Our new 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, Jennifer Birchwood of JB Finds gives us a window into her mother’s closet. 

Joan Birchwood in Jenn Muir dress

When I was growing up, my parents had a very active social life. It was not unusual for them to be out at least twice a week. They were always going out with friends to a dinner party, the theatre, some gallery opening or social gathering, as well as throwing dinner parties.

I used to love to lie on my parents’ bed and watch in awe as my mother got herself ready, putting on her make-up and doing her hair. Not only was it fascinating for a little girl to see all that make-up, jewellery and hair preparation (hot roller, curling iron, then tease), but my mother was truly beautiful and very glamorous. My mom’s outfit was always put together before the day of the party or event (way before the make-up, hair and prep time on the night of).

My mother never shopped for a specific outfit. She always created one, pulling it together from her closet – things she had collected and truly sourced! She was always on the lookout for finds. Whenever she was out and about, she kept an eye open for interesting, clothing, shoes, jewellery accessories, etc., even when she travelled. It used to drive my dad nuts. She was always shopping – no place was off limits or without the possibility that she may find something special or, even better, ON SALE. We could be walking down a street and I would see her eye catch a store window, and before I knew it we were inside.

My mother found treasures where others would not bother to look. She LOVED the hunt. That’s not to say she wasn’t a regular shopper of places of that time: Creeds, Holt Renfrew, Eaton’s, The Bay, and as she had been to university in the U.S., she had her favourite haunts there as well. She then had the ability to put interesting pieces together and never just put on a designer dress and a pair of pearls. She didn’t want to wear a designer dress right off the rack – anyone could do that. It was not what she believed style to be.

But if she did wear a designer item, it was usually that of an unknown, or lesser-known, designer of the time. For example, she wore Jean Muir, a famous British designer who was not as popular in Canada. Her pieces were loose and free flowing. She would pair an outfit with a piece of estate or even costume jewellery that was stunning and unique but unrecognizable in name and therefore owned by nobody else. Or she’d wear a Rudi Gernreich bathing suit at the yacht club or a friend’s country place. Gernreich was an Austrian-born avant-garde designer of the 1960s. He designed the “monokini,” a topless bikini. Though my mother’s was not topless, it was made rather inappropriately of wool, making it unusual. It looked completely gorgeous on her.

Jennifer & Joan (wearing Rudi Gernreich bathing suit)

My mother never worried about having a similar outfit to anyone else in a room. She wore the unusual with style, confidence and grace; putting together clothing and accessories that nobody had, or would dare to wear, so that when she walked in a room, people might think, or better yet say, “Oh Joan, where did you get that wonderful…”

That was my mother. She had the nerve and STYLE to pull off mixing and matching items – whether that be the usual suspect of designers of the time, off-the-beaten-track designers, vintage or sale items – and wear them comfortably with her unique sense of style and indifferent confidence. Watching my mother getting dressed was my early experience and education in style – all thanks to the different tricks in her closet.

Jennifer Birchwood wearing Jean Muir dress

Born in Montreal, Joan Birchwood was an inventor, artist, author, jingle writer and a mother. Jennifer Birchwood is her oldest daughter. Joan passed away of a brain hemorrhagic stroke in 2004 at the age of 69. 

Visit Jennifer and her collection of clothing at the next Leslieville Flea. For dates and locations visit here.