Author | Photos Marie Wilson

My Mother’s Closet: Lady in Red

Our series, My Mother’s Closet, recalls women from our past, revealing their history through clothing, jewellery and items that we closely identify with them. In this installment, Marie Wilson, author of The Gorgeous Girls (Harper Collins), gives us a peek into her mother’s closet.


In the thirties, the press labelled my mother the “Lady in Red.” She was not, as the name might suggest, a spy or a sex worker. No, Marion Cecil Borden, from Powell River, B.C., was a track and field star. And she wore a red tracksuit. The newspapers also called her “Queen of the Cinder Track,” and she was a contender for the 1936 Olympics. But many teams boycotted Hitler’s games and as a result, my mom never got the chance to compete in Berlin.

But she continued to wear red. The red I remember most growing up was her lipstick–a colour as red as cherries in the snow, which was actually the name of her chosen shade. With jet black hair and fine cheekbones, she rocked the red lip. 

 

I used to sneak into her room just to inhale the scent of Cherries in the Snow. To this day, if I’m in the cosmetics department, along with considering hue, I like to test a lipstick’s scent, ever searching for that familiar fragrance. And when I find it, I am cast back to my mother’s makeup case, jewellery box and closet.

Mom’s closet had a window in it. This secret portal, casting sunbeams or leaf shadows on her wardrobe, was just another bit of magic in this wonderful place. The various fabrics of her clothes mussed my hair and rustled past my ears as I wove through them. They also brought another lovely scent to my nose: White Rain, a gently floral perfume she often wore.

And amidst the hanging garments was a red velvet cocktail dress. With fitted bodice and flared skirt, it was an off-the-shoulder affair with a big velvet rose affixed to the side of the waist. Simply divine. Mom often accessorized it with a triple-strand necklace of glittery fake crystal beads. The matching earrings were beaded clusters–clip-ons, of course (it would take the 1960s to bring pierced ears back into fashion). When Mom wore that ensemble for an evening out with Dad, there she was again: the Lady in Red!

Many summers, the mother of four wore pedal pushers paired with cotton blouses and ankle socks with beaded flats. Winter would find her in wool pants and sweaters. In one of our Super 8 home movies, she smiles for the camera at Christmastime, stylish in black with a string of pearls and her classic up-do. We were in suburban Vancouver, but she looked like she’d just walked off a Hollywood set.

Among the Christmas guests in that home movie is my grandmother, who often came to stay with us. And whenever Grannie came to town, she and my mother would head to the beauty parlour down the street at the Caribou Hotel: perm for Grannie, curls atop for Mom. Then they’d head next door to the only dress shop in town, a small place run by our neighbour, Mrs. Kimble.

I’m pretty sure Marion and her mother-in-law would stop into the Caribou Lounge for a few cocktails after shopping–a couple of dames on the town (if you could call the sleepy 1950s suburb of Coquitlam a town). When the pair came home, we kids would get to see their new dos and thrilling dress-shop finds.

Mom was also an ace dancer, and Saturday nights in our rec room were devoted to square dancing. My mother and the other women in the group sewed their own colourful cowgirl skirts–puffed way out by a bevy of crinolines, for good twirling effect. She also wore a shiny silver belt and topped the whole ensemble with a white blouse with puff sleeves.

My two sisters and I got miniature cowgirl skirts made for us, and we sat on the sidelines at the dances, a trio of mini Marions, watching as our mother–red lipstick and all–dosey-doed around the circle. By the 1960s, Mom’s dancing days and marriage were over, and I had repurposed the silver belt into a headband.

As a single mother, Mom went to work as a real estate agent. She remained natty with pencil skirts and pumps. A decade later, she would shed her casual elegance for casual farm-wear. She remarried and moved to a farm with her second husband. Practical shift dresses were the most dressed up she ever got in those days. But, even in her jeans and jackets, working the land, Marion never lost the red–it was there in a sweater or shirt, like an unconscious signature, as natural to her person as the soft velvet-brown of her eyes.

The next Leslieville Flea takes place Sunday, July 8. For more dates and locations, visit here.

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