Paper Denim and Pearls

Written By , on November 10, 2006

I’ve always secretly yearned for a white trash grandmother. The kind who would wear a purple sweatshirt with a kitten on it and bring over warm cookies on snow days.

What I got was Mimi, the human embodiment of Classic. Her immaculate white hair was always curled, Chanel No. 5 accompanied her like a shadow, and, to top it off, she slept in lace Dior nightgowns.

To my grandmother, I eternally looked homeless.
My ripped jeans and flannel clashed with her cashmere and pearls.

As a kid growing up in the 90’s, I attempted to blend grunge and hip hop style. I wore oversized Starter jackets for sports teams I’d never head of, hummed the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song like it was an anthem, and went for extended periods of time without washing my hair. God, I was trying so hard to be cool.

She wore her height like book-balancing royalty; My shoulders collapsed down the front of my body like a waterfall. Her fingers were manicured, mine were bitten.

We were different, bound by the reality of our eras. And so while we overlapped on the planet for sixteen years, I feel like I missed her in time.

In February 2000, my grandmother died of breast cancer: still looking stunning with every hair in perfect place. Her book closed and a chapter of my life ended.


Sophomore year in college, I came out of the closet as loving fashion. Up until that point, I was secretly memorizing Vogue like teenage boys do with Penthouse. I face planted into fashion theory, wrote a thesis on couture, and formally introduced myself to the work of doyenne, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Channel.

What I found amidst the tales of Chanel’s genius, the epics written on her grace, brilliance, and unparalleled style, was an understanding of a woman I was never able to crack: my grandmother.

Reading the biographies written on Chanel were like stumbling upon the Rosetta Stone of my heritage.

Through them, I began to get a sense of the time and circumstances that formed who my grandmother was, and what she aspired to be: Chanel.

Coco Chanel offered a living example of a woman who possessed intelligence, an unthreatening drive, and an alluring, but never vulgar, sexuality. She did all of that without compromising feminine beauty.

Mimi followed her lead, literally, in her shoes.

Six years after my grandmother’s death, I still bite my nails, and am happiest in a pair of jeans. Though, now I opt for Paper Denim and Cloth.

But, on cold days, I rummage through the back of my closet to the places that smell like cedar and moth balls and wrap myself in Mimi’s vintage cashmere sweater before heading out onto the street. Granted, it looked different on her, but it looks good on me.

I’m grateful that Chanel never goes out of style. It gave me time to grow into her clothes on my own terms, combining one part classic and two parts cool.


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