Your mother, the fashion icon

Slide show: A new book celebrates the style pioneer you never knew existed -- the woman who gave birth to you

Published May 7, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

On a visit home a couple of years ago, I was sifting through a cardboard box of unsorted family photos when I came upon one in particular that gave me pause. "What the hell is this?" I asked my mom, who was sitting across from me at the kitchen table. The photograph I held up, incredulously, was of my mom, circa 1980-something, at a cocktail party. She was wearing a splashy floral dress with puffy sleeves, red lipstick, and she was trapped in the sideways embrace of a leery Michael Douglas, who was leaning in to kiss her cheek. My mom peered over her reading glasses to study the picture. "Oh, that?" she said. "Daddy and I were at some party for something. Michael Douglas was extremely ... friendly." 

Some version of this realization -- that your mom had a life before her offspring showed up -- is central to "My Mom: The Style Icon" a new book by Piper Weiss. Originally conceived as a blog when Weiss found her mother's old photo albums, "Style Icon" is composed of submissions from all around the world: '70s jumpsuits, '50s fedoras and '60s beehives are all modeled by women who later became known as "Mom." Accompanying many of the photographs of stylish ladies are anecdotes about the story behind the leather jacket, miniskirt or velour leisure suit. Each picture conveys not just a particular moment in a woman's life, but a fashion story. (We've included some of the most memorable photos and anecdotes in this slide show)

Salon spoke to Piper Weiss about the process of collecting other people's family photos, raiding Mom's closet, and figuring out just what makes a style icon.

How did you get the idea to start the blog on which the book is based? 

The blog started when I was at my parents' house looking at old photo albums. I never really bothered looking at photos that I wasn't in, like a total narcissist. Then two years ago, I found two photo albums of my mom alone, before I was born, before she met my dad. She's in her early 20s, late teens. I'd seen a few photos of her as a little girl, but I'd never really seen her in her 20s as a single, independent woman. All of a sudden, I was so much more interested in these photos -- it opened up all of this conversation between us -- stories that she had never told me before. I didn't know that she went to Morocco; I didn't know that she would take off for the weekend. She picked up items of clothing wherever she went -- she was totally broke, but she spent any money she had on whatever item of clothing was chic in the area.

These photos were from the late '60s?

Yes, '69, '70. My mom was really savvy, and kind of up for anything because she was a single person. She was at a point when she was making decisions and kind of figuring out who she was, and part of that was through these costumes. My mom and I never really got along in terms of clothing. I'm kind of a mess and I like things that are really cheap, and all of a sudden, we had this common ground. We would find the item of clothing and then talk about the story behind it.

And what does she dress like now?

My mom dresses beautifully. She's changed her style with her age and with what she's feeling. It made me look at her again as a separate person and not just mom. I like that in one of the pictures she's wearing fake glasses. I always wanted fake glasses, but I feel like I can't tell a lie. She also has a hair fall in one of the pictures, which is a high ponytail that was completely fake. I haven't actually found either of those.

Were you surprised by how many amazing submission you got when you launched your blog?

I was super surprised and psyched by the response, because it's very international. I wasn't surprised by how many beautiful, coolly dressed moms there were. Even if a lot of the moms weren't glamorous, they had their own angle. I am surprised by how much their personalities come through. But I think people posed for pictures differently back then -- it was a little bit more special.

Right, you didn't take pictures constantly on your phone.

And you couldn't edit them!

What's your favorite photo in the book? 

One of my favorites is of this woman who was getting married for the sixth time. Her son, who sent in the photograph, is in the picture, throwing rice, and he's so cute. I remember looking at the picture and thinking that it was Gena Rowlands, or someone from a Hitchcock movie. I wrote to him and asked, who is your mom? He said no, she wasn't famous, but she was getting married for the sixth time. This woman had a roller-coaster life; she'd been in and out of rehab and all along her son stuck by her side. This was her sixth and final marriage, and he helped her pick out the dress. It was beautiful, the way he remembers being 10 years old, looking at her coming out of the dressing room in that gold dress.

What's the best piece of fashion advice that your mom's ever given you?

My mom is all about balance. She says: If you're going to wear a big top, then show your legs. If you're going to wear a long skirt, then show a little cleavage. Don't get so consumed with the clothing that you can't find yourself in it. It's not really about the clothes; it's about owning whatever you're wearing.

By Adele Melander-Dayton

Adele Melander-Dayton is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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