Southern Stylesetter

Split Level Home

Two personalities, one decor

By Jane Borden • Illustration by Meridith Martens

Since I moved to Los Angeles in 2013, I have become an importer of Southern arts and decor. OK, the accurate term is smuggler. Each time I fly to Greensboro for a visit or holiday, I pack an empty duffel in my suitcase. During my stay, I fill said duffel with whatever my mother and sisters are giving away. Paintings, objets d’art, platters, china, silver, crystal, clothing, shoes and pillows have all traveled the friendly skies on United Airlines.

Those are just the smaller items and recent acquisitions. When we first drove across the country, it was in a U-Haul filled with my grandmother’s hutch, plant stand and four-poster bed; my other grandmother’s gaming table; and an antique end table gifted from an aunt on my wedding day.

I don’t sell these things in L.A. But I do make money, in a way, as they relieve me from spending funds on new items. More than anything, they fill my home, though far away, with family and the South.

It creates an odd aesthetic, to mix the staid antiques with motley pieces I collected over years from Brooklyn galleries and thrift shops. When my friend Eliza, who grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, first visited my new L.A. home, she said, “It’s half Southern Traditional and half Weird Art.”

“Thank you,“ I said, having never felt more seen.

But only she recognizes the Southern items as such. Most people just think I have eclectic taste, and also, where in the world do you find these unique pieces so unlike SoCal style? Most of my L.A. friends live among mid-century furniture, low seating and Art Deco splashes. If I were in North Carolina, I’d be one among many who own a hutch. Here, they ask, “What’s a hutch?”

Context is everything. On the playgrounds and preschools of Raleigh, little smocked dresses are a uniform that makes some moms comfortable and others feel stifled. I feel neither, when my daughter Louisa dons her cousin’s delicate hand-me-down dresses. In L.A., where fancy kid clothes are black or stark or Stella McCartney, smocking makes Louisa unique. My friends see her roll up in a pale-blue pleated dress with ducks embroidered on it, and lose their minds. “Where did you get that darling dress?“ they ask.

“Straight off the runway of RDU,” I reply.

When I’m in my aunt’s hand-me-down black cashmere sweater, friends demand to know its origin.

“Montaldo’s,” I say.

Some version of “Mon–what?” typically follows. I imagine telling them that Montaldo’s is the capital of a small country in Eastern Europe where, much like my aunt’s house, women skip dinner to keep their figures, but have chocolate for breakfast.

Most recently, I have been pirating my sisters’ closets. After reading about the ecological (and global economical) damage of fast fashion, I have endeavored to purchase as few new articles of clothing as possible. I attend clothing swaps, hit up thrift and vintage stores, and when I’m home, ask my sisters, “What do you never wear anymore? Want to clean out your racks?“ I have returned to L.A. with dresses and blouses made of beautiful silk, or in pastel colors, or dotted with lace, or generally looking like nothing you’d find in a Silver Lake or Los Feliz boutique.

Our closet sessions are usually harried, so occasionally I pack items I didn’t have a chance to try on. Sometimes pieces wind up not fitting well or matching my skin tone. For whatever reason, I will bring these to the next clothing swap, where they stand out from the standard, casual, floppy SoCal sensibility. My friends delight in them, and I get something else in exchange.

In Brooklyn in the aughts, upstart vintage purveyors trolled Florida, looking for items to resell to hipsters. They hit up Florida because the region’s large retirement community led to a surfeit of discarded clothing from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Brooklyn was in turn flooded with pantsuits, shift dresses and branded fitted tees. The result was an entirely new style, spread by 20-something rockers and poets, disseminated by independent stalls at pop-up markets, and created, ultimately, by Miami octogenarians.

Sometimes I wonder if my sisters’ discarded pieces will start a Southern-style trend in L.A. Will preppy and frilly replace the current obsession with floppy and slouchy? Will there ever be a fashion adjective that doesn’t sound like a rabbit in a Beatrix Potter book?

My life is a split existence: California and North Carolina, urban and suburban, hard and soft, adventure and comfort. I worried over this split for a while, convinced that it was psychologically unhealthy to be divided. Now I embrace it. We are all a combination of circumstance and choice, where we come from and who we choose to be. You only get half of each. I often wonder what my wardrobe and home would look like if I had the time and means to seek only those items that precisely express my personality and style. But what if personality and style aren’t inherent after all? No amount of furniture, clothing and paint could change the fact that we are created by friends and family as much as by choice. Anyway, reusing my family’s items is a choice.

If I’m two, and always will be, then I can’t by definition be split. I must have created something altogether new. When Louisa pairs her smocked dresses with high-top Vans sneakers, she isn’t thinking she has a disjointed identity. She just thinks she’s dressing like Mama. 

Suspecting that Jane Borden is downplaying her roots among Eastern European royalty, Angelenos now refer to her as the Marquess of Montaldo’s. 

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