For many years I wanted my mother to “curate” her overflowing closet. I now understand that my mother’s closet is an archive of her life, and what is missing materially is found in pictures.
Family photo of 4 women
Photo courtesy of the author.

Juliana at sixteen

My mother graduated from secondary school in Mexico at the age of sixteen in 1955.  While her everyday dresses were made at home by her mother, all the girls had the same dress made by the local costurera (seamstress) for graduation.  Before writing this piece, this picture has always just been a black and white relic of a young woman named Juliana, who would one day become my mother. 

I now know that the dress was yellow taffeta, with a slight train.  Her curled hair came from careful finger curls set with bobby pins the night before.  To this day she sighs in delight over the nipped in waists and full skirts of 1950’s costume dramas, and tells me it remains her favorite style. 

 

 

 

Wedding photo

Two years later my mother married my father.  As a child I would often open the drawer where she stored her bridal accessories, the pearl diadem and mesh inlay pumps intact, the pearl-studded veil and gloves yellow with age.  According to the tradition, her future sisters-in-law picked out her dress, traveling to Guadalajara to find something special.  “Y te gustó?” I ask her.  Did you like it?   “Oh yes!” she tells me.  She thought it was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen. 

She hung it in her room where she could look at it every day.  In two years my mother went from schoolgirl to wife, and the metamorphosis is marked by the shift from colorful ruffles to austere lace, from swept back curls to an elegant updo befitting a bride.  

 

Family photo of Baby in white dress

Photo courtesy of the author.

Family photo of Baby in white dress

Photo courtesy of the author.

Pink Empire waist dress 

Four years after they married my parents immigrated to the U.S., eventually settling in San Jose, California.  My father bought her this dress at JCPenney in 1973 for a Mexican Independence Day celebration earlier that year.  My mother’s hair is in a high chignon, her lipstick a Revlon coral, her favorite.  She tells me that whenever she wore this dress she felt like a princess. 

I can imagine that in this photo she is tired: now the mother of 5 children, she also worked the second shift in a cannery. When she wore this dress she must have felt like her real self, and was able to transcend for a moment all of the struggles that came with raising a family in a new country far away from home.  Maybe the swish of the skirt reminded her of the yellow taffeta of her girlhood, before she became a wife and mother, and was simply Juliana.   

I never saw my mother wear this dress, but I remember it well.  It met an untimely end in the early 80’s when I encountered it hanging in her closet. I must have sensed the magic of the dress, and wanting a piece of the sheer pink fabric studded with tiny white polka dots for myself, I cut several chunks of fabric from the bottom. 

 

Juliana in Mexico

My mother makes an annual return trip to Mexico, her suitcases filled to the brim with fancy dresses she wears while visiting with her sisters.  We inevitably argue about how heavy the suitcases are, but she always wins.  Who am I to deny her the pleasure of a good dress?  Thus I was surprised when I saw this picture of her in Mexico last year. 

Style has been a way for her to rise above, to be more than just a farmer’s daughter, just another immigrant worker, just another mother.  Style allows for her to make her presence known.  This simple embroidered cotton dress with a colorful rebozo (shawl) around her shoulders at first gave me pause, and then gave me peace.  In this dress, my mother is as content as she was in her taffeta or bridal lace.  Here she is fully Juliana: a daughter, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a comadre (friend).  

 

Family photo of Baby in white dress

Photo courtesy of the author.

For a long time my mother’s closet seemed excessive, an embarrassing amount of old clothing for a person to own.  But as I grow older and develop my own attachments, I better understand the power of a dress, and how in keeping that dress you hold on to a little piece of who you were when you wore it.  We should all be so lucky to have a closet overflowing with special dresses.