Eighteen-year-old Memphis Murphy has just called dibs on her mother Sydney Oliver's padded, chain-handle bag — while her mother is carrying it. Sydney can't help but laugh at her daughter's audacity and perhaps at the fact that, for all their aesthetic differences — one's style is inspired by early-noughties punk rock, the other by presidents' wives and disco — they're not so very different.
For Memphis and Sydney, fashion has functioned as a shared passion — and career (Sydney owns a designer vintage clothing rental business and recently opened a talent agency, while Memphis, a DJ and model, works primarily with fashion brands). Fashion has also been a testing ground, a bonding activity for a family of two who mean everything to each other, and a safe space for Memphis, who is trans, to become who she was always meant to be. And in their shared growth, style has become a conduit, especially in the bags Sydney hands down — or the ones Memphis sneaks from her mom's glam-prim wardrobe to pair with her own slashed slogan tees and diamanté low-rise denim.
Still, spend any amount of time with these two women, and it becomes evident that, even in a relationship as close as theirs, there is still room for a parent to view their child with a sense of wonder, to marvel a person who was formed in their image and brought up with their guidance, but is still very much her own person. At various points during our conversation with the two women, Sydney looks at her daughter with a mixture of pride and worry and doting exasperation that, altogether, we might call love.
Style is an individual choice, but the people we're close to often weigh heavily on what we wear. So ahead, in their own words, Memphis and Sydney explore their sartorial resemblance (and differences) — and the knowledge, the understanding, and the journey they've taken side by side.
Sydney Oliver: "I collect tons of clothes and bags, and when I’m done with them, I eventually say, 'Oh, do you want this?' I’m always so surprised by what she wants. It’s totally not the style of what I would want, but then she has things I liked 20 years ago. So it all resurfaces."
Memphis Murphy: "I'd say I’m definitely inspired by my mom. Her being in fashion and getting to grow up around that is awesome and has helped me want to dress nice in my own way, putting together things I feel fit my personality the most. We have different taste — I’d say my style is very early 2000s, kind of '90s, but with a futuristic twist. With my hair, I like to do a lot of current trends with colors. But with fashion, I’m really obsessed with low-rise flare pants and crop tops and certain iconic brands from the early 2000s."
SO: "[Her style is] scary. No, I’m kidding. Well, no, I’m not. Her style is so unique because she picked up one of my habits, which is thrift stores. When I moved to New York, that’s all I could afford. So we would go shopping together a lot — it was a way to keep connecting, plus not spending a lot of money. We’d find some incredible things, because we both have great eyes. There are probably five pairs of scissors in her room; she cuts every piece of clothing. She buys something new, and I’ll see the bottom of it on the floor. I’m like, 'Okay, what happened?' So she’s very creative."
SO: "[My style is] conservative, yet edgy. I don’t think I dress my age —"
MM: "What does that even mean, by the way?"
SO: "I don’t know! I’m from Ohio, so women, stereotypically, don’t dress the way I dress. I love really nice things, and presenting well is so important to me. And working in the fashion industry for so long, you start developing your own uniform. I find that I wear that uniform —"
MM: "Every day. I would describe my mom’s style as regal, kind of like an English queen but very '60s and spunky and disco-y. Very lioness vibes. The jewelry — I feel like this is so Leo."
SO: "I love that '60s vibe, too, because I was born in the '60s, so I just went along with that my whole life."
MM: "She tells me all the time like, 'I want to see you in a nice dress.' I think she’d like to see me more seamless."
SO: "She loves getting her hair braided, so that’s part of her whole style. I love it when it’s just pulled back from her face. She looks very beautiful, and she can’t stand that. But she has to have her own style."
MM: "I dress up sometimes. If it fits."
SO: "Well, if there’s a funeral."
MM: "No, no, not a funeral."
SO: "You know what I mean! I worry about those days. What if one comes, what are we going to do?"
MM: "I can pull it out."
SO: "I would like to see her be a little more like a chameleon, but I think that will come. I’ll just let her develop. I’m not shy about saying how I feel, but I would never say, 'Don’t wear that.'"
