We all have our own ways of expressing love. For my mom and me it's through careful assessments of Friday night dresses while leaning against bathroom door jambs and buying each other surprise trinkets because "Nordstrom had an insane sale." Our mother-daughter relationship is a fairly typical one: We both love each other, but butt heads in a way that makes all the men in my house hide in the safety of their bathrooms until the siege has been settled. We're exactly alike, yet wildly different. And because of that, we sort of bond over our tastes and outfits. Or the lack of common ground regarding these things.
When my mom was my age, she was a cool ass chick. I'm talking about velvet platforms, a boy-cut dyed the color gray, and leather jackets worn in at the elbows that she'd nicked from her uncle when he wasn't looking.
She liked to play with fashion, go a little wild with experimenting, become the Pied Piper in charity shops, find Stevie Nicks-like pieces, and fly on the idea of sticking out when everyone else was trying to blend in. She grew up in a farm town, but that didn't stop her from chopping off her black hair into a floppy masculine cut, and then dye her bangs gray because it was a Tuesday. What else did she have to do?
My mom was like the older girl I looked up to through my childhood and adolescence: The proverbial babysitter with the perfect denim jacket, or the cool neighbor down the block with the side-swept bangs and the boyfriend who drove a Mustang. It seemed to me like she could pull off anything if only she had the urge to do so, which taught me that I could pull anything off if only I wanted to as well.
We tend to learn a lot from our moms, whether it's how to love our bodies, how to cook a killer casserole, or how to Anna Wintour-ify our wardrobes. We often spend years owlishly watching these women's every moves: Observing how they put on the black magic that's called Mary Kay makeup, hovering by their elbows and licking the spoon as they make chocolate cake, or hanging out on the bed as they stepped into their date-night dresses. I tried on her high heels and smeared on the red lipstick whenever I knew my mom was far enough down the hall. There was always a bigger-than-life factor about my mama. This is the embodiment of a woman, I'd think to myself.
She also taught me early on that our clothes aren't just preferences. They're often metaphors for who we are.
That brings me back to the way my mom and I bond over our tastes: We equally hate what the other puts on. It's not the clothes that bring us together, so much as our mutual obsession over them and our stubborn, bossy attitudes do.
One Saturday night, I was standing in front of my mirror, trying my hardest not to turn my flirty cat-eye into a full-blown emo raccoon one, when I saw my mom come into the doorway. And — with folded arms — lean against the door.
"Marlenka," she sighed, flicking a look down the high-waist mom jeans and simple cropped sweater, "With a closet full of dresses and skirts, why do you choose to put on the most boring thing you can get your hands on?"
Translation: I remember how fun it was going out your age — so why don't you put something more adventurous on. Are you my daughter or not?
To which I answered, "Go away," as I closed the door with my foot at her cheeky giggle. Which roughly translated to, "I know you were a BAMF, but now it's my turn."
Through clothes, she and I get to play our traditional roles. She becomes a mother, disapproving of what the wild kids are wearing these days. And I become a daughter, enjoying baffling her with my fanny packs and septum rings. But on top of that, we're both very aware that I'm her carbon copy. My grandma used to go through the same thing with her, throwing her shade over the dinner table as she ate her pierogi and kielbasy in a mini skirt and thigh-high boots, right before she went out to the woods to party, or whatever Polish kids did in the '70s on a Friday night. She was weird and expressive and didn't care how many question marks were pointed her way. Me? I'm kind of the same.
Now that she's older, classier, and has more of an Elizabeth Taylor air to her wardrobe than a Liv Tyler one, she wants to lead me down that same path. We can be Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn together, if only I stop looking like Courtney Love for a minute. She wants to share the wisdom that took her decades to learn and a massive purge of Jerry Seinfeld jeans and shoulder-padded jackets, yet I refuse.
Meanwhile, I want to be her at 27. I want to be weird and stubborn with what I like and creative when it comes to stepping outside of sweats. And to me, that's how I show her I love her. She's my style idol, right up there with Iris Apfel and Jane Birkin. And she knows that. It seemingly flusters, annoys, and wildly pleases her all at once.
So we pick on each other through our outfits. She hates my nose ring and can't understand why all my shirts have their bottom halves missing. I roll my eyes every time she claims "she's too old" to pull off a style, and I slap anything that resembles a matriarchal church dress out of her hands. We bicker, butt heads, and sometimes want the other to change into our own vision of what "pretty" is.
And every time we do, we finish the fight with this small, knowing smile. One that says, "You'd stop looking like crap if only you listened to me. Slash, I'm so glad I have you."
I tell her to wear that cocktail dress with the plunging neckline and channel her inner Diane von Furstenberg, and she tells me to stop wearing things she used to sport to milk cows on the old Slavic farm. Then we exchange narrowed eyes.
And with them, a bunch of I love yous.
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Images: Marlen Komar