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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Brooklyn Museum Trip

I went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to be inspired and intrigued by the work of Andy Warhol, but when I saw the sign to the "American High Style: Fashioning A National Collection," I made my way to elevator and up to the special exhibit. I thought I'd take out my notebook, scribbling notes like a journalist, looking for facts about designers and clothing construction. Or I'd be like a historian, piecing together the story of fashion; linking the silhouettes of each dress to the social/political climate of the respective time period. Instead, as soon as I stepped foot into the exhibit, blocking out the ooo's and ahhh's of the other visitors, I cried. At the sight of the first dress, beautifully made by some person with a vision, an idea, and a dream, the image of my mother popped into my head.

As a gift, my grandfather gave my mom and her sisters small scraps of fabric sent from America and Portugal to their tiny little island home in Cape Verde. At the time, in her naive world, the scraps had seemed like limitless yards of material. Cloth within itself means nothing, but with imagination it tranforms into a representation of something more than just a dress.

There's a reason why I cried over the dress in the exhibit, it's the same way my mom cried on our shared car ride to work one morning this summer. She told me about the yellow dress her little sister wore. The sister I had never heard about. She died before her first birthday from the fever. My mom's eyes watered over the details of the white lace stitched onto the sleeves and around the waist. She couldn't remember my aunt's face, but she remembered holding her and running her fingers along the dress leading into her tiny hands and wrinkled newborn feet.

Clothes are memories. Before I had any interest in wearing anything but sweatpants and basketball shorts, my brother Kevin and I sat in the kitchen for sewing lessons taught by my mom. Kevin was a natural and I only learned how to thread the needle. My 20/20 vision came in handy. Coming from a family of seamstresses by necessity, I took the skill for granted. I have come to see how this practical skill was an emotional outlet, a way to empower themselves by creating something from nothing. It's sort of the same way I see a blank piece of lined paper. It always feel as if it's daring me to write something in between its lines.

My mother's talents in sewing have been instrumental parts of my personal history. Like the time when she stitched together my Senior prom dress when I couldn't find anything I liked in my size. Or when she turned my vision of a three quarter sleeve grape purple trapeze dress into a summer time staple when plus size stores forgot to jump on the trend. Or the way she made me a cute little black and green short skirt jumper when I was 11 years old to wear to a party with my father's side of the family. The dye of the dress leaked onto my sweaty palms by the end of the night, but when I had been afraid to see them, knowing they'd critique my weight/hair/appearance, her labor had wrapped me up in beauty and her resistant spirit.

Clothes certainly cannot change who you are or how you view yourself, but the process of dressing up can either be uplifting or traumatizing. Fashion, to me, is not something to just study. Yes, I read books about it and am trying to sort through the facts of the industry, but still it remains to be a feeling. When I wear purple, I think of my great aunt who died of cancer many years ago. The tall, raspy-voiced woman who had loved the color so much that she enveloped herself and life in it.
Each item I put on in the morning began as a vision for one simple person, who dared to turn some scrap into a garment and into someone's special moment.

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