How My Mother Taught Me to Not "Dress My Age"

At almost 49, as I find myself in a mall dressing room, I look in the mirror and realize: There she is and she is me.
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Jill Rothenberg
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At almost 49, as I find myself in a mall dressing room, I look in the mirror and realize: There she is and she is me.

I ran into my parents’ bedroom when I heard my mother grunting and cursing.

“Mom, are you okay?” I asked. I was worried. She was lying back on the bed, both laughing and swearing. 

“Goddammit, these things are tight,” she said as she tried to zip up her jeans. She was going to make sure that nothing came between her and her Calvins. It was 1977, and I was 11. “Honey, I’m fine. Let me just get these zipped up.” 

When she stood, her jeans were painted on, and she had paired them with high-heeled clogs. Standing next to her in my soccer uniform — blue and bright-yellow striped shirt, yellow shorts, bright-blue knee socks, and cleats — I felt like her alien space child. Not only did I wear my uniform for games, but I also wore it as everyday attire. She had given up fighting me on it. I wanted to play for the New York Cosmos like my hero, Pele.

Because my mother had cut off her Cher-length hair, she thought she would cut mine off too. But while she looked glamorous with her new short hair, I just looked like a boy.

My mother was a drop-dead gorgeous fashion plate back in the 1970s when I was growing up. The boys in my class called her foxy. Graceful and delicate where I was athletic and a ballet-class dropout (much to her chagrin — she had been an accomplished dancer and pianist), she made it look so easy. The double-knit pants and flowered, pointed-collar blouses she looked so willowy in; the metallic high-heeled sandals, the makeup she sat on her vanity stool to apply. And this was an average day where maybe she volunteered at the hospital, got her hair done, went grocery shopping, and embarrassed me on the sidelines of my soccer games. No other mothers dressed this way, their heels sinking in the mud. They were clad in jeans and sweatshirts, sensible shoes. Those who worked were in man-tailored suits like my dad wore. Why couldn’t my mother dress like them, I often asked.

“You know what, Jill, this is who I am,” she would say as we drove to the games. “You have no reason to be embarrassed.” I rolled my eyes and looked out the window. She was in her late thirties at the time. 

She was as perfect as the mannequins we saw on our frequent shopping trips, the ones that often ended with me slamming the dressing room door and running out of the store into the mall. I did not want to be a Mini-Me in Bobbie Brooks pantsuits and short skirt ensembles.

Except that, nearly 40 years later, as I find myself in a mall dressing room, I look in the mirror and realize: There she is and she is me. 

It’s been a journey through some pretty drecky fashion, as my mother would say. After my Pele period came my madras skirts, monogrammed sweaters, and pink and green embroidered pants borne out of boarding school, followed by some equally worse Grateful Dead fashion, which featured Birkenstocks, overalls, tie-dye, hairy legs, and long wavy hair au naturel. I only shaved my legs for college graduation when my mother cried and my father stepped in to threaten me with taking away my new car. But I still wore my Birks. 

I’m nearly 49, and I’m in an H&M dressing room. Whenever I’m in a dressing room, my mother is, too, silently sitting in the corner chair with her shopping bags and shoes off, offering her opinion. When I really like something and am undecided, and without one of my girlfriends to save me from myself, I’ll sometimes get it and email her a photo.

“Oh, that’s horrendous,” she’ll say over the phone when she gets my email. “What were you thinking on that day?” This response to a simple black sweaterdress with little shape. This is the kind of dress she would wear, granted with Jimmy Choos or Manolos, which I can’t afford as a freelance writer and editor. But I’d pair it with a sexy faux leather stiletto boot for an occasional break from my boyfriend jeans and heels, the most dressed-up I tend to get working from home in a small Western town.

“You need to wear colors, honey. You look better in bright colors. And thank God you’re not in New York, where everyone just wears black and it gets boring.”

But she can surprise me, too. A photo of me in body-hugging, polka-dot wrap dress from American Apparel that shows a little — okay, a lot — of cleavage. When I think it’s going to be a thumbs-down because it’s too youthful: wrong. “That’s an adorable dress. You could get a lot of wear out of it this summer.”

