One cannot escape the subtle associations of clothes with their wearer. I remember a dress worn by my mother - it would have been in the '30s. It was made entirely of a crisp, silky lace in the most astonishing shade of deep moss-green , through which twinkled a thread of bright violet. It had its own slip of heavy, moss-green silk. The lace skirt of the dress was pressed into many pleats , and the bodice was embroidered into an openwork fan of lace that would do wonders, even for a perfect neck and face. The belt was of interlocking green and violet suede rings. It was enchantment. The kind of dress Mrs. Darling, in Peter Pan, would have worn (to go out with Mr. Darling) when she came to kiss her children good night before they flew out the window.
A fragrance comes back to me when I think of that dress, a fragrance that clung to mother's clothes, and to certain things she kept in a top drawer. It's the faint scent of face powder. In those days, women used loose face powder. Mother kept hers in the top drawer, in a box made of glass, shaped like the cup of a lotus, with a delicate tortoise-shell lid. Other treasures were in that top drawer: an ivory-handled nail buffer; a tortoise-shell tray; a little oblong ivory box that said ''stamps'' on the lid in faded gold script, but inside were tiny silver coins from Australia - threepences. She called us chooldren, mispronouncing the vowel. ''Chooldren, I've told you not to play with my things in the top drawer. Those are Mummy's things. Now that's an order.'' But we would get into something else.
To mother's past belonged fanciful clothes. Where did they come from? We children certainly asked, and Mother certainly made up stories about them. She was nothing, if not an artist of make-believe. But if we were not entirely sure where they came from - a certain long, chiffon scarf, in the colors of dusty stained glass? - we knew where they went: into a dress-up box.
We took it out on rainy days. Here was a cloak, with a hood, constructed of lustrous black satin, reversing to an oyster-white satin, the planes of which reflected a glamorous silver light, as did the square-cut ''diamond'' brooch with which it clipped at the neck. Mother said it was an opera cape. We never saw her wear it. Perhaps it came from her sister, our Auntie Nip, who made more daring forays into the society of the times.
She did, however, occasionally wear the kimono. It was a knock-your-eyes-out extravagance. We knew where it came from - from China! The very word conjured up a perfume of tea boxes, emperors' jewels, opulent worlds glimpsed beyond storybooks, and seas. A full-length kimono made of paper-thin satin of a flaming sunset salmon-pink, its back seemed to be almost inked with a huge Chinese dragon, actually embroidered in cobalt-blue satin thread. The big looping satin sleeves fell into the customary pouches of a kimono, and Mother told us a story about a threatened emperor who saved his little Pekingese dogs by hiding them in the sleeves of his kimono.
I remember, too, her bed jacket. That most fragile, most feminine of garments. Once, a generation of mothers wore little lacy jackets of openwork knitting over their nighties. It was undoubtedly for modesty, as well as to keep the chill off the shoulders in bedrooms before the age of central heating.
I can see mother in her well-washed bedjacket, sitting up in bed beneath her Jaeger rug, now a family heirloom, comfortably leaning into the groove of a pillow, the very image of matriarchal security, her hand with its gold wedding ring holding the time-mottled copy of ''An April Baby's Book of Tunes.'' On the cover it only said: ''By the Author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden,'' because, said mother, the author's name was being kept secret. From this she would read to us chooldren whimsical fragments about three other little sisters, called April, May, and June.
What becomes of these garments, these treasures, at the mere mention of which arises a mother's character, her whole life? A pair of gloves, that have taken on the shapes of her fingers. A bag of brown pigskin, given to her by Dad, to be handed down to oldest daughter: a beloved, lifeless envelope with its worn shine , its tracery of old scratches, its thinness, evoking the ''war years'' when it was used.
One's mother, it seems, has no anonymous clothes. When we were in high school there was a certain housedress, made of turquoise seersucker with a tiny flower pattern, and bits of rickrack braid at the edge of short sleeves. When mother wore it she meant business. I can see her standing at the kitchen counter cutting sandwiches for our lunches. She'd give a swift turn to a pile of sandwiches under her left hand while, with the knife in her right hand, she'd swipe the crusts off with an efficiency that was ferocious, almost. I approached her cautiously when she had that housedress on.
Now, 40 years later, three sisters get together. One has only to say: ''Remember that awful bathing suit that mother wore at Lancing? . . . Remember the smooth felt of that cloche hat - it was a cloudy claret red color, with the feather that curled around her cheek? . . . Remember the green lace dress. . . . ?'' And we lift, metaphorically, from the place where they can most easily be retrieved, those stuffs, shapes, textures, imbued with the elusive qualities of their owner.