From what I can remember, my mommy hasn’t worn a uniform to work in the past 10 or so years, not even in the winter months or when she’s running late and it’d require way less thought and coordination to throw on a predetermined outfit. She insists on putting on her ’employee’ hat, literally and figuratively, only when she steps inside the cafe + specialty food market that is her workplace.
This morning, she looked especially fabulous, clad in all black, not as a fashion statement but in memory of the younger sister she lost recently (hi auntie). She styled her hair in a shapely afro that complimented her face and wore a cute pair of earrings we found on sale at Macy’s yesterday. She topped off her black top and trousers with a longish silky scarf, a mid length pea coat beautifully accented with two different textures, and comfortable flats. She could pass for someone headed to work at any number of places other than the one she was headed to.
This might seem somewhat puzzling, why a woman would put so much effort into an ensemble that will only last for the commute to and from a job that calls for a standard uniform. The way I see it, this daily practice is an act of self affirmation, to remind herself and others that she is more than what an 8-4 job and its customers, managers, and employees demand, reduce, and challenge from her. That environment saps her energy, youth, patience, and dignity because it refuses to give her back what she puts in to it, in terms of the monetary value of her labor, as well as respect, peace, and power. Sometimes she comes home drained and discouraged; and all I can do is listen to the stories, hurt and helpless to change her circumstances.
Poverty does something so profound to one’s psyche. It robs one of the ability to dream, to take chances, to demand better. Taking a step in these directions requires a cushion, a safety net to catch one if she fails in her bold quest for a more fuller humanity. Poverty makes one feel alone and unable, unwilling to confront, to leave, to experiment. So if my mommy can’t change the realities of her not much better than minimum wage, 8-hour work day, she sure can control and manipulate how she adorns and presents herself immediately before and after clocking in and out.
And anyway, she has always had a thing for fashion. I love hearing old stories from family about her stylish days. People seem to vividly remember how much pride she took in looking like the beautiful woman she is. She dressed impeccably, with her shapely pencil skirts, colorful blouses, pretty dresses, and audible heels. In a word, she was fly.
So her daily insistence on wearing the clothes she picks out and compiles herself is an active resistance of the uniform that too insists on recognizing her only as a worker, one among many. Dressing as she chooses to, instead of the way prescribed for her by corporate policy, is a means to affirm her femininity and dignity.
I love recalling a quote by writer Edwidge Danticat in which she talks about her two young daughters and how she hopes that they will understand her once they too grow into womanhood. She said,
“I can’t wait for both my daughters to be old enough to read all my books. I loved it every time I saw my parents acting like more than just my parents. And I’m looking forward to that with my daughters too. I am looking forward to having them discover me as someone completely other than their mother.”
As a woman, I’m ready to dedicate the rest of my time to fully seeing and understanding my mommy as a complex woman with memories, desires, and multiple identities because all my life I’ve only known her as my mother; she is so much more than that role alone.
I see you, momma bear. You are fierce and glorious. And because of you, I am.