Kendall (American Daughter: Discovering My Mother, 2000, etc.) tells her clothing-centric life story in her wardrobe’s voice.
The wardrobe remembers B., as she’s referred to throughout, at age five “in a daffodil-yellow pinafore and a white blouse with puffed sleeves.” It was the 1950s, not an exciting time for clothing in “a large midwestern city” (curiously not named, though we know it to be St. Louis from Kendall’s other writing). The wardrobe watched with patient, motherly affection and concern as B. navigated her father’s chilly distance and mother’s stern disapproval toward college in Boston, foreign travel, escape to New York and general fabulousness. The major stages of B.’s life were marked by certain iconic stages of fashion: The wardrobe notes that different swimsuits affected her body image in different ways and describes B.’s first trip to Design Research, the cutting-edge Cambridge shop where she learned that, “If you were a woman…and not an academic drone, you had to have a Marimekko dress.” (The Finnish clothing company practically seems to have bought advertising space in this book.) The disembodied narrator, who provides the concern that Kendall’s parents did not, allows the author to achieve the kind of cool composure that memoirs often lack. At times this is disconcerting, perhaps purposefully so, as in the scene when her mother’s funeral prompts the wardrobe only to observe that it occasioned the soothing purchase of B.’s first black dress. With most other writers, such an out-there gimmick would prove disastrous. In Kendall’s skilled hands it becomes merely problematic. No matter how artfully she weaves the fractured flashes of her biography into the wardrobe’s determined account to give a history of the last half-century of fashion, Kendall can’t quite sustain interest in what we’re allowed to see of her life, much less what outfits she wore.
Exquisitely detailed but at times numbing fashion memoir that seems determined to hold readers at a distance.