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Alexandria’s Own Fashion Archivist

An Old Town native with vintage style helps others keep their memories alive.

Siobhan “Bunny” McDonough grew up running through the alleys on Prince Street, playing games with her brothers and living it up as a tomboy. She was prone to sulk whenever she had to wear a dress. But it wasn’t long before McDonough’s memories would feature the feminine world, too.

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Siobhan McDonough with her mother Janet M. Watkins in the dressing room.

Walking proof, McDonough stepped across the street from her childhood home on Thursday, Nov. 8, entering Cindy Conner’s house full of artfully strewn items from McDonough’s own vintage collection, a centerpiece of her vintage hats and handbags, fashion books and Vivienne Westwood pink plastic slingback pumps gracing the dining room table.

Approximately 80 guests — hailing from Alexandria, Baltimore, Richmond and West Virginia — witnessed the long-time Old Town resident in an element just as natural to her as the outdoors: fashion.

The occasion was McDonough’s book release party for her new work, “My Mother’s Dressing Room.” The collection of essays — and thoughts on life and the role of dress — archives McDonough’s own fashion collection. Pieces of jewelry and vintage-wear serve as focal points for McDonough’s vignettes on what memories and feelings surround each piece of her wardrobe.

The nostalgic nature of McDonough’s fashion sense hearkens to the time she spent with her mother, Janet Watkins, in her Prince Street home dressing room.

In the small, white room with little more than two normal sized closets and room for a dressing table, McDonough grew up watching her mother get dressed: “I remember sitting in this chair and looking out at the room and just thinking it was so big.”

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The dressing room at the McDonough home.

Mother-daughter time shopping, getting dressed, and eventually pushing fashion limits led to bonding: “I watched a lot of movies growing up,” said McDonough. “Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire … and being athletic I totally loved all her moves.”

Nostalgia is popular these days, but that wasn’t the case in the ‘70s, said McDonough. “Nobody ever really cared to do that kind of stuff. Wanting to throw that cool piece on, to celebrate it.” But that’s what McDonough loves most.

“I get a feeling of what is true to myself. I want to feel the piece when I’m wearing it, whether it’s the Walmart sweatshirt, hunting, fishing … It’s this truth about how I feel.”

“Clothes are art,” she said. “They don’t even have to be on the body — I would frame it.” In the living room of her mother’s home, McDonough picks up a 1960s Emilio Pucci shirt in velvet. “It doesn’t get much better than that when it comes to art,” she said. “I try to read about the designers. I want to know what they were thinking or feeling when they were creating.”

But even the best art is hard to love until it becomes personal. McDonough may love jeans and a t-shirt for their simplicity and comfort, but she finds meaning in fashion because of its power to hold memories. “The milestone pieces worn for prom and weddings, etc., as well as the everyday pieces or splashy pieces that accentuate our time going to . . . work, parties, on trips . . . [they] provide good memories,” wrote McDonough in an email.

And as much good art is born out of passion and personal feeling the artist cannot contain, it isn’t enough for McDonough to keep her vintage sensibility to herself either.

She wants to help others cherish their memories.

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“My Mother's Dressing Room” author Siobhan McDonough.

Her plan is this: “Make people archived books. I would photograph their pieces and put together a personal book they can put on their mantle, so they can have catalogues, so they can share it. I do know there are women who have these amazing closets in Georgetown, just like they are, they’ve got their own art collection.”

On Friday, Nov. 30, McDonough’s second book party takes place at Corinne Winburn’s house on 417 Prince Street at 6 p.m.

A third book party is slated for Thursday, Dec. 13 at Taylor Kiland’s house on S. Royal Street in Old Town Alexandria.

Hysteria will host a book signing on Tuesday, Dec. 18. After the Alexandria book parties and signings, McDonough will continue the book tour in Florida, Maine and other locales.

For more information on McDonough’s signing at Hysteria, call 703-548-1615 or visit www.shophysteria.com/pages/home.

My Mother’s Dressing Room is available for purchase at www.bn.com and www.amazon.com.