Before I ever knew anything about fashion, I dressed as if I did because of my mom.
From the time I was a toddler, she made sure I had nice things to wear, from dainty dresses with coordinating child-sized clutches for the holidays to leotards in lots of different colors for dance class.
When I got a little older, we'd take day trips to South Hills Village to do back-to-school or summer shopping in the "big city," or at least that's how Pittsburgh seemed to a kid from a small town in Ohio along the northern panhandle of West Virginia.
"It's like dressing up a doll," my mom would say with excitement about outfitting her only daughter. She still claims it's easier for her to find things for me than for herself.
This fixation with fashion was never about vanity. My mom's personal style has always been on the conservative side; she'd trade a high-fashion frock for a comfortable fleece pullover any day. As I grew up, I started to realize that equipping me with clothes was her attempt to cloak me in confidence, something I sense that perhaps she craved. Even now when I'm concerned about a situation she tells me, "Why do you doubt yourself? You work hard, are well educated and have pretty dresses."
My mom was the youngest of four in a middle-class family. Her clothes weren't abundant, and swapping sweaters with her older brothers wasn't unusual. Her sister was six years her senior and wasn't around much by the time my mom turned 12 to offer her hand-me-downs. Even so, some of her most talked about childhood memories feature clothes as leading characters.
"I remember when my dad gave me $20 to take the bus to Wheeling to buy an outfit and get something to eat," she occasionally reminisces. Then there was the time he surprised her with a maxi coat. These nicer outfits she'd take precious care of so she could get maximum wear out of them, a trait she still possesses and has passed along to me. When she's ready to part with them, she pays them forward to local shelters.
A teenager of the '70s, some of her favorite TV personalities -- from "The Brady Bunch" girls to Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore -- were beloved for their wardrobes. Hearing her stories I gather that they all have something in common beyond enviable style. In her eyes, they were vivacious, ambitious and, in the case of the latter pair, emitted a spirit of strength and independence. They were things she wanted as a child, and now wanted for her child.
My mom taught me to dress for the life I wanted to live. In college sometimes my peers asked me why I rarely showed up for class in sweats or a hooded sweatshirt like most of the student body.
"I don't know," I replied. "That's just not how I was raised."
At one of my internships at CBS News in New York, I was mistaken once for an evening news producer because I was wearing a blouse and a pin-striped pant suit. It wasn't extravagant or expensive (a credit card doesn't buy good personal style, after all), but for a few minutes it cast me in this newsroom worker's eyes as something other than an intern. "My mom would be proud," I thought.
Over the years shopping has served as a backdrop for many moments with my mom. Now that we live in different states, we meet up from time to time for an afternoon of boutique browsing and bonding, not really looking for anything in particular. Other times we do go out in search of something specific. In shopping, as in life, we've built a trust and honesty to tell the other if she's making the right choices, even when she doesn't want to hear it.
There are times when shopping helps us smooth the surface after a disagreement. Phrases like "I hear cobalt is a big color this season" or "it takes a special person to pull off a fur vest" become neutralizers that prompt us to set aside whatever our differences are and just talk. When I shop alone I miss my mom's company, but her repartee still plays on a loop in my mind: Look for wash-and-wear pieces that don't need to be ironed -- they're easier; consider what fabrics will stretch with wear when selecting sizes; avoid picking peep-toe pumps for an outdoor event as you could get rocks in your shoes ... and the list goes on.
Now clothes aren't only what I wear but also are a large part of who I am as a fashion writer. I'm more aware than ever of their potential to unite, divide and stir emotions, both good and bad. I meet stylists and write about designers who consider their clothes works of art that can transform the body from a blank canvas into anything people want to be.
I look up to lots of them, as well as to some of the other writers who document their work. But among the Cathy Horyns and Anna Wintours I respect, at the top of my list is Patty Bauknecht -- my mom, my first fashion influence.
For more from PG style editor Sara Bauknecht, check out the PG's Stylebook blog at www.post-gazette.com/stylebook. Follow her on Twitter @SaraB_PG or email email@example.com.