How to Really Shop a Mother's Closet

by Melissa L. Haney

The idea of shopping a closet is nothing new: How-to's abound concerning the best way to go about reinventing your wardrobe with clothes you already own. And while such a habit certainly proves productive, sometimes “shopping a closet” is more akin to cleaning a closet, especially if you are someone like me. Currently inhabiting my first (i.e., very small) apartment, the only closet I have is the one in my childhood home, which upon further inspection over the holidays, is of little to no use for me. Unless, of course, distress denim skirts and Black Eyed Peas tour t-shirts have a sudden fashion renaissance. After re-organizing my wardrobe, I was left with empty hangers and vacant shelves. So, I went into my mother’s closet.

I love my mother. She is so many things — loving, intelligent, empathetic, understanding — but fashion ingénue is not, was not, and never will be one of them. (She’s also incredibly supportive and will probably read this article, so hi Mom!) That’s not to say she looks sloppy or frumpy or any other of those terribly superficial adjectives; she just dresses like any other suburban mom who is working hard and raising two kids. Meaning she wears/wore lots of sweatshirts adorned with names of places our family visited, mostly choosing those embroidered with “Long Beach Island” over all the rest; lots of jeans that really have no wash or fit — just those of the generic, fake-denim, light blue, elastic waist variety; and, lots of sneakers. But, determined to shop some closet, I dove in.


Now, when I say that I “dove,” I mean it in the almost literal sense of the word. Unsurprisingly, the process of shopping a mother’s closet is very much akin to sorting through a thrift shop — one needs to check all fear at the door and commit to searching deep within the depths, as that’s where the hidden treasures from decades past will presumably lie buried and waiting. Since my mother hasn’t decamped to a tiny apartment in the city and actually uses her closet, the newest clothes sit on top and hang on the front of racks. So, to find what I wanted, I knew I would have to go deep. (Moreover, there’d be less of a chance she’d notice if I took anything.)


Maybe these shoes will come back in fashion someday?

Once I happened upon clothes most certainly from another era, excitement grew — finally, free clothes that seem like something I could wear! Yet, again, as with any type of thrifting, it’s important to remember that love-at-first-sight doesn’t always mean true love forever. Sure, that fuchsia polka dot, shoulder-padded blazer looks nice, but does it really fit into my wardrobe? Yes, that puff-paint sweatshirt is adorable, but have I ever been able to pull off ironic statement pieces? Because unlike at the thrift store, everything in mom’s closet is essentially free, so the struggle to be selective increases exponentially. But don’t let temptation take over — try and be selective.


An important part of being selective, however, is realizing that some of the best pieces won’t be the perfect fit. Again, to a seasoned thrifter, this is nothing new, but for someone used to shopping attuned to size it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. My mom and I never swapped clothes when I was young, mostly because she probably never had the desire to look like a walking Abercrombie & Fitch billboard; but also because she never felt the need to have the body of a 16-year-old as a grown woman. So I knew that I would find sizes that I could work with. If I loved something that was too small, I simply moved on. However, if a favorite piece was a bit on the larger side, I made sure it was something I couldn’t fix with just a belt of a few hidden clothes pins before tossing it aside.


Thanks, Chico's!

To live in suburbia means to shop at the mall. My mother’s closet, therefore, is stocked with the likes of Talbots, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne, and L.L. Bean. Not names one easily encounters on the pages of Vogue, but labels that nonetheless provided me with a few well-made, classic items. Don’t get snobby over brand names — I went in determined to avoid “mall chic” at all costs, but even in mom's closet, the old adage applies: Never judge a book by its cover or, in this case, a shirt by its label.


Mom giving 2 Chainz a run for his money.

While I did find some great button-ups and sweaters, my greatest success came when I focused on a specific area of my mom’s closet — accessories. Perhaps the easiest way to go when doing any sort of thrift shopping — no need to worry about size when looking at earrings — searching through accessories hidden away in my mom’s jewelry box led me to my favorite finds. Sifting through drawers, (clearly, she had a thing for white gold and sparkle, but it was the 90s in New Jersey, after all), I happened upon some beautiful bracelets, necklaces, broaches, and rings. Plus, I also found some great little pieces of nostalgia I’m sure even she has forgotten about, like her high school class ring from 1975 and a note my brother wrote to the tooth fairy dated in 1997.


After climbing out from underneath the decades of clothes in my mother’s closet with a few great vintage finds, I determined the whole shopping-her-closet-instead-of-mine adventure a success. I didn't come out with an entirely new wardrobe, but I certainly have some fantastic new editions with great stories attached. And, at the risk of sounding cheesy, the whole experience really did lead to this newfound appreciation for my mother: A woman kind enough to let me steal a bunch of her clothes that were far more fashionable than I remembered.

Images: Melissa L. Haney; Giphy