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'My daughter and I share T-shirts and a RuPaul devotion': a single mother’s guide to style

This summer I took my daughter to a Kylie Minogue concert in Edinburgh and, as a reward for a good school report, let her choose what I’d wear. She put me in a fit and flare polka-dot dress and black Dolce heels studded with lipsticks. I couldn’t explain that I didn’t want to wear their clothes any more because they dress the Trump women and so she was dismayed when I wore brown wedges, both PC and wrong with the outfit.

Walking up the cobbled streets to the castle, she kept urging me to go back to the room and change so Kylie wouldn’t see and have to stop the show.

I tried to deflect: “The other heels would be too difficult to walk in on cobblestones.”

“You could try! RuPaul could do it.”

Both very tired and aware I was wearing ugly shoes, I snapped: “I’m not RuPaul! I’m never going to be RuPaul!”

My daughter is only six. After her father and I divorced, she decided to start honing my style for me and, with the concentration of a small child newly entranced by Lego, became determined to build me into a brighter, tighter shape, as if that might somehow draw her dad back. She hid my trousers and nixed sensible shoes by saying, “Oh sorry, too small”, operatically miming a failure to fit them to my foot, like OJ trying on the glove in the witness stand.

RuPaul had emerged as her inspiration one day at the bus stop, when we couldn’t get her dad on FaceTime. She tried to channel her disappointment with the phone by asking that we use it to find “pictures of the beautiful black woman”.

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Which one, I asked. “The most beautiful one.” I pulled up Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Eartha Kitt. Logically, I knew my daughter was not asking to look at photographs of Eartha Kitt, but her unhappiness was about to spill over into rage and I was rifling through the internet as if digging in a cluttered purse for my asthma inhaler.

“The black lady with a boy living inside her!”

“Oh. RuPaul.” Of course.

I suspected she loved Ru so much because he is, like her father, a gigantic personality, who also takes up physical space with his height. Struggling with how to enforce rules as we set up a new home in a new country, I also wondered if she was drawn to the boundaries he sets each week, the calm, confident reprimand he issues his “children” when they are crossed.

Half our clothing was still in boxes, but with what we could access, my daughter guided me towards emulating RuPaul: high heels, hyper-feminine dresses with defined waists. It didn’t matter that her dad couldn’t see us because he was still in Los Angeles, nor that when we were in the same place he could barely – for nearly a year – look at me. This was the style she needed me to project in order for the family to reconfigure.

Emma Forrest and her six-year-old daughter

‘Mork & Mindy was the first of her T-shirts I co-opted.’ Photograph: Thomas Duffield/The Guardian

In the end, she surrendered the fantasy of her parents reuniting once she understood RuPaul was a man. Now she hastens me towards high heels and long lashes so RuPaul will want to marry me, in the manner, I suppose, of two teens in Clash T-shirts, drawn to each other as they pass on the street.

As she was honing her sense of what my style should be post-divorce, I was letting her down by pulling in the opposite direction and wearing a parade of vintage kids’ shirts from her closet. I’ve sourced them at thrift stores worldwide for her but ended up wearing them myself, for the playground and school drop-off, warping the line of Rugrats, Fraggle Rock, The Simpsons with my breasts.

I wore a Ralph Wiggum T-shirt to drop her at her first day of year 1, knowing the children would find Ralph irresistible. They resisted, and I went home realising how unflatteringly the design fell across my bust, for him and for me. Seeing my reflection in a bus window, I saw an Amy Poehler single-mum character who uses a warm childhood memory as cover for flaunting her hot body, and felt the shudder of revulsion I used to feel for adults I’d notice reading Harry Potter: this was not meant for you. Adulthood changes the shape of things.

Mork & Mindy was the first of her T-shirts I co-opted. She came back from class, pulled it off and, picking up after her, I instinctively put it on my own body, the same way I eat the food she leaves on her plate, the same way I transfer the baby moisturiser from her skin to mine when there’s a surplus.

She is young enough to still be in the honeymoon period of her love for me, even more so now it’s just us. If I carry her sleeping from a car, she kisses me gently on the lips and breathes, “I love you” without waking. I’m deep in her subconscious, which makes me feel guilty that I am also in her wardrobe.

Beyond the shared T-shirts and the RuPaul devotion, we also have clothes we match in. This concept of “twinning” constitutes a whole other psychiatric constellation. Everyone from capitalist behemoths Dolce & Gabbana to fashion-forward brands such as Batsheva makes mother/daughter clothes.

In my more cynical moments, I think mini-me dressing is for women who don’t have their own style, but that is disproven by my favourite Instagram star, Brooklyn’s Maayan Zilberman, the artisan candy maker who sews her and baby Freddie matching styles. Her own pink ruffled lace blouse was part sacrificed to make a romper, the sleeves now legs, and a banana-print dress gave enough to birth a leotard. I love Zilberman’s interpretation of sharing clothes with her daughter, because it’s a metaphor that says: I would literally give my right arm for you, but I am still me.

In my own case, I feel that twinning gives off the whiff of parental narcissism, and the possibility that matching outfits both infantilise the mother and pre-sexualise the child. I’ve leaned into it when I’ve felt depleted or unattractive, a visual trick – for others, for myself – to convince them, “She’s adorable, I must be, too.”

Twinning flirts with two worst-case parenting scenarios: that our children should not feel we own them, and that our children should never feel confusion about who in the relationship is the grownup. The boom also returns us to the middle ages, when there was no such thing as children’s clothing, and kids were simply dressed as miniature adults.

Being a parent and now a single parent, I’m examining my boundary issues under a microscope I took from someone else without asking. I didn’t gravitate towards wearing my daughter’s T-shirts because I think childhood is better or easier than adulthood. My adult life has been less confusing and more rewarding to navigate. One day, my daughter will understand, as I now do, that life can be beautiful and it can also just go wrong. She doesn’t need to know any of that, not yet. For now, I hug her tight, and – as if I am my own RuPaul, gently reprimanding myself for transgressing – give her back her T-shirts.

Emma Forrest’s novel Royals (Bloomsbury) is out now.

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