I have to laugh at her phrase “getting a lot of wear out of” like her other one “what are you going to wear it with?” But they are my fashion mantras now.

When I hit 35, my fashion choices began to age backward, so that I wanted to dress more provocatively, to see if I really looked so much younger, as I was often told. I also had been through a hard period where I had panic attacks and a long bout of depression after my parents’ divorce. The antidepressants had made me gain and lose weight, and when I finally found the right one, I was obviously happier — and ready to dress to match my mood, which has been my most important fashion mantra for nearly 15 years.

I may live in a Northern Exposure–old-timey Western town, but it is not the place to strut down Main Street in platform pumps and skinny jeans or a cute tunic over tights and fuck-me boots. No matter — I do it anyway, and have found a few kindred spirits who do, too.

“Life is short, “ my mother, now nearly 75, reminds me. “You look good and you work hard to be healthy and fit. Screw anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself.”

At H&M recently, I found the hottest of hot pinks long-sleeve peplum top.

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This color makes me feel happy and is actually pretty age-appropriate. Yes, I want to look hot, but I also don’t want to look foolish. As you get to be my age, it can be a fine line between sexy and parody, as with Molly Shannon’s hilarious SNL skit “I’m Sally O’Malley and I’m 50,” which I laugh at every time I see it, but it's a good reminder that I don’t want to be that woman in the belly shirt, push-up bra, miniskirt, platform boots, and glitter eyeshadow. Or as my mother says: “These mothers who go to the same stores as their grown daughters and buy the same outfits? They need to stop. It’s hideous and does them no favors.”

But I’m still very tempted sometimes, despite how outrageous my tastes can be. After all, I’m my mother’s daughter. And my grandmother’s granddaughter, who wore kitten heels with her beautiful lace nightgowns and stilettos — in her '80s — when going on her nightly walk with my grandfather around their suburban block, Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other.

So my genes are to blame for this number that I tried on recently.

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It’s undoubtedly my years in the biker world as the girlfriend of a guy in an outlaw motorcycle club that made me sort of love the slutwear look, which I can always find at my local Charlotte Russe. But even though my mother and I laughed at this and I didn’t buy it, we agreed that I didn’t look that bad in it.

Shopping at these fast-fashion havens, in addition to the uneasy feeling I get about how little the overseas workers are paid, is a further reminder that I am indeed too old to wear the majority of it. Nonetheless, I admit that I was drawn to this little — this tiny — ensemble and wanted to try it on for fun:

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It was a major WTF moment. I could not figure out how to work the top; how to get my arms through it and drape it over my considerable 32D chest. I had a medium, but maybe that wasn’t even enough material. It was like figuring out a Rubik’s Cube, which the young women working in the store had undoubtedly never heard of. 

As I tried to do a Cat’s Cradle on it to figure it out, I dropped it on the dressing room floor. Leaning to pick it up, I quickly pulled it off the floor and tried to stand up — but my back was stuck. We had been doing a punishing exercise in bootcamp called “sumo get-ups” and the constant up and down from knees to standing up with arms in the air had taken its toll.

“Oh, shit,” I mumbled to no one. “Oh no, it hurts.” As I leaned against the wall in my underwear, I did deep breathing and cursed myself, wondering if I would have to call out for help. It was then I knew that universe was telling me that my days trying on cute little numbers made for girls half my age — with strong and as yet unhurt backs — were over, or at least numbered. I did some deep breathing, popped some Advil, and slowly got dressed like a rickety old lady.

“If you couldn’t figure out the top, then it wasn’t for you,” my mom said when I told her about it.

“No, Mom, it was totally not for me,” I said. “You would have laughed your ass off.”

“Well, you know I already know what I’m going to wear for my birthday.” My mother’s birthday isn’t until the summer. “I have the most magnificent white trousers. Maybe with some gorgeous Manolo heels,” she said.

“That sounds great, Mom,” I said. I used to make fun of her using words like magnificent and spectacular to describe clothes, but what I realize now is that she’s talking about how they make her feel. And that’s a good lesson to learn at the ripe old age of 48.