Forget Coastal Grandmother — Surfer Mom Reigns Supreme

Tell yourself a good story.

By Jenni Avins

or decades, getting dressed brought me joy. It was a mode of personal expression. Then, in 2020, my sense of style was swamped by two tidal waves: pregnancy and the onslaught of Covid-19. When they receded after my daughter was born, I found myself disoriented in my own closet. Piles of soft, stretchy clothes and supportive sneakers had washed up where my rigid high-waisted jeans, vintage cotton tops, and clogs had once been.

For a while, it didn’t seem to matter: Where was I going that I couldn’t wear leggings anyway? And why not wear a practical and comfy nursing tank for a couple months after breastfeeding?

I’ll tell you why not. Because it made me sad. Fashion is a story we tell ourselves, and for a while my story was that I was a milk machine who seldom left the blocks surrounding her house. Sure, my clothes were comfortable, but they made me feel even more isolated than I already was.

I didn’t have the time or energy for a closet overhaul (though I did eventually fold that nursing tank into a giant Tupperware with outgrown baby clothes). But this summer, something resembling a coherent vibe is emerging, and I’m grabbing it with both hands. This is not a broader trend inspired by influencers or prescribed by fashion editors, but rather a pattern that I’ve stumbled upon as my semi-dormant style sense comes back to life. I’m telling myself a better story.

You could call it a philosophy, or even, more generously, a look. It may only exist in my mind, but it’s brought a little order to my universe and is making me feel like myself again. Somewhere deep in my brain, a little fashion-loving lizard is shouting: Yes!

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Coastal Grandmother — resplendent in her linen pants and cream-colored sweaters, epitomized by Nancy Meyers’ heroines in their marble counter-topped kitchens, and implanted into our brains via TikTok?

The Coastal Grandmother lifestyle embodies relaxation — a world where it always seems to be late morning or early evening, which is to say, time for a latte or a glass of wine. This post-menopausal hour of relaxation, The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan brilliantly notes, is one that the CG has earned.

Well, this is not that. I’m a Surfer Mom.

The Surfer Mom isn’t there yet. Rather, she’s in the thick of it. Her kids are still young. She’d take a tequila-soda — and/or an edible — over some Chardonnay, and she may or may not be typing this from inside a coiled-up pregnancy pillow. (It hasn’t gone to a Tupperware yet; don’t judge.)

The author, Jenni Avins, aprés-surf.

She finds her sweet spot in quick-drying fabrics, drawstring pants, boxy sweatshirts, and baseball caps. Never in an underwire bra. She’s scrappier and sportier than the Coastal Grandmother, and more sun-sensible and sophisticated than the Roxy Girls