You know how you can hear a song on the radio and be instantly transported back to a particular time in your life — a fun day in high school, a painful love affair, a quiet moment with a friend?
Siobhan “Bunny” McDonough does the same thing with clothes.
McDonough, a newspaper reporter and former writer for the Associated Press, has just published “My Mother’s Dressing Room” (Goose River Press, $24.95), a look inside her mother’s closet and her own. She tries to bring larger themes to her reminiscences, but mostly the book is full of descriptions about what she, her family and friends have worn over the years.
If you’re a clotheshorse, you’ll love it. The book includes about 120 photographs, many of them of McDonough modeling her vintage wardrobe.
McDonough’s mother was a stewardess (as flight attendants were called back in the ’70s), and her father was an FBI agent. The family visited Maine often, and McDonough developed a particular fondness for Castine.
McDonough worked as an AP reporter for 12 years, leaving the organization a few years ago “to bike cross-country and kind of get my head into other things for a while, and the book sort of grew from there.” She spent about a year and a half in Maine, during which she freelanced and worked in a bakehouse.
She now lives in Alexandria, Va., and works as a correspondent for a newspaper in Vero Beach, Fla. She also freelances and leads bike tours. “Basically, I try to do everything I possibly can to not be stuck in one place for too long,” she said.
Q: What was your intention with this book? Why should anyone care about your mother’s wardrobe?
A: I just wanted to share the story of how clothes can tell our personal stories. I’m sitting in my dressing room right now in Alexandria, and I’ve got the great rabbit coat, vintage, with a white leather belt, one that I bought actually in Arundel. I bought it for $29.
I put the tag in my pocket, because I’m so proud of it. The thing is unbelievable. I look at that coat, and it takes me to that dusty Arundel antique shop. After there, I went up to Castine to go duck hunting. It was last year, and it brings me there when I look at it.
… And then I’m looking at the rabbit coat and thinking of my great Maine trips and the people that I love up there. So I guess when I wear these things — whether it’s my beaten-up Army boots or my American flag boots or my Vivienne Westwood plastic shoes with hearts on them or my felt hat from Nordstrom’s that’s leopard print — these things make me feel a certain way, and I want to wear them.
So I’m trying to get across that fashion is not necessarily a shallow or superficial thing. These are things that can be embraced. If you feel them as strongly as I do, I wear them to delight myself in life a little bit more. They sort of bring up memories of people or places or times in my life.
Q: What was your best find over the years?
A: You know, I have to say I’m very enamored of my rabbit coat. On top of just the beautiful rabbit, the softness of it and the colors, is the punch of this white leather wrap belt. It just made it that much more special. That is a huge find.
And also from the Portland area, my American flag boots are ridiculous. They are so fantastic. They are custom-made. These boots are from (the Woodstock) era, and I was born on July 4. So I thought these boots and I were made from each other.
Q: You’ve bought clothes off the backs of people. Tell me about the dinosaur shirt.
A: I was living in Manhattan at the time, and I saw this brunette, so I knew the colors would be great on a brunette. It looked so warm. She had it on in January, and she wasn’t wearing the shirt with a sweater. And sure enough, the material is kind of warm and stretchy, and then it had these dinosaurs on it. It’s so cool, and the colors are fantastic.
There’s almost, to me, colors of Carson City, Nev., where I’m thinking of sky blue and I’m thinking of yellows for the sun, and these sort of brownish colors of the Earth. And I was, like, “I have to have that. I’m in Manhattan, and I’m seeing earth right in front of me, and nature.”
I just said to this woman, “I love your shirt. Would you consider letting me buy it off you?” And she was, like, sure. So I wrote her a check and managed to just buy it right off her back.
Q: Did she mail it to you?
A: We were at a party, so she had a coat. At the end of the party, when she was leaving, she just gave me the shirt. I gave her a $60 check, and off I went with a big smile on my face.
Q: What’s been your biggest splurge?
A: I would say one of them was a Pucci knit dress, but I still got that at discount. I got that at TJ Maxx, actually, on a discount rack. In context, it’s all relative to the times of how much I had coming in. That dress was originally a $1,400 dress, and I’m a reporter. I think I ended up paying about $560 or $570 for it, so it was a stretch on a reporter’s salary 10 years ago. But I was like, “I have to have it.” And I’ve worn it a ton, so I’ve justified every dime I spent on it.
It’s my autumn dress, I call it, because this dress I would not dare wear a day into December. Dec. 1, this one’s got to go back into my storage closet, because the colors speak October-November. I celebrate autumn in this dress, and I know it’s autumn when I put this dress on.
Q: I noticed you’re not fond of flip-flops. What are some of your others fashion don’ts for the rest of us?
A: I’m probably going to be massacred for saying that because, let’s face it, half the population wears flip-flops. They love those things. I just chalk it up to the fact that I’ve been a very active person all my life. I didn’t grow up with flip-flops. I was running around kicking balls all the time, so flip-flops were not in my vocabulary.
Fashion faux pas, I would say this idea of wearing the black stockings in September, please don’t do that to us. The biggest fashion faux pas is to wear something that you don’t believe in. So if you love flip-flops from the standpoint that you’re just so enamored of those things, then you’re being true to yourself, and it won’t be a fashion faux pas.
I really hate T-shirts, like when men wear sport coats with T-shirts. I mean, come on, get a collar in there. Either these guys are showing that they’ve got big necks and they’ve worked out or whatever, or they’re just too lazy to put on a shirt with a collar. I think it’s a horrible look.
I’ll tell you what else is not a good look, generally — big clunky sneakers with a dress coat. Jeans are fine under that with a substantial sporty shoe, but not clunky white sneakers. It’s too confusing.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: