4/10/2023 | By Naomi Marcus

Naomi Marcus has begun wearing her mother’s clothes, especially during caregiving visits to her invalid mom. The elegant, stylish clothes are different from what Naomi has worn before, and they have taken on new meaning to them both.

It got hot in Carmel, and I was wearing my San Francisco fog clothes: jeans, turtleneck, sweatshirt. I’d left misty chilly SF in early morning darkness and driven south 125 miles to visit my invalid mom, 95, at my childhood home. Oddly, it was heating up in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

So I was hot, and I went to her closet, looking for a light blouse. I wasn’t in the habit of going into her closet; I had never peeked inside.

Unsure if her clothes would even fit me, I went through the hangers and found a cotton embroidered Mexican blouse with a square neck, perfect for the day, and I put it on.

“That is a nice shirt,” said mom, sipping tea calmly in her bed.

“Its YOURS, “ I laughed, and she laughed too.

“Well it looks good on you.”

Mom is bedridden these days, since she fell and broke her tibia eight months ago. Though it healed and she is in no pain, her orthopedic surgeon said she can’t bear weight. Sometimes she sits at the side of the bed, and then she is done.

She said she is not interested in a wheelchair. So she stays in bed with a splendid view of the sea, the pine forest, the acorn woodpeckers, the shimmering hummingbirds, the lilacs and pink ladies.

“Not bad!” she gestures to her expansive view, whenever I walk in.

A kind and competent and expensive cast of caregivers come and go: Latina, Filipina, Tongan, Irish, Okie.

Mom wears T-shirts and diapers now, though right behind her bed is a closet full of professional outfits from her decades as a clinical psychologist.

She was in private practice, and she taught in the UCSF family practice residency programs at hospitals in Salinas and Santa Rosa. She looked the part.

Naomi and her mother, with her mother's clothes in the background
Naomi’s mom Lotte and her Closet

Where did mom learn to dress? She was 12 when she and her parents fled her native Vienna in 1939, after Kristallnacht, on an Italian luxury liner, to the only port that accepted Jewish refugees with no visas: Shanghai. She spent a decade in Shanghai enduring dysentery, poverty, her father’s death and her mother’s depression, the Japanese occupation. She made it to the United States at 21. She never went to charm school, or had fashion catalogues or got to shop in nice stores. She attended the Shanghai Jewish school and learned beautiful English, but I have no idea where she got her fashion sense.

As for me, I never was a refugee or in a war; I was raised on the golden rolling hills of California, but I NEVER had a closet of professional outfits, never.

I sometimes think I chose my jobs based on how little it mattered what I wore to them.

In my youth I was a tour guide/ interpreter, in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia, in the Ukraine and all over Russia. Clothes were about comfort (jean skirts) for the long cramped train journeys ( the Red Arrow from Moscow to Leningrad, the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Irkutsk). Clothes were for wrinkling and absorbing sweat (cargo pants) on the crappy, bumpy scary Aeroflot flights; clothes were for squatting in, during Mad Hatter-esque tea parties, in smoky midnight kitchens with few chairs, drinking and talking and playing sad songs with melancholy Russian artists.

In middle age, I worked for a San Francisco agency that resettled newly arrived immigrants and refugees. No one cared what I wore: can I get them a “chob” or an apartment?

I was described by a Russian ex-ballerina I helped (still stunning and ready for the stage in her late 50s): “Naomi is always wearing old shawls and patched skirts from the Salvation Army; she is clearly dressing for comfort, not for the mens,” and she wasn’t far off the mark.

“But Naomochka is very kind and helpful,” she added, in her review of my services.

And many years I worked for UCSF’s department of psychiatry at a community clinic where my clients were severely, chronically and persistently mentally ill. They were sometimes dirty, and sometimes malodorous, and catching bed bugs was a constant worry. We, staff, dressed way down there: jeans and T-shirts and puffy vests against the fog..

My mother, on the other hand: always elegant. I was so proud of how pretty she was, when she came to my classroom with cupcakes on my birthdays.

As I became a woman, she never commented on my “rags and feathers,” never suggested that I should dress better, or dress like her. Never advised me in that department at all.

The last time we bought clothes together, I was 10, and this image is etched like a diamond in my memory jewel box.

I’d been invited to meet The Beatles before their concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Mom and I went to Gladys McCloud’s Shop for Girls on Carmel’s Ocean Avenue, and outfitted me with a charming green paisley skirt and blazer, and cherry red pumps. 1966. Very Mary Quant.

In all the photographs of That Night I met the Beatles August 29, 1966, my eyes are starry, and my outfit is perfect. The last time we shopped for clothes together.

Now I am old, and Mom is older, and her body is so small her beautiful clothes would float on her; but on me, on me, they are just right. I visit her often, and it has become simpler to take clothes from her closet, rather than bring my own from the city.

And a funny thing is happening: I am getting compliments on these outfits of mom’s.

A simple empire style dress, cotton, patterned in colored squares, a full peasant skirt and matching scoop-necked blouse in a simple pink and grey print, a Talbot’s denim skirt with belt, a grey linen blazer, a belted green coat, tailored blouses imported from Marks and Spencer (UK). A pleated corduroy skirt, perfect for the fog.

Create a capsule wardrobe for timeless style

A pullover in a muted yellow color, made from a nibbed soft cotton fabric, gets lots of compliments from young women.

I wear her clothes and I remember how she looked in them. In my mind’s eye I see her when she wore lipstick and accessories and carried a leather satchel filled with files, folders, and her many notebooks.

I feel like an imposter in my mother’s clothes. We share the same coloring but not the same shape, and it surprises me that mom’s clothes actually fit.

On the Monterey Peninsula when I shop for her, at the pharmacy or the grocery store, strangers occasionally approach me and say, “You must be Doctor Lotte’s daughter, you look just like her. Your mom helped me soooooooo much.”

I wonder if they recognize the clothes, or me, but it doesn’t matter.

I am gracious and say I will tell her, and ask their names.

I sit on the side of her bed wearing her clothes, and I say, “So-and-so said you helped him so much … Do you remember him?”

She looks at me with a tender and exasperated frown,
“Naomi, I saw thousands of clients in all those years, I cannot remember them all.”

“Yes,” I say, “I am not surprised.”

And she smiles at me, radiant, and reaches to touch the soft buttery fabric of her outfit that I put on.

“But I remember that dress. I loved that dress.”

Naomi Marcus was raised on the Big Sur Coast and attended UC Santa Cruz, majoring in Russian. She got her graduate degree in Journalism at Columbia University and will soon attend her 40th reunion. She worked in the USSR as a tour guide and interpreter in the hopeful 1980s. She came back to California, married, and worked as a social worker with immigrants and refugees, and her last job was as a vocational counselor with the severely mentally ill, at UC San Francisco’s dept of psychiatry. She has written for the SF Chronicle, Mother Jones, American Photographer, and many other publications.

Naomi Marcus