Fashion Statements: dressing for two | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Fashion Statements: dressing for two 

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On Mother's Day we met Afsaneh Rahimian at Gethsemane Garden Center on North Clark, adopting basil to nurture alongside her live ratatouille of eggplant and tomatoes. Her pea-in-the-pod look announced ready-to-sprout. But experts from our fashion nursery took a couple of cuttings to determine its family, genus, and species.

Sign of a healthy pregnancy, the simple maternity dress is delivered complete with capacious gathers, easy-entry side buttons, and let-it-all-stick-out construction. (Traditional prenatal fashion don'ts include knots, which are thought to encourage an entanglement between child and umbilical cord.) The material--black velvet--speaks to the general inconvenience of a third trimester that stretches between seasons.

Not all of sisterhood dresses for motherhood. Eskimo women, for instance, routinely wear coats copious enough for company; the attached hood doubles as Snugli. According to Bernard Rudofsky's The Unfashionable Human Body, some fashion-forward societies, including colonial-era Sumatra, enjoyed garments built for two that accommodated not merely gestation, but conception.

Tailors stateside generally get the whole chicken-and-egg thing backward, confusing procreation with childhood recreation. Here the high neck, separate yolk, and mid-tum pleats have been passed down three generations. They originated in the little-girl dresses of the 30s, then reappeared in the mother-to-be-as-child-she-was adaptations of the 50s. A generation later, designers got the bright idea to dress working mothers in grown-up getups. But in a case of inbreeding, here the model for street clothes is inspired by Vivienne Westwood's 1985 collection--the baby-doll look.

Rahimian solves the three-dress/nine-month problem by accessorizing. "You wear more jewelry to lift your spirits," she explains. And to ward off spirits. Before jewelry was pretty, it was protective. And the main assets cavefolks had to guard were the family jewels. Early fashion plates hung a variety of talismans from a waist-tied string, close to the source of life.

Rahimian's amulet, imported from the infertile Sahara via Kongoni on Lincoln Avenue, is fashioned by the nomadic Tuareg, a matriarchal society of veiled men and barefaced women. In this cash-and-carry culture, the pendant, according to Angela Fisher's Africa Adorned, was once passed from father to son, but now travels from mother to daughter. It combines a world of symbolism, including representations of Christianity, Islam, the four corners of the earth, and home--the Niger oasis town of Ingal, site of the annual intertribe camel races and salt festival. Intricately etched into recycled coins and set with a triangle of red glass, the pendant serves as an all-purpose prophylactic and, in a pinch, goat-bartering chip. The combination of round and pointy elements makes for a charming fertility charm.

The complexly constructed my mother/myself conflict, accessorized by a parent's penchant for protectiveness, offers an expectant fashion statement: Don't leave home without me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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