Wearing Mother's Clothes
Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey celebrated his country's Independence Day by marching through the nation's capital with his 40-member collective, all dressed in their mothers' clothes. The mostly male group of artists weren’t just challenging gender stereotypes, but protesting laws that transferred a deceased mother's clothing only to her daughters.
Clottey missed his mother, and wrapping himself in her garments gave him comfort. The feel and smell of her clothing brought back her presence. The photos of this theatrical protest are full of contradictions, but the sight of men honoring their mothers so openly is inescapably moving.
‘My Mother's Wardrobe’, the title of this project, made me think about my own mother, who loved clothes and loved to shop for them. After she died, there was a family skirmish that left me with only a flannel nightgown and a bag of old make-up and perfume samples. I kept the nightgown in my car for some reason, and eventually threw it away.
My mother gained weight over the years, neglecting both her physical and mental health. She didn't hang on to the fitted dresses she once loved to wear, or even her large collection of extra-narrow high heels. She gave up all efforts to look attractive, efforts she once enjoyed with all her heart. But she passed on to me her love of shopping, god help me, and a passion for dangly earrings.
In an old photo from her late teens, my mom is wearing an embroidered peasant blouse, a blouse I would treasure now if I had it. During my 20s, she used to offer me shoes she'd bought in haste or in error, and I would take them, just to please her. When I was little, I loved to get out all her footwear and play Shoe Store with my sister. It wasn't a happy household, but Shoe Store is a very happy memory.
Many of us have or had difficult relationships with our mothers. Maybe sons and mothers have less complicated feelings, a bond free of those loaded issues. If my sons wanted to wear my dresses, I'd be delighted! I don't have daughters, but I love to dress up and style my two pretend daughters, and I'm grateful for the opportunity.
"The power inherent in sartorial memories," as Clottey puts it, is especially potent when it comes to your mother. When you remember moments with your mother, can you see what she's wearing? What does this conjure up for you? Her style, or her fragrance? Thinking back, are there textures you remember, textures that gave you pleasure, that tickled or scratched? Me, I remember velvet and Swiss-dotted cotton, textures I am still drawn to. I remember the intensity of my mother's favorite perfume, Secret of Venus, which came in a weird little amber glass bottle.
It's become a kind of mean-spirited truism that a woman's worst dread is becoming her mother. Some man probably started that. Just as Serge Attukwei Clottey did, we can embrace and honor our mothers, or aspects of them, in memory of their love and sacrifices. No mother is perfect. But most mothers do their best. Wrapping yourself in something she once wore can revive memories of being wrapped in her arms.
As I've written here before, I love the image of a man wearing a dress. The dichotomy, to me, is magnetic. So naturally I was drawn to the images from Clottey's project. But unlike Travis Scott in a ball gown (which is just plain sexy) these men transmit bravery, defiance, vulnerability, and an insistence on recognizing women's equality.
The men here are confrontational, dignified, and beautiful. I hope their mothers are proud of them. I hope all mothers are mindful of the legacies they will leave to their sons and daughters. And I hope my mom forgives me about the nightgown. Her perfume samples are on my dresser, reminding me that I am my mother's daughter, in the best possible way.
“She is my mother. I carry her joy and pride within me. And now that is has been long enough for grief to work its way out, I have gathered what is left of her wardrobe...resonant in color, tone, rhythm and line: and I too walk out into the world, stars bedecking my own night sky, weaving their lines between past and future, and say, This is me.” - Serge Attukwei Clottey