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The Mannequin In the Room

July 10, 2018
by Mary “Merv” Ladd

Years ago, I worked for a San Francisco woman who had a mannequin named Lady Lillian. I found that odd, but I was there to cook, not judge.

I took the job because it meant I could cook in a quiet space and would have access to health care.

The apartment was next door to a Samoan church and had wood floors and worldly decor: Buddha figurines, books, records, vintage textiles and funky paintings—vague reminders of my parents, as well as all those beloved Berkeley thrift stores. In the sunny kitchen, the table was set with paisley, sunburst, or smiling moon linens that were worlds away from the dowdy ones used in my work as a caterer.

I have a smidgen of control over what I wear—if I look different, I won’t have to talk about how I feel.

I was instructed to not call the mannequin Lillian; she was Lady Lillian. Propped up in a chair, all thin and beautiful, she gazed at me while I cooked. Lady Lillian’s costumes ranged from boho hippie with scarves, to dramatic 1940s glam queen, or 80s wearer of lace and big hair—all reminders of the people, music, movies, and books I dreamed about throughout my own life. I loved Lady Lillian’s attire.

I tried not to ponder the client’s process of dressing Lady Lillian as I’d make batches of corn-cilantro-bell pepper salad, salmon cakes, and frittata. Ignoring the mannequin across the room wasn’t easy. Her blue eyes and long lashes were always pretty and sweet looking. The client was on a fixed income and had major health issues, including a cancer bout—which I can now relate to. In facing my own breast cancer at age 39, I thought of Lady Lillian as my very own she-ro (she + hero)—because letting myself have fun with my outfits in turn kept my courage up to face infections, financial worries, blood draws, and the whole medical lot.

Usually I can’t sleep before a medical procedure. Having some Lady Lillian-style gear reminds me that I’m ok, I can do this. Moving with bandages, a sore neck, stiff joints, dry eyes or whatever the symptom du jour may be (including diarrhea and constipation in the same afternoon) is doable after surgery or chemo. Bring on the accessories!

My spiritual and physical awakening is fed by constant change. I have a smidgen of control over what I wear—if I look different, I won’t have to talk about how I feel. I have sworn off baggy pants because I don’t feel emotionally blue this year. Comfy pants presented ease and coverage for parts that became squishier after a decade of cooking for others and overindulging.

Bright colors help when I lack eyebrows and lashes due to chemo—and am trying to fight the urge to stay home, under the covers.

Lady Lillian’s wigs transformed her—something I aspire to. I guess everyone wants to be seen and heard. I am not shy. But things feel markedly different whenever I mouth the words to Air Supply’s All Out of Love while racking up tabs at Thrift Town, the mother ship for fabulous Lady Lillian gear. I (re)embrace the idea that every day is a costume party.

I used to stock up on “event pants” and the occasional sensible knee-length skirt. Now, I gravitate towards the brightest shades, and try small shirts and dresses on over my leggings, out on the storeroom floor. This is a slightly sweaty process, because I am going through instant menopause at age 40 (another medical cancer “gift”). Finding sartorial looks this way is freeing, and speedier than venturing into a claustrophobic dressing room.

I have had 22 rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and a full hysterectomy. I’ve been saying goodbye to the old, pre-cancer me, who could still have children and menstrual periods. I also say goodbye almost weekly to any item that reminds me of chemo. Bleh!

One new favorite outfit is a black flippy skirt over a pair of grey leopard leggings and a sleeveless grey t-shirt. Meow! The skirt is short and has straight lines of grey and white. A shiny neck scarf printed with silver-grey-pink paisleys is knotted in a giant bow. At a restaurant, a stranger tells me I look like a giant gift. That’s thrilling!

Thrift store shopping is easy. I grab a lime green short sleeve shirt (that I didn’t know I needed!). Bright colors help when I lack eyebrows and lashes due to chemo—and am trying to fight the urge to stay home, under the covers. A sports coat for a “business casual” conference tells the world I may be a contributing member of society. My green pendant necklace with a vaguely Celtic design adds the needed Lady Lillian flair.

Mary “Merv” Ladd spent too much time at Buffalo Exchange when she was at Cal. She lives and writes in San Francisco and can be found at

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