they both want the same dress. Especially when that dress is a sensible gray tweed designed by Oscar de la Renta.

My mother loved fashion. She collected dresses and suits and heels and sweater sets for 40 years before she passed away in March. There was a vintage ultra-suede coat with fur trim and matching pants designed by Halston in the 1970s. An assortment of Bill Blass dresses from the 1980s in every pattern under the moon: checkerboard, floral, polka-dot, paisley, chevron, plaid, wide-striped, thin-striped and zig-zag-striped. Chanel suits that harken back to the days when ladies lunched and set their hair in rollers overnight. Oscar de la Renta in that smart tweed, but also with hand-stitched appliqués, crocheted cuffs and flouncy skirts.

I’d need all the pages of a book to describe them.

Vintage Halston coat with coyote fur trim.

Vintage Halston coat with coyote fur trim.


Oscar de la Renta dress with ribbon appliqués that feel like paper.


Chanel suit.

Of course, I knew she had amassed this collection. But the scale and specificity of it was largely abstract until I met Patric Richardson, owner of Northeast dress shop Mona Williams, and two of his friends at my dad’s house in early September. Together, we stripped the closets of all their hidden finery, carrying armful by armful up and down flights of stairs to the rented U-Haul van outside. After a careful inventory, the plan was to sell the pieces at a private collection sale at the end of that month.

Thus came the ladies who fought over that dress on the sale’s opening night. And other ladies who paraded around in the dresses my mom wore on dinner dates with my dad, to an occasional Symphony Ball and to make rounds at the hospital. Fashion stylists puttered around, holding dresses up to the light, inspecting the seams. And fashionistas carefully paraded around in their red-bottomed Louboutin heels while doing what they probably do best: being stared at.

I noticed all of this, of course. But mostly, I just wandered around the perimeter of the room at International Market Square, remembering things. Lots of things. I’d never seen my mom’s entire collection at once. So I also spent a fair amount of time at the center of the room just taking it all in.

Before and after the sale ended, my mom’s collection had generated some buzz with local publications and fashion blogs. But they got a few things wrong. First things first, my mom was not a society lady; she was not a lady who lunched. She was one of six women in her graduating medical-school class. When she and my dad moved to North Oaks, where I was raised, she went to one “ladies meeting,” as they were called. As a working woman, she had nothing in common with most of the other ladies. Plus, she hated lunch. So she never went back.

My mom worked for her collection. She used to spend a couple of hours here and there folding towels and sweaters at the old Dayton’s store in Minneapolis to earn fistfuls of discount coupons. She also had a friend who worked in the Oval Room and would “hide” certain items when she knew they were about to go on sale. In other words, my mom’s collection owes a lot to friendship and coupons.

Somewhere along the way, my mom invented a method of preserving the shape and condition of her clothes – almost as if she knew that, one day, other fashion lovers would enjoy them. During the summer when I turned 10, she enlisted my sister and I to help her stuff every piece of clothing with tissue paper. We rolled batons of tissue paper to stuff into the sleeves. We folded thin pieces of tissue paper under the collars of blouses and jackets. We pushed tissue paper into the chests of every single dress so they looked like headless linebackers. Then we slid each piece of clothing into a blue plastic bag before it was hung back in the closet.

It had to be blue plastic. And I still dream about that summer of tissue paper.

Growing up, I never played with my mom’s clothes. I simply knew they were off-limits. And then, I was far more interested in terrorizing frogs and dragging rusty-dusty things from the basement to furnish forts in the woods.

My mom dressed up for work and special occasions – but she spent most of her time at home in paint-splattered jeans and t-shirts or old pajamas. She was always painting a door or a wall in the house or riding her stationary bike while CNN droned in the background. So her fashion collection was always foreign and unknowable.

But to see it all displayed at once. That was something different. There was a billowing story told in colors and patterns and fabrics. And it was my mom’s story.