If you follow fashion, you know that white dresses are 'white hot' this season. They were all the rage at the Met Ball earlier this month - everyone from Kate Hudson to supermodel Karlie Kloss to her royal highness of fashion Anna Wintour donning them. And they were rocked not once, but several times, by Kate Middleton on her recent trip to India.
Fashion editors say there's lots to love about white dresses: They're crisp. They're clean. And they contrast nicely against the stark backdrop of a red carpet or the sea of black that typically dominate cocktail parties.
You can bet I'll be donning white dresses this summer. But it won't be because because my favorite women's magazines are telling me to do so. No, I'll be wearing white dresses because of my mom.
My mother called it the 'White Commandment' - that act of trading in dark clothes for white dresses when Memorial Day rolls around. White dresses, my mother used to say, were never to be worn outside of the three months of summertime unless someone was getting baptized, married, making a First Communion or graduating. It wasn't her rule, my mother used to remind me when I, on occasion protested. It was THE rule.
Growing up, I came to not only accept the rule but, in time, to embrace it. Even when I moved from my native Midwest to New York for college - and filled my closet with a sea of black (black dresses, black suits, black jeans, black tights, black *everything*), I still made room for white dresses to be pulled out in summer months.
The White Commandment came to create for white dresses in our family a sort of Beajolais feeling - that season you looked forward to all year long and then celebrated when it happened, as if it was a major event, a seismic shift.
To be clear, it wasn't the expanded fashion choices we came to celebrate. It was what those dresses represented.
I caught my first glimpse of what white dresses meant to my mother when, at age 7, I was preparing to make my First Communion. I stood in the kitchen in our house in Wisconsin as my mother sized up the white silk acetate dress I'd tried on. It had long semitransparent sleeves and a bodice made of lace and a dress that fell down to my knees in pleats. I thought it made me a fairy princess and wanted to wear it forever.
"White dresses are very important, Mary Elizabeth," she'd told me, hugging me to her. "In the church, they represent new beginnings. Saying goodbye to one thing - whether it's original sin or a previous stage in life. And saying hello to a new era. A bright new chapter. Just as in the winter, clean white snow makes way for spring, in life white dresses make way for the possibility of good things to come."
Looking for the possibilities in life is something my mother always liked to do. An optimist at heart, she always liked to believe the best was yet to come. Her love of white dresses was all part of that belief.
The notion that life could be 're-started', or 're-jiggered' literally and figuratively got her through the dark times - of which there were many. The white 'wedding' dress she wore the day she became a Catholic nun at the age of 22 ushered in a sad era in her life, in which she struggled to fit into a convent that wasn't a good fit for her at all and resulted in a nervous breakdown after nine long years of trying to be the perfect 'sister.'. More than a decade later, the white dress she wore the day she wed my father ushered in the era of an unhappy marriage - which ended when my father revealed himself to be gay and left her for another man. More white dresses would follow - mostly those my mother purchased for me, her only daughter. The white dresses stood in stark contrast to the darkness engulfing my mother as, chronic depression took hold of her.
Even at the depths of despair, my mother believed in the transformative power of life to twist and turn and evolve into something good.
The white dresses were part of that belief and consequently came to take on a bit of a sacred feeling in our house. Like rings of an old oak tree, the white dresses we donned on significant days marked the passages of time and the milestones in our shared lives as women. In her heart of hearts, my mother believed each time one of those dresses was worn that life was issuing a sort of 'do-over' or hitting a collective 'restart' button and that the best might, just might, be yet to come.
When my mother died suddenly five years ago and I entered her house for the first time post-funeral, my husband asked me what I was most intent on retrieving from the house.
Without a second thought, I responded: "family photos and white dresses", not necessarily in that order. And with some luck, we managed to find those dresses - my First Communion dress and high school graduation dress nestled in the recesses of my childhood bedroom closet. And my mother's wedding gown, heaped in a trunk in a bedroom in the house my mother hadn't touched in a decade. The three garments now hang in a place of honor in the bedroom beside my favorite white dress - the white Vera Wang gown I wore when I married my husband.
Today, my husband and I have four children. Only one is a girl. She is still a toddler but taking on a growing interest in dresses. She will join me this Memorial Day weekend in breaking out a white dress. I don't mind if she winds up spilling grape juice down the front of it or gets it stained with grass or mud or a combination of both as she inevitably tussles with her older brothers during our planned Memorial Day picnic. What does matter is that she'll be carrying on a tradition near and dear to my mother and her mother before her - the White Commandment.
In effect, instead of raising a glass, we'll be raising a dress to my mom as we usher in Summer 2016. Here's to you, Mom. And here's to white dressses and all of their possibilities.
Mary Pflum Peterson is a multi-Emmy-Award-winning television journalist. She is additionally the New York Times bestselling author of White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters, which chronicles the story of three generations of women in a decidedly complicated Midwestern family - and their love of white dresses.