Jeannette Barron tries to draw memories, knowledge from mother's clothes

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; E03

In the fashion industry, designers like to reassure their clients that until a woman slips into one of their garments, it's little more than an unremarkable pile of cloth. Certainly there's plenty of truth to that. Only a small percentage of garments look breathtaking hanging from a sales rack.

Most clothes have to be tried on to appreciate their true splendor. A jacket needs to sit squarely on a woman's shoulders before anyone can marvel at how its strategically placed seams slim down a waistline. A dress must be slipped on and zipped up to appreciate how a classic bias cut caresses an hourglass figure.

But once a garment has been worn, once it has seen a woman through date nights, business meetings or a lifetime of child-rearing, does it retain some essence of the person?

A dress can spark memories, of course. And books have explored the way in which fashion serves as markers in our lives. A bride can take one look at her wedding dress and be transported back to that special day. Pull an old prom dress from the closet and memories of cheesy photos in front of airbrushed cityscapes come flooding back.

The photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron, however, tries to dive deeper into the memories that are attached to clothes. Barron photographed garments chosen from her mother's closet. Each dress, blazer, slip or swimsuit became a still life. Sometimes the garments were shot against a backdrop of plain fabric; sometimes they were laid out in the snow; sometimes they just seemed to float. She searches for personality, character, perhaps even a little bit of life spirit.

The result is "My Mother's Clothes: An Album of Memories." It's a modest book of 112 pages, hardly enough for coffee-table display. Instead, it's more intimate and old-fashioned. It has the dimensions of a small photo album, something that one might have used to display a week-long vacation's worth of pictures -- from back in the days when photos existed as glossy, touchable, bendable 3-by-5s or 4-by-6s and not just on Flickr or in a communal digital cloud.

Powerful motivation

Barron's photographs -- alongside her simple text -- challenge her readers to reconsider their relationship with clothes. After all, no other possessions are quite as intimate. A particular pair of trousers might call to mind the luncheon to which they were worn more than a decade ago. But they might also give us a clue to the wearer.

It's a tall order for a stash of vintage frocks, but Barron had powerful motivation. Her mother, Eleanor Morgan Montgomery Atuk, a Georgia-born Southern lady with social standing, a down-to-earth spirit and an enthusiasm for fashion, was dying of Alzheimer's disease. Barron grabbed hold of anything that seemed to jar her mother's memory, anything that would, if only for a short while, bring her mother back. Fashion wasn't a natural choice, but photography was.

Barron's background is in portrait photography. She has snapped images of Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs. And she has worked for a variety of magazines. So she is experienced in trying to capture a flash of authenticity and honesty in an instant. Only this time, she wasn't a photographer helping an audience of millions gain insight into a stranger's personality by taking pictures of her home or her dog or her favorite country vista. Barron was taking pictures for an audience of one -- her mother -- and hoping to give this dying presence a moment's understanding of herself.

The first garment she photographed was a white, sequined Bill Blass jacket. "It was one of her favorites, and she wore it a lot because she knew it would always work. That was her emergency outfit," Barron says. "In a way, she may have thought that she was looking at a fashion magazine; she always responded to those images. . . . I'm not sure if she really understood whose work it was. Who knows? But they came to life for her."

Clues to the wearer

It's impossible to know what the images might have whispered to Barron's mother. But the way in which the clothes are photographed offer some hints about the woman who wore them. The fur coat, with her mother's name "Ellie M." embroidered in the lining, is spread out on the green grass. The princess lines of the coat swing out jauntily. That lush lawn emphasizes that the choice of fur by a woman who lived in Atlanta had little to do with practicality and everything to do with style and desire.

A single gold slingback looks suspended in midair. It's angled downward as if a photographer captured a ghost in the middle of a pirouette.

The gold brocade pattern of an Yves Saint Laurent coat competes with the gold and pine green print wallpaper in the background. It is a cacophonous image of indulgence. You can practically hear "Ellie M." walking into a party, the swish-swish of her coat as it brushed against her legs.

A pair of nude pantyhose is draped over the back of a wooden dining chair. A long, flesh-colored slip dangles from a wire hanger. Underpinnings and unmentionables. Here is photographic evidence of age, modesty and propriety.

Barron manages to coax a few words out of these clothes when their owner could no longer tell her story.

Most of the images in the book were taken before Barron's mother died, but a few were snapped afterward. Ivory trousers hanging in front of a window are illuminated by the sunlight streaming through. A red Norma Kamali maillot looks almost brazen against its beige background.

But all the photographs are linked because they were taken without input from the woman who knew the clothes best. These are the daughter's view of the garments, an expression of what the clothes -- and the woman -- meant to her.

"She wanted me to wear the clothes and I wouldn't. I was a tomboy. I had a different style and attitude. I knew I couldn't pull this stuff off. I'm pretty minimal. I love nice clothes but they have to be simple and understated," Barron says.

"But part of my stubbornness was probably just to spite her."

Barron is far removed from the small-town girl -- with the sophisticated fashion sense -- that her mother was. After living in New York for years, Barron left her home on the Upper West Side and moved to Rome with her husband James Barron, an art dealer, and their son and daughter. None of them spoke Italian. The only motivation for the move was simply to give their children -- now 17 and 20 -- the experience of living in Europe. The intent was to stay for a year. Six years later, they are still there.

Barron spent five of those years documenting her mother's wardrobe, hoping to spur her mother's memory while creating new memories of her own. Her mother had a passion for clothes. It wasn't one that Barron shared, but it still managed to touch her deeply.

Is there a garment in her own wardrobe that speaks to who she is? Barron is sheepish with her reply: "Probably a pair of jeans," she says. "That's what I wear all the time."

Photographed by the right person, they could be just as eloquent as the most expensive designer dress.

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