My mother is vehemently against developing sentimental attachments to “things.” Twice a year, she’d show up in my childhood bedroom carrying donation boxes and packing tape, singing hymns of spring cleaning and slinging insults like “pack rat.” Since I was young and emotionally exhausted from a neverending stretch of puberty, I always acquiesced to her demands—it was just easier that way. Then, somehow, after years of clothing drives and “giveaway” piles, I adopted the mindset as my own.
There are, however, a few items I refuse to part with, regardless of tiny rips, too-tight fits, or the odd ketchup (?) stain. A discontinued American Apparel raglan sweatshirt that falls right below my navel. The white, unsullied dress I wore to my high school graduation. And, the most precious of them all, an ankle-length robe, stitched together in maroon and golden silk, that hangs at the back of my closet. The collar is embroidered with geometric stripes that march down the corners of the garment like ants. Its lining is decorated with floral embellishments, flirtatiously peeking out from within each sleeve, like flowers budding beneath the soil. The coat is closer to costume than apparel, but I’ll never get rid of it because it was crafted at the hand of a seamstress in Isfahan. Passed down to me by mother, and her mother before her, it smells of saffron and fits like a birthright. Putting it on makes me feel like a small piece of a narrative much larger than myself.
What makes a piece of clothing irreplaceable? Maybe it’s the fit, melting perfectly to your figure like butter in a pan. Or perhaps it’s the story it inks, and the nostalgia it inspires. Regardless, as we further examine our relationship to stuff, we must remain attuned to the lessons imbedded in said stuff. Not only about what we love, but where we derive meaning. Curious to learn more about how this manifests, I challenged three older women—Diana, Yvonne, and Dayle—to style the one thing in their closet that they’ll always find their way back to, and couldn’t bear to part with. The results suggest that personal style, while technically executed by things we accumulate, isn’t about “stuff” in the slightest.
Diana, 75, could not give up her Norma Kamali sleeping bag.
I was born in Brooklyn. I love New York. It’s the only place I ever want to live. I have traveled a fair amount, but I always come back here. When I get out of a car or off of a train and my foot hits the pavement of this Island, my energy levels spike. This is it.
For most of my life, I was a minimalist. I loved contemporary sculpture—Calder, Serra. Rothko was my God. The simplest things are what draw me the most. That’s my aesthetic. Clothes are about cut, line, and drape silhouette. Not about embellishment or ruffle.
Then I got involved with Advanced Style. I was selling my jewelry at a shop on 72nd street, and the woman who owned it was a maximalist who was part of the group. She had a little table in the middle of her store, and she’d sit there dressed to the nines and hold court. The more I looked at her, I began to see the beauty and the creativity in what she did. My style still has a minimalist base, but there’s a lot more pattern. Not flowers, but plaids. And hats! I now wear hats. This hat comes from an Instagram shop called @felthappiness. She makes amazing handmade, hand-felted hats. Do you see this curlicue? It’s elegant, isn’t it?
I’m wearing my Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat. It’s got a fantastic silhouette—big, puffy, and grand. I went to a talk at her studio and as I was walking out, a version of the coat caught my eye. I immediately felt excited. I knew I had to have it. It’s wearable art, a big sculpture that you can put your arms in. These coats have been made 40 years now! It’s timeless. I’ll never get rid of it. Because of this coat, because of Norma, I meet people every day. She’s an icon in the style world, a genius who has been around forever. She’s part of the fabric of New York for me.
I’m in Arche boots. They’re high style, with comfort. But don’t get me wrong—with me, it’s style first. Comfort can be as ugly as sin! First style, then comfort, always. And this is old-school, but I match things. That means I have a color of glasses for every outfit. I’m a painter, so I know color.
The pants are plaid, and well, they’re fabulous. They come from a shoe store that also sells pants. The plaid jacket comes from a store on Broadway. I mean, red plaid? Puh-lease. I’ll take it! I woke up and remember committing to the idea of red. I live in a small apartment. My bedroom is a closet. There’s a 12-foot rack across the ceiling, wall to wall, and all of my clothes are color-coded on those big hooks. I have, like, six feet of red, six feet of green. I did it because chaos was ensuing, but now it looks like a fabric installation. I never thought it was going to be pretty, but there it is.
I make all my own jewelry and earrings. I painted and sculpted all my life, which led me to jewelry. I approach my pieces from the viewpoint of sculpture, I stack pieces on top of each other. If you’re going to make unusual shapes, you have to invent the construction.
Find somebody with style you really admire—not to copy it, but to understand it. Deconstruct it in your mind. How did she do that? Why does it look fabulous? Is it the color, is it the cut, is it how she’s paired it together? Then you can translate those ideas for yourself, take them, and go shopping!
Follow Diana @dianagabrielnyc
Yvonne, 69, could never throw away the coat her mother made her.
I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, but I’ve been in New York for going on 19 years. I’m a mom of two daughters. My oldest granddaughter is in college, and she and I have an incredible relationship. She calls me just to talk sometimes.
I love clothes. I got it from my mama, who was a professional seamstress. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she was very good at sewing, and when we needed something new we would go to Saks Fifth Avenue and she’d say, “Show me what you like.” Then we would go to the fabric store! I learned how to take something and recreate it in my own style. Even if it was similar to what we saw in the store, it was still very unique. It became me. My style is all about individuality.
My coat was the last thing that my mom made for me. When she was about 79, my husband said, “You know, while your mother still can sew, why don’t you have her make you something special?” The fabric of this coat was so expensive—it’s a mink cashmere. But it’s made with love. It has a very special meaning to me and I would never get rid of it. We found an old Vogue vintage pattern that she used for it.