MM: "Just me being trans, style really comes into play. When I was a kid, I had boy [school] uniforms and had to wear them every day. It was honestly traumatizing. You encouraged me to dress how I wanted, and that was a really big factor in our relationship, enforcing the woman that I am. She would always let me walk around the house in princess dresses, just being really chill about it. And that’s something I really appreciated, especially coming up and trying to find my own style as a trans [woman], trying to figure out what fits me and what makes me feel the most comfortable. There was also a moment, when I first started sixth grade, when the transition started, where [I went] from trying to present more masculine or as a gay man to being a woman. And that was something she figured out, [that I was] sneaking bras to school and stuff like that."
SO: "Well, you know how I found out was from our doorman. He said, 'Memphis, before she goes to school, she comes down in the lobby and changes her clothes.' I was more worried about her safety than anything. But then, as her transition became —"
MM: "Serious and real."
SO: "Serious and real, then obviously, everything started to transition. And then I felt way more comfortable, because we’d go out, and people would say, 'Welcome, ladies.' Like all of a sudden, I felt safer once everyone else was seeing us as that."
MM: "Also, I think you seeing me more comfortable with myself probably helped you feel less worried about it because you know I’m confident in my look. I do this because this is who I am, and I’m not really afraid of what people say."
SO: "She's more confident in how she presents than I am as a woman of 53. It’s crazy. That self-confidence, she has extra."
MM: "For me, you’re the only woman in my life I’ve ever had as a role model to look up to. And so I guess I learned about femininity through you. Just seeing the way you live your life, your everyday regimens — being in the bathroom doing your hair for two hours or putting on makeup."
SO: "I find a lot of things in our DNA are just the same. I was adopted, so she’s really my only blood relative. She's a DJ, I was a DJ. For the most part, we always agree. So I realize nature versus nurture — a lot of it is just nature. And people say, when they see us photographed, 'You look so much alike when you look at the faces.'"
MM: "Having a single mom who was so accepting, that was a huge privilege that I never take for granted. And definitely passing your knowledge as a woman, the way you're perceived by the world as a woman, taught me that there are differences in the way people will treat you as a girl and especially as a trans girl. She definitely helped me prepare and let me know that it wasn’t going to be easy but that she was going to be there for me. I just feel like you teach me everything you can."
SO: "We both have learned so many lessons. I definitely think I passed down a lot of responsibility factor. Even at school, she’d be on time at 7 in the morning. She’d get up herself. Passing those things down, when you don’t even know you’re doing it — maybe she learned through observing — that’s really nice to know. When she’s not with me, I know she’s still being a good person."
MM: "Something you’ve done that means a lot to me is listening to me and hearing me as an actual person, not just a kid."
SO: "I guess what Memphis has done for me without even knowing — it sounds like a line from a movie, but she made me a better person. Before she came along, I was a little bit frivolous of a person working in the fashion industry. And then when life hits you, and you have a person who’s going through serious, adult issues, it changes everything. It changed me and my perception of how catty people were, my perception of what real problems are. So without her in my life, I’d probably be a really shallow person. My friends are like, 'You’re such an amazing mom.' I’m embarrassed when they tell me [that]. I don’t look at it that way; I just look at it like being a parent. For me, I probably grew up 20 years later than I should have. I left home very young, when I was 16. My mother died when I was young. I didn’t have a lot of parental guidance, and I never really wanted to have kids. And when I was 34, I got pregnant —"
MM: "And you had the baddest bitch."
SO: "She and I will always have this special bond from everything we’ve gone through. And it’s not even done. I can’t wait to see what she becomes, what she does with her life. We had to make some big decisions, and those decisions were difficult to make. And now look at who she's become. She’s one of the most positive people I know. And she’s always trying to help people; that’s one of her strong suits. Memphis might as well be a psychiatrist."
MM: "If you’re able to help, then help. That’s how I think about it. To help someone going through a hard time, fucking do that shit because a) it’s good karma and b) helping people just feels so good."
SO: "I look forward to what's next. Who knows?"
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.