Style lessons from mum

I try to sneak out, but she's always waiting with the iron hot and eyes steeled. "What are you wearing? Not that shirt. Take mine. Iron the collar. Add my scarf. Are those jeans?"

Yes, I am 37 years old and my mother still dresses me.

I am 37 and my feet itch to run after the bus that just passed outside our window but when my mother flings open her cupboard, I stop, mesmerised. I am six years old again, watching her run her fingers over smooth waterfalls of fabric arranged according to colour, weight and feel.

Do you remember wearing your parents' clothes as a child? When I was six, my mother's old purple nightgown was a princess dress puddling behind me.

Her translucent chiffon scarves would have been perfect accessories, but the delicate weave tore if I touched it. I was too rough or too small for her clothes. Because they were forbidden, they enchanted me. As she chose a shirt or kurta or pleated her saris, I sat on her bed and watched wide-eyed. It was years before I learnt how a perfectly chosen cut or neat drape transforms the body.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

When I was 10, I longed to wear the soft sweater she had knitted and decorated with coloured applique leaves. On her, it looked like the model in the glossy book of knitting patterns borrowed from the library. A few pages down was the sweater she made for me, Donald Duck's cartoonish face on the front. It was a childish design and I wanted to look like my mother. So I coveted her sweater for years, even as the white wool lost its gloss, as the bright leaves faded and curled and shed.

When I was 14, my mother and grandmother taught me to wear a sari on my own. It transformed me into someone taller and more confident, someone who, in the mirror, looked just like the woman smiling beside my reflection. Until I moved, stepping on the pleats and destroying the illusion. But the image stayed with me.

When I was 18, I lived 7,000km away from my mother. My wardrobe was full of jeans and T-shirts. Before Diwali that year, a friend's mother gave me a soft package that unwrapped into a liquid slide of beige silk, embroidered with cherry-red knots. I fell in love but only wore it once. My friend's mother forgot to warn me not to put it in the washing machine.

When I was 21, I shopped for office wear with two similarly clueless flatmates. Our mothers were overseas, this was before smartphones and Internet telephony became affordable. We relied on half-remembered maxims about fabric, cut and appropriate dress to make our initial selections. The fitting room assistant, an older woman, took pity on us and made some suggestions. I exchanged a flared jacket for a fitted one and splurged on the more expensive pants with heavier fabric. They looked good as new for years, until I turned 28.

When I was 28, I ballooned. None of my clothes fit me. My mother took me to fabric shops and a dressmaker in India, walked me through department stores in Singapore. She had high-speed conversations with experts about "busy lizzy" or "cutwork" or "real crepe" versus "synthetic". I tried learning to separate the light silken weight of "real" georgette versus polyester fabrics masquerading as the original - the first is perfect for hot Singaporean weather, the latter turns a shirt into an oven. I pretended to be able to tell the two apart but, secretly, I was reading the labels.

In my mid-30s, my mother moved in with a couple of suitcases of clothes. As her move became permanent, her wardrobe expanded. Mine did as well.

In Singapore, she drags me to sales. "This is real wool and at this price!" she says. "This is silk. Look at this! It would go perfectly with those earrings of mine." She means for me to wear her clothes and accessories, of course.

I asked her once why she likes to choose my outfits. "When I was young, I loved playing with dolls," she said.

Part of me is still thrilled to wear her clothes but my sense of self was under siege. I was habituated to solitude, my mother's arrival an intrusion.

So she started slowly, ambushing me on my way out with a scarf or a bracelet. "Just an elegant touch."

Next came the already ironed alternative to my outfit for the day. "Just giving you ideas."

Her eye for line or colour is better than mine. Slowly but surely, I surrendered. I still relish the occasional skirmish but even more the compliments that come my way.

"Looking good," a colleague or friend might say more often these days.

I thank them.

"I'm wearing my mother's clothes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Style lessons from mum'. Print Edition | Subscribe