Why My Favorite Outfit Is An '80s Dress From My Mom

Since an early age, I've always wanted to turn into my mother. Watching my mom get ready for date night was one of my favorite past times as a kid. It was so much more interesting than my other daily activities, like building castles out of blocks where dragons — not princesses — lived, or locking my kid brother into our toy chest.

Everything she did was so deliberate. There was a quiet sort of pride as she would sit there with red rollers the size of cola cans wrapped around her hair, leaning closer to the lit mirror to dab on paints that came out of pots and tubes that were still a mystery to me. To me, she was the equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor getting ready for a scene, clipping on kitschy ‘80s earrings like diamonds. One minute she was regular Mama, but the next she was a dark beauty with coal eyes and lips like a movie star’s.

Once her brown eyes were sufficiently smoky and her hair coaxed into storybook shapes, she would stand up and move to her closet. I would climb onto her bed, ready for the best part: The part where the dresses would come out. My mom and I would meet eyes, the same laugh dancing through them: It was time to play.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you see me standing in front of my own mirror, makeup that now makes sense scattered around the edge of the sink, and me leaning closer to the dinky mirror in my rented apartment, wearing the same dress my mom did. Barefoot — not having too much room to work with — I’d knock eye shadow or blush into the sink, using a little less finesse than my mom did but looking (and feeling) just the same.

This dress — this super ‘80s, slightly kitschy turtleneck maxi dress that came down from my mom's closet and into mine — is one of my most prized possessions. I still remember the absolute panic I felt when I saw it hanging against our fridge during the annual neighborhood yard sale, marked for less money than it takes to buy a decent cup of coffee. I nearly bowled over my neighbor as I ran to save it, feeling very close to wounded that that memory was going to be a part of some other person's closet.

My reaction surprised me, and even more so my mom. She watched me slap my neighbor's hand away, her face moving to a look of pure confusion as I stormed back into the house with it bundled under my arm. What, she thought, would I be doing with a dated evening dress? 

Which was, after all, a very valid question. This wasn't a vintage Saint Laurent; this was a baragain basement treasure. Its polyester blend was really itchy, it liked to flow loose against your favorite curves and cling to those that you didn't even know you had, and it was too tight at the neck where I'd do a little choking noise every time I zipped it up. But damn if I don’t wear it for every big occasion.

To me, it’s not just a dress but an expression of my mom and everything she’s taught me. During those evenings of watching her from the doorjamb, I got an innate understanding that fashion isn’t just about trends or indulgences. It’s not about outdoing others, keeping up with rules, or treating yourself to baubles. It's not an empty past-time.

Fashion is a vehicle with which to admire and value yourself. It shapes a narrative where, with every deliberate adornment, you show a part of yourself off to the world. You show yourself — not others — that you matter and are to be treated in a higher regard, even if the only person who will do that is you.  

Your closet has the power to change things. As immigrants, my parents didn’t have much starting out in the outer edges of Chicago. That is why that memory of my mother means all the more to me. She wasn’t working with Bergdorf dresses or clouds of Chanel No. 5 perfume. She was wearing bargain basement deals or sets bought from Polish attic sales down the block (Slavic neighborhoods are interesting like that). But she treated those polyester blends with the same respect she would a designer thread. 

My mom knew that clothes are our quiet symbols. They don’t just represent who we are, but the ideas of who we can be and what we’re capable of. When I think back to my mom during those years, padding around with a laundry basket on her hip or bundled into a robe the color of champagne, I'm reminded that fashion opens the limits of everyday life and circumstance. It lets you create your own story, even if only for a night.

Images: Marlen Komar

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