I was fortunate to have to wear a uniform for all but one year of my pre-college education. Most of my peers hated the white blouses, pleated skirts and blazers that we had to wear, but for me they were a disguise that covered the fact that I owned a very limited wardrobe. I attended private school by the good graces of the nuns and priests who gave me free tuition because they understood my family’s economic situation after the death of my father. My mother was a financial wizard who managed to provide us with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle by using her talents for saving money at every turn. She often reminded us that the best class that she ever took in high school was Home Economics. It was there that she honed her skills at running a household efficiently with a very narrow margin of income.
I never had to worry about looking out of place with my classmates. They had no idea how careful my mother had to be in setting priorities for spending. From the time that our family settled into our new life without a father I got by with a school wardrobe that consisted of two skirts, five blouses and a sweater or a blazer with one pair of shoes that hopefully lasted for an entire school year. Sometimes when I did not grow I used the same set of clothing over and over again. My clothing collection also included some play outfits into which I changed each afternoon to preserve my school clothes and two or three dresses that I used for special occasions and church.
I grew up knowing nothing about fashion or designer labels. My mother shopped the sales all over town, hunting for the best quality items for the lowest price. If the cost was right and the articles fit they went home with us, otherwise she left them behind. In the big department stores I never saw the fully priced fashions sold on the higher floors. I was only familiar with the area often known as the bargain basement where I learned about discounts and percents.
Somehow with my mother’s eye for a good deal I always managed to find something that was well made and had the look of quality. Mama often told me to find what complimented my shape and my coloring and to stick with classics rather than fads. She was as gifted when it came to fashion as she was in cooking. Somehow I always looked good and ate well under her tutelage. She worked hard to keep me and my brothers feeling safe and secure and often joked that she had a secret money tree in the backyard that she used only in emergencies.
If I fretted over wearing the same clothing over and over again my mother would wisely tell me that most people were so worried about themselves that they rarely noticed how other people were dressed. She urged me to get over myself and think about others instead. She insisted that a nice smile was much more beautiful than a new dress.
While I loved her philosophy I have to admit to sometimes doubting the veracity of it during my most angst ridden teen years. It would be decades before I came to fully realize how wise and wonderful she actually was. Somehow her lessons unconsciously guided me even when I did not realize how impactful they had been. As look back on how I did things I realize that I followed her lead without even thinking about what I was doing.
To this day I head immediately to the sale racks in stores. I can’t think of many times when I have ever purchased an article of clothing that had not been drastically marked down. I know very little about designer labels or trends. I shop for items that will last for years and make me look thinner than I really am. I feel uncomfortable spending large amounts of money for anything other than shoes, which I consider to be the foundation on which I stand. I want my footwear to be comfortable and sturdy.
There are certain labels that seem to always fit me well and last beyond a season, so I search for them on the sale racks. Calvin Klein seems to have tailored clothing just for the idiosyncrasies of my shape. Michael Kors has a way of slimming me. Still it is the cut of the clothing and quality of the fabric that makes all the difference, so I often find low priced items at Walmart or on Amazon Prime. I suppose my mother’s spirit continues to live inside my head.
There was a time when my mother designed and tailored my clothing by hand. Her skill at a sewing machine was unrivaled. She was definitely a brilliantly gifted woman who had learned how to manage a household with aplomb. I used to internally roll my eyes whenever she quoted lessons she had learned in her Home Economics class. I did not appreciate the art and science of all that she had learned. Now I look back and wonder if we would have survived as a family well as we did without her amazing knowledge and skills and optimistic outlook. She had a designer label all her own.