A Mile in Her Clothes: My Mother’s Overcoat

One of the first pieces I remember “borrowing” from my mother’s closet was a beautiful herringbone tweed overcoat with a heavy silk lining, velvet collar, and deep pockets. One weekend, when home from school, I found it in her closet and smuggled it back to campus with me. It was already freezing and the combination of uniform kilts and winter weather wasn’t one I wanted to test out for too long. The overcoat, while very heavy, was just the thing to keep me warm, whether I was heading to classes or to early morning squash practice. It was perfect on field trips, too, especially when we were required to be completely in uniform, which ruled out sweatpants.

I appreciated the coat for its warmth, but after graduating high school and college, I turned to the coat again and again for other reasons–visiting family in the city, going to events, or just when I needed an extra boost to feel “adult.” Now, I value it because of its enduring quality, its beauty, and because it was my mother’s.

When my mother bought this coat from Brooks Brothers in the late 1980s, she was still running her interior design business, with clients like the Ritz, the Plaza, and the Palace. (She preferred working in hotels, designing guest rooms and public spaces with equal talent. You can see some of her work immortalized in films like The Age of Innocence (Newland Archer’s townhouse) and Home Alone 2 (The Plaza).) I know that this overcoat made her feel elegant and also kept her warm walking between different projects during New York winters. It served her well for many years, and has continued to serve me well.

When I started wearing this coat again after a long hiatus, I cleaned out the pockets and found quite a few things I’d forgotten–place cards, a service bulletin from the National Cathedral, buttons from the Met (I really hate the stickers!). It was a fascinating glimpse into my past high-school-self, to remember what I was doing then–a formal dinner at school; a sprint through the final day of the Nan Kempner show at the Costume Institute with one of my best friends from high school; visiting the National Cathedral on a field trip. Different times of my life, but times that come back in a rush, like finding these things are talismans. It felt like stepping back into my high school self. I loved high school (I talk about this a lot, if you ever meet me in person!) and, as I mentioned, I wore this overcoat frequently in the winter. Over the years, since I’ve graduated, memories have of course grown fuzzy. It’s been a long time. But it was surprising, and pleasing, to me to remember all these things with immediate clarity once again. I think that’s one of the reasons I love archaeology–piecing together a story from the remnants of the everyday things that once had value in someone’s life.

That’s something I enjoy about wearing clothes that have already lived lifetimes before I have begun wearing them–the talismanic purposes to a particular object, whether or not the story is known to the current wearer. And not just the associations with that specific piece, but that style, that type of clothing. What does that say about you? What can you infer from clothing? I’m certainly planning on delving into those questions more in the future. In the meantime, I’m curious–what’s the most interesting thing you’ve found in your pockets, and what did it mean to you?

5 thoughts on “A Mile in Her Clothes: My Mother’s Overcoat

  1. I’ve been giving this some thought. While I can’t think of anything at the moment, I loved this piece and plan to check the pockets of coats which were given to me when my mother passed. It’s a small and funny thing, but she always had tissues in all of her pockets. . Always. (Clean, of course!)

    Loving this blog so much!

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