her secret self

A woman I knew for many years had a glamorous wardrobe that I only found out about after she passed away.

Kay’s death was sudden and her husband Bo needed help going though her stuff. It was all over the condo and he was daunted. So I wound up collecting, sorting and going though every garment she owned.

First, Bo showed me a video he made in memory of her life. There were clips of them hiking and rescuing animals. Dressed simply in a denim shirt and safari jacket, she held a wounded owl with heavy gloves. On a wildlife reserve, she smiled, remaining perfectly still as a hawk balanced on her leather covered sleeve. There was no trace of makeup or self consciousness, just the joy of being outdoors and improving the lives of animals.

The visual eulogy culminated with pictures from their wedding day. She lay immersed in a field of native wild flowers, dressed in a full length white dress, a white denim jacket and a daisy in her hair. The top of the dress was like a leotard and the skirt had layers and layers of tulle. On her feet were ballet slippers, in white, of course. She looked like she had been plucked from the Nutcracker’s Waltz of the Snowflakes. Her eyes giddy, like she had a secret. And actually, she did: they had eloped.

Even though we were friends, I had never seen those pictures. It was a good preparation for the task ahead. Going through someone’s things is intimate and I felt like I had been invited deeper into the inner circle of this nature girl/snow princess.

We started with the front hall closet. It brimmed with jackets, vests, puffers and coats. Some had pins on the lapels and gloves stuffed in the pockets. Scarves and hats were pushed into the sleeves and boots were staged for cold, rain, and hiking. Many had seen lots of use.

In the tall dresser, pretty button-up sweaters crowded the drawers, in a rainbow of colors. And piles of folded jeans represented every variety of cut, wash and distress level: super-faded boyfriend, mid-wash bootleg, embellished pocket straight-leg, dark and skinny, you name it. I remember seeing her wear some of these in her neat preppy style to dinners and game nights.

As we gained steam, Bo’s memories started to flow. He told me about the theme party that called for the cowboy hat, snap-up plaid shirt, and fringe jacket. He pointed out that she started crafting and had embroidered kitties on her totes and sweatshirts. He showed me her collection of Keds and flip flops. He flashed back to brunch when I held up a printed A-line shift and classic trench. These pieces represented their shared story.

It felt like we were making progress but there was still the massive bedroom closet which was all hers. It was a tightly packed puzzle of bins, boxes and shelves. We forcefully extracted garment bags, dry cleaning bags, duffle bags, and bags full of bags. I unleashed an avalanche of shipping boxes. We started unfolding, unzipping, and ripping things open. What we found was a collection of completely unexpected garments and accoutrements.

It was the wardrobe of an over-the-top socialite who attended dinners and galas every night. There were fancy floor length evening gowns, ruched and fitted confections and two-piece ensembles of shiny brocade in greens, purples and navies. Lots of black cocktail wear was decorated with ruffles, sequins and lace. Some of these party dresses were huge with yards and yards of fabric. The voluminous sleeves and gathered skirts seemed to expand as we extracted them from their containers.

As cover-ups, she had furry boleros, gauzy shrugs and opera capes. Several pairs of sparkling shoes actually appeared to be meant for dancing with heels not too high or too thin. There were elaborate accessories to match: tiny purses covered in beads, drawstring sacks in black velvet, and clutches made of patent, feathers and metal. Several jewelry boxes overflowed with tangles of statement necklaces, real pearl chokers, gold cuffs, chunky clip on earrings, and even a headdress worthy of a toga.

Without a client to go back and forth with I was left to my own inner dialogue to make sense of it. Bo had never seen any of it before. The Kay we knew wore a simple black sweater and slacks to special events. This clothing was colorful and bold. Is this who she really was? wanted to be? was on the verge of being? I would have loved to have seen her in some of those magnificent outfits. On one hand, I felt excited to know about this side of my friend, and on the other I was sad that she held it back. Though perhaps it served its intended purpose: to make a girl feel glamorous, if only when she was shopping and modeling for the cats.

It took us two days to go through it all. In the end we filled many boxes for donation marked party dresses. Hopefully these treasures will find new homes and provide more fantasy through costume play. Or, even better, they will make women feel emboldened to be the life of the party and make some awesome memories that become part of their shared stories.

As for the rest, we curated a small capsule that represented her everyday style for her family to view and keep, if they wanted to. It consisted of the shift and trench, a rose cardigan, straight leg jeans, a beanie and scarf set, an orange puffer vest, a white denim jacket, a kitty sweatshirt and lastly, a faux fur capelet (wink, wink). It was a nod to the real Kay: 90% preppy nature girl and 10% snow princess diva. Even though her wardrobe by volume was the opposite.

Many months later this experience has stayed with me. And I think: why are so many of us icebergs that just show our tips? Deep down is the good stuff. Let’s dress up more. Let’s show our secret festive side. I find myself wearing my flamboyant, floor length Hello Kitty skirt once a week now. Because why not? I don’t want my best wardrobe treasures to be discovered, unused, before I’ve even had a chance to take a twirl in them, myself.




Aloisia is currently lead stylist for FUTURE LYNN, with over 20 years of experience in designing retail collections, creating custom dresses and editing closets.

All names have been changed for privacy.

main photo credit: Denise Iwamoto, @denisetakespics

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