The scarf is one that I made in a weaving class, just a few years ago. And I made the earrings myself, the first clay hoops I ever made. I’m a mixed media collage artist, and I’ve been teaching for 33 years, mainly children. I love sharing what I’ve learned, and in turn, learning from the kids—like how to be more patient. Watching them go through a process and getting it–the sense of accomplishment that they get when they actually complete something—is magical. Little ones don’t mind showing their excitement. As they get older, people stop showing how excited they are, although I can still see it. Art is a way to learn to solve problems. When I create my own art, I’ll have an idea in mind of what I want to do. But sometimes, when I start putting it together, I realize it doesn’t work. I don’t just throw it away, though. It’s all about sequence, learning to follow through and complete something. I have kids that have never felt that sense of self-gratification because they’ve never gotten praise. When they complete something, they feel joy. They realize that they can do anything.
The pants? I got these pants on one of my first visits to New York when I came to visit my best buddy of 25 years who is now my husband. We met in Houston, Texas and continued a very good friendship over the years, then got married. I hit the lotto. This bracelet was a gift from my honey in the 80s. Everything is sentimental. I usually don’t wear anything that doesn’t have some meaning to it.
The hat was actually made by a woman I was in a minority arts’ women’s organization in Detroit with. She makes hats out of old wool blankets.
I have extra wide feet, so it’s really hard to find shoes. When I find some shoes, they become my shoes. I always go for comfort. Being comfortable is what’s most important to me.
My signature necklace has the symbol that represents me: A free-spirited woman.
This Collie pin is costume jewelry. My mom had it when I was a little girl. Whenever she went out, my sister and I would go into her jewelry box and start playing dress-up. After she passed, we were cleaning out her house and I found this. It brought tears to my eyes. It just reminded me of when I was a little girl. I caused my mom a lot of headaches, but one of things I’m happiest about is that she got to see me be okay before she left this world. She told me, “I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”
My mother used to say, “Don’t wear what everyone else wears, wear what’s becoming to you.” So, there.
Follow Yvonne @ylamarrogers
Dayle, 60+, has strong feelings about the foundation of every outfit.
I was a public advocate for years, and when I was working in Washington, I’d dress conservatively if I had to. I’ve always had kind of a double life—I had this serious job by day, and I was a performer by night. Now that I’m retired, I’m doing all the things I always wanted to do. I wear whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m leading a much more artful life. Everything that I’m passionate about is flourishing. I’m a docent at an art museum, which I absolutely love. I dance three times a week—with a former Rockette, an Alvin Ailey dancer, a Broadway choreographer. I’ve done a lot of musical theater, I’ve sung and danced in cabaret acts. I’ve always been kind of “out there.”
I’ve always had my own quirky style, too. When I was in grade school, I only wore purple for a whole year. I don’t dress in costume, but I’m dramatic. If I go into a store and they show me their best seller, that item is what I will not buy. I never followed fads or the color of the year. I have my own way of putting myself together, and I enjoy the process.
I got these bubblegum pink boots from Dr. Liza Shoes. It’s a shoe company in Canada, formed by a female pediatrist who saw that women were killing their feet wearing high heels. So she designed a line of shoes that aimed to make heels as comfortable as sneakers. I just love the color. The shoes just go perfectly with my Carmen Bury kimono. Now, Carmen Bury is someone who likes to craft with different textiles. She put this together using old shower curtains. She recycles materials, and has this wonderful sense of play! I got it at the Sunday flea market on Columbus and 77th.
The museum where I’m a docent has an artist-in-residence program, and one of those artists is a woman named Jennie Maydew. She’s a young, up-and-coming designer who creates these pieces that have buttons going up and down the garment and then adds detachable pockets of different sizes that you can button-on to any part of the piece. You could have a pocket here, or a pocket there! It’s such a genius invention and it’s fabulous looking. Anyway, she made this necklace by taking scraps of materials. It spoke to me because it reminded me of Carmen Bury’s piece. It’s all about the details for me—they create a domino effect.
I’m an eyeglass freak. I have an outrageous number of glasses. They are definitely a part of my look. If you’re blind, you might as well have fun with it. I like frames that are funky and interesting. That’s why putting an outfit together takes a while—I consider everything.
I got these earrings for $5 at Housing Works, and I always stack bracelets. I love to wear bangles all up and down my arm. These are from everywhere—given to me by friends, found at street fairs, the African market on 116th street. It’s really a great way of expressing myself. It’s all about subtlety and I just love the feel of it. I could wear the same black pants every day of my life and make them different with accessories. Which reminds me, I haven’t even gotten to the underneath layer! Typically, I’m in black pants. But this kimono has a brown sleeve, so I went for solid brown underneath.
You want to know the one piece of clothing I can’t get rid of? Solid-colored, funky pants. That’s the basis of my wardrobe. Everything goes on top of solid-colored, usually black pants. It’s not sentimental. It’s practical. It’s benign. But it’s a canvas that sparks creativity. That’s how I put myself together! I tend to gravitate towards pieces of art, which are timeless. If you know the artist, you’ll think about the person who made it every time you wear it. The clothing tells the story, especially when made by an individual. I love thinking, somebody took the time to create this.
I think as you get older, you become more comfortable with your own style and less concerned with looking like everyone else. You develop who you are, and express yourself through your clothing. When you’re younger, conformity is so much more of an issue, creating social constraints. Given that, try experimenting in little ways. And have a good time! Getting dressed should be all about having fun. Pick one little thing that sparkles, that makes you happy. Look for joy and grow into your own style.
Follow Dayle @artfulcitystyle.
Photos by Sabrina Santiago.