Love of fashion forges a lifetime of stories

Tara Bradbury
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‘My Mother’s Dressing Room’ tells of author’s love of clothing

Siobhan (Bunny) McDonough (left) and her mother, Janet Watkins, pose on Water Street where Janet used to shop when she was younger. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Growing up in Virginia, Siobhan (Bunny) McDonough spent many a summer in St. John’s. Her mother, Janet Watkins, is from St. John’s, and McDonough and her three brothers would visit every year, running around, she says, in their hand-knit caribou sweaters from Nonia.

While her own red sweater is long gone, McDonough still has her brother’s brown one, and wears it.

“It’s short in the sleeve area, they’re kind of 3/4 sleeves and a little bit of my belly button can show, but I wear t-shirts, so it doesn’t matter,” McDonough says.

“I feel so cozy in it, and it reminds me of St. John’s, being a kid and running around.”

Clothes are the threads of our lives, says McDonough, who describes herself as a journalist, hunter of vintage clothes and outdoors lover. In much the same way that a catching a whiff of a certain scent or hearing a snippet of a certain song on the radio can instantly transport us back to a specific moment in time, clothes can hold memories.

Perhaps even more vivid memories, since we’re wearing them as we go through life.

McDonough’s book, “My Mother’s Dressing Room,” published last November by Goose River Press in Maine, is a whimsical collection of vignettes, peeking into her mother’s closet and her own. It was Watkins who instigated McDonough’s love affair with clothes and jewelry, she says.

“I was a real tomboy, but I loved watching my mom get ready for her 1970s dinner parties,” she explains.

“I would be playing outside all day, running around in my shorts and sneakers and I’d come in around 5:30 or 6 and go into her dressing room, where she’d be under her hair dryer and painting her nails and choosing what she would wear that night to go out. I’d watch her get ready and help her pick out her jewelry and it was just such a fun process.”

Over the years, McDonough grew to love not only clothes, but the memories associated with them. Over time, she acquired some of her mom’s pieces, but also started collecting her own, with an emphasis on the unique and vintage. In her book, she shares how clothes can tell personal stories.

“Give me a T-shirt and jeans, my bare feet in some Keds and I’m good to go, but give me that vintage Yves St. Laurent jumpsuit or Jonathan Logan dress and now I’m in a completely different frame of mind, and I’m still myself,” she says.

“When I wear them, I feel there are things that visually attract me to them and they illicit some part of my personality or my feeling about life on that day or that place where I’m going or who I’m with. It’s really sort of a cause for celebration.”

In addition to her caribou sweater, there’s the custom-made American flag boots from the ’60s, both ridiculous and wonderful, which McDonough wears every year on July 4 (her birthday), or with jeans shorts and a T-shirt. There’s the vintage rabbit coat with white leather belt she bought for a steal at $29, and her “Italian Funeral Dress,” a black, lace-embellished frock worn to an engagement party and nicknamed by her date at the time.

There’s also her dinosaur shirt, bought at a party in Manhattan, right off the back of a girl she met there. The shirt looked warm, McDonough said, and the colours were fantastic, so she cut the woman a cheque on the spot and the shirt was hers. The woman took it off when she was leaving and wore just her coat home.

“I love the fun of finding these things; the bargains,” McDonough explains. “I don’t mind wearing somebody else’s clothes. I love getting a bargain and finding that special piece.”

While she owns many designer pieces, McDonough is just as attached to other, simpler and less expensive items. Boys’ sweatshirts from Wal-Mart, which she can get for $7 each, have saved her through chilly Maine weathers and are “a real find,” she says.

“I don’t look at fashion as a superficial thing. It’s something that can be a part of you when you feel those things. Whether it’s the $7 Wal-Mart sweatshirt or that beautiful Anne Fogarty dress from the 1950s, it’s what makes life much fuller for me. It’s a sensory thing.”

Clothes can be almost like friends, she adds, and she names many of her pieces: there’s her butterfly dress, her “Dallas” dress, her daisy cape and her stewardess blouse. That’s not to say she gets so attached, she doesn’t ever get rid of anything — McDonough stresses she has no problem getting rid of things she’s not wearing, letting them go to make new memories with a new owner.

McDonough, who lives in Virginia and works as a correspondent for a newspaper in Vero Beach, Fla., was back in St. John’s last week with Watkins. It was the first time McDonough has been back to Newfoundland in more than a decade.

Her trip didn’t go by without a trip to Model Citizens vintage and contemporary design shop on Duckworth Street, where she picked up a couple new pieces and made a couple new memories in the process.

One was a pair of vintage Ferragamo loafers; the other was a lightweight dress she says was just begging to be brought down to Florida.

Both will now remind her of St. John’s when she wears them, and the foggy Saturday morning she spent walking downtown.

“My Mother’s Dressing Room” is available at Model Citizens, as well online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

“I hope people will get the sense of how beautiful life is, and how in this case I’m using clothes and jewelry and shoes almost as the manifestation of that,” McDonough says of the book. It could be anything — if you love music or you love art or you love books or whatever it is, these things are part of our daily living and breathing.

“For the people who like fashion or who are a little intimidated by it or don’t know what to do with it, I would encourage them to go for it, feel it, love it, be into it. Live your life and enjoy it the best you can.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Goose River Press, Wal-Mart

Geographic location: Virginia, Maine, Manhattan Dallas Vero Beach Newfoundland Duckworth Street Florida

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