The Illicit Oscar de la Renta Gown That Changed My Life

Courtesy of Esther Amini

Courtesy of Esther Amini

Growing up in Mashhad, Iran, my mother was faceless and shapeless as she scurried through alleyways enveloped in chadors. “Koofta Bal-lah”—go to hell—my Jewish mother would curse through the suffocating drapes. While chadors were designed to desexualize women and erase their presence, Mom’s chador was incubating a headlong and noisy break for freedom. Just before leaving Iran, she struck a match, setting the black robes on fire.

Once in New York, Mom was unveiled and thoroughly seen. Speeding through racks in Saks Fifth Avenue, she snatched up dresses in crushed red velvet, densely sequined organza, and sumptuous chiffon—all with plunging necklines that screamed, “Look at me.” During my teens, those colors, patterns, and textures made me cringe. As mother and daughter, we became intimate strangers.

Her life of domestic chores may have been one of thankless servitude, but it also gave rise to gurgling grit. One evening, flipping through a fashion magazine, Mom stumbled across an Oscar de la Renta evening gown. Cupping her mouth, she muttered in Persian, “Oscar understands me.” His highly ornate, jewel-encrusted ballroom costumes smacking of Louis XIV made her cheeks flush and her heart pound.

After a prolonged silence, my mother turned to me and said, “Estaire, look yellow pages. Geeve me Oscair ad-dress.” Despite thinking she’d be better off locked in an attic, I complied. Sure enough, there was Oscar de la Renta’s wholesale showroom, tucked away in the garment district. I jotted the address on a scrap of paper, handed it over, and watched her slip it in her bra.

The next day, she sprayed herself with Chanel No. 5, donned her finest camelhair suit, slipped into caramel stilettos, and reached for her matching alligator bag, clutching me and the scrap of paper as she charged out the door. Ascending from the subway, trailing her broad back with a heightened sense of teenage self-consciousness, I wanted to dissolve into thin air. Struggling with feelings of horror, dread, and awe, I stood by her side feeling bond and bondage.

As she knocked on Oscar de la Renta’s showroom door, her face blossomed into an expression of entitlement. The door opened an inch and a tall blond gatekeeper with a patrician air asked, “Yeeeeessss?” dragging out each letter.

Mom pushed the steel door open and plunged forward with her chin stuck in the air like an operatic diva. Even more haughtily she replied, “I FROM PER-SI-A. BOUTIQUE IN TEHRAN. I BUY FOR BOUTIQUE.”

“Madame, do you have an account with us?”

My heart clenched. She shot me a look. I was now her apprentice. I stared at her showbiz face, trying to find mine.


The room was painted antiseptic white. A welcoming bowl of flavored mints sat in front of a white sofa. From under a gooseneck lamp, an impeccably dressed Cary Grant–like salesman quickly rose to shoo us out the front door. Sensing Mom wasn’t quite finished, I stood bolted in place. Instantly opening her alligator bag, she produced wads of $100 bills. In machine-gun patter and a thick Persian accent, she said, “I PAY CASH! My cus-to-mair buy my dress because unique. I buy one dress size 4, dif-fair-ent dress size 6, dif-fair-ent dress size 8, dif-fair-ent dress size 14. UNIQUE. My boutique UNIQUE! Pair-sian vee-men don’t like vair same dress,” then tightly pursed her bright red lips.

Unique was a word Mom had learned the night before while watching I Love Lucy. She loved the sound of this impenetrable word. Her capacity for bluffing her way into spaces that forbid entry was epic. Standing beside charlatan Mom, I shuddered, expecting the police to pounce and imprison us behind razor wire and chain-link fencing.

In the 1960s, Americans had not yet heard of Iran. It wasn’t on their map. Many thought of Iran, Iraq, and Syria as all the same. Americans looked confused when they asked, “Where is this country of yours, Iran? We’ve never heard of it. What language do they speak?” My mother quickly learned to say, “Pair-sia.” “I from Pair-sia, like Pair-sian cat…Pair-sian carpet.”

In Oscar’s showroom, that Iran was unknown didn’t get in the way. Stacks of $100 bills instantly legitimized her. The fact that she didn’t whip out a checkbook or credit card but instead had a bag overflowing with cash told the staff that she came from a land of oil wells. That, they understood.

As we departed, she cooed in a sticky-sweet voice, “Khoda Hafiz”—God protect you. Mom swaggered home cracking a crooked smile. In addition to an alligator handbag, she was now carrying four Oscar de la Renta evening gowns. Size 4 became mine. Size 6 was given to one daughter-in-law and size 8 to another. Mom triumphantly took possession of size 14. In front of friends and family, she staged biting parodies of the tight-ass gatekeeper and greedy salesman, winning rounds of applause. My father shook his head in disbelief. He ordered her never to return to Oscar—but Mom was already beyond right and wrong.

That night, as she stood before her bathroom mirror wiping off her makeup with globs of cold cream, I asked, “Mom, why did you go to Oscar’s and do what you did today?”

She swept her arms open and bellowed, “Vee all die soon. Een-joy!” I took this to mean that this was her happiness—not mine—and I should let her live it. Life is short.

After subsequent visits, Oscar’s staff addressed Mom by her first name, Hana. It was the 1960s when she opened an account under the name of her nonexistent shop, Tehran 2000, alluding to twenty-first-century space travel. The thrill of defying all odds, settling scores, and disgracing naysayers stroked a deep, soft pleasure spot in my mother, taking her light-years away from the chador.

My mother visited this showroom whenever she was in need of bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, wedding, or bris attire. The salesmen did a complete turnaround and now graciously welcomed this exotic Persian woman with her alligator purse, as Oscar de la Renta’s two-piece suits and regal gowns neatly filled her bedroom closet.