It is my mother’s first fashion show, and the models have forgotten their pants. The electronic music is blaring so loud that we might as well be at a rave. But that does not stop my mother from expressing exactly what she thinks of this nearly nude model carrying a purse with an ankle leash.
“Ohhh, no,” she says loud enough to be heard over the thumping soundtrack. “That’s just plain silly.”
“Mom,” I whisper.
“That’s nice,” she says as a more modestly dressed model passes by.
I grab her knee because one does not dare shush my mother. And because the French bloggers at this Paris couture show don’t seem to be enjoying her commentary.
“Don’t these girls ever smile?” she asks with genuine curiosity. “And they’re all far too thin.”
“Mom, we can talk afterward. Just watch the show,” I plead.
I should have known the models would bother my mother. Though she loves the geometry of design and the feel of fine fabrics, she has never followed the fashion industry’s obsession with extremes. To her, a skeletal frame isn’t chic; it’s a symptom of sickness or sadness, a loss of much more than weight. The last time my mother lost 10 pounds, it was on a caretaker’s diet of solidarity and strain.
We will not talk about terminal illness during Paris Fashion Week, though. We will talk of draping, the unnecessary return of hot pants, and what shoes we’ll wear to the next show.
Between the two of us, we have packed 100 pounds of clothing and accessories, including dresses adorned with more sequins than should be allowed to sneak through border control. It is our loot, the spoils of decades of thrift shopping and competitive sale scouring, a superficial but resilient act that ensured we left hospitals and homes armored, forging our lifelong bond.
Now, seven years after my father’s passing, Paris Fashion Week may be our ultimate coup. My loose affiliation with fashion reporting has yielded several sets of tickets, including seats at this hilarious show of braided leather bustiers and shimmering bodysuits. But the event we are most anticipating is the Elie Saab couture show, a waltz of delicately appliqued ball gowns seemingly plucked from neoclassical paintings. Ever since we watched Halle Berry win her Oscar in his maroon masterpiece, Elie Saab has been, for us, the master of femininity.
Viewing his creations in person, together, will be the ultimate mother-daughter fashion excursion. But it’s also the culmination of our shared delight in fantastic clothes and bargain-bin finds, a passion that taught me the nature of my mother’s love and how to cling to beauty during life’s most bruising moments.
That fashion is a product of a seemingly elitist industry — one ruled by cosmopolitan socialites and advertising executives — is something I’d learn later in life. But when I was a child, fashion was just part of a fun game my family played every Saturday night at that magical big box on the hill: the T.J. Maxx.
My mother and sister, both math wizards, were experts at calculating sale prices: What’s 30 percent of 10 percent off original price when purchased with Grandpa’s senior discount? My grandmother taught us everything there is to know about Italian leather; she could identify fakes just by examining the stitching. My aunt was the queen of estate sales, training us to use the word “vintage” before it became an acceptable euphemism for “used.” And my dad, a child of the ’30s, obsessed over new shoes because he grew up without them.
Later, during years of ICU visits and worries over blood sugar and fainting spells, the routine of shopping helped us get on with life. Teenage proms and piano recitals forced my mother and me to retreat into dressing rooms, where we focused on nothing but shade and texture, encouraging escapism in the other. Even after my father’s death, we’ve maintained our retail therapy: My mother volunteers daily at a Hospice Attic, hanging clothes and sorting vintage gowns, some of which end up in my closet. And sometimes, here, at The Washington Post, I find myself reporting on the nuances of the first lady’s wardrobe.
Over the years, I’ve made some of Mom’s clothes my own: The ’80s Dior dress I had lopped off at the knee, a hand-beaded white and gold blazer from 1992 that I wore to the Paris Versace show. The black Anne Klein sheath she hadn’t touched since my dad’s funeral, which I recently wore to the Kennedy Center, knowing that even the clothing we long to forget can still be full of use. Life.
The morning of the Elie Saab show, we spend about two hours primping. Though we’ve had our outfits planned for months, we trade blazers last-minute, a clear sign that we’re at that moment, mid-switch, mid-life, when mothers and daughters converge and become something else. She hasn’t stopped sending care packages or reminding me to pay rent, but now I’m making the flight plans and helping her with mascara wands.
That we’re wearing vintage clothes to a couture show feels somewhat subversive. Another coup. My mother wears an ’80s black sheath dress from Bergdorf Goodman and a sequin jacket with fox fur cuffs. The dress needs elbow-length leather gloves to complete the look for the show, so I give her mine.
As for me, I decide on a blush coat. I top it off with a mink hat that belonged to my grandmother, knowing she’d have liked to have been with us, too.
As we leave our hotel, my mother commands, “Put your purse inside of us.”
“No, Mom, you’ll want to wear them on the outside,” I counter, knowing that our quilted leather handbags are worthy of exposure. “You’ll see.”
Hundreds of photographers are stationed on the steps of neoclassical Chaillot National Theater near the Eiffel Tower, snapping indiscriminately, like a scene from “The Devil Wears Prada.” I grab my mother’s arm to steady our heels, and we ascend the steps, getting lost in the crowd. My mother is beaming, proudly, until a man in a tight black suit tells her to go in the “standing room” line. That’s when it’s clear we’re mid-switch again.
“Mom, we’re swapping tickets, okay? We’ll enter together, and I’ll get a spot across from you.”
“No, Katie, I’m not taking your seat,” she says.
“Donna,” I say, resorting to the formal to signify I mean business. “I’m not having you stand through this show. I’ll be right across from you. Okay?”
“Don’t call me Donna,” she demands, before adding “Fine” with a smile.
I help her to her seat and walk past the runway to the opposite side, staking out my territory among photographers jostling for positions. French celebrities and anonymous royals trickle in. My mother looks adorable, sitting a few rows behind Hamish Bowles, the international editor of Vogue, and next to some gorgeously dressed young Frenchmen. My spot gives me the perfect view of her face and the runway, perhaps the best view in the house. As the lights begin to dim I see her searching for me. She spots my fur hat and waves; I wave back and give her a discreet thumbs up, hoping that this parade of silk mousseline will bring her as much joy as watching her reaction brings me.
In darkness, a lone model enters the runway in a baby pink sheer gown. She glides toward us to the beat of a Beyoncétrack, and the incessant clicking of cameras begins.
I watch my mother’s gaze move with the model’s body; she’s wearing a fashionista’s well-trained poker face. But as the third model sashays toward us, I see my mother fiddle with her point-and-shoot camera and start snapping shots like the bloggers around her.
That’s when I get chills. Of course, the dress helps — a princess-inspired gown with lace appliques can overwhelm anyone — but it has something to do with what we’re witnessing, together. The Holy Grail. Appearing.
As the run of lace and tulle continues, I, too, take pictures with the photographers around me. I’m tickled that my mother’s delighted face is forever captured in row three of the show.
When it ends minutes later, I make my way to her seat for a final verdict. Her eyes are like mine, wide and alive. Not much needs to be said.
“Beautiful, wasn’t it?” I ask.
“Just beautiful,” she says, beaming.
The rhythm of a fashion show is not unlike riding a roller coaster: endless lines and building anticipation for a 10-minute spectacle that, when done properly, will shake you up and leave you panting. Usually, the high starts to fade minutes after the experience ends.
But as we exit the theater, a woman with a camera approaches us.
“May I?” she gestures, simulating that coveted shot.
My mother starts to move away, misunderstanding what I’ve known all along.
“No, the two of you,” the photographer says. And she snaps away.
Katherine Boyle is a Washington Post reporter.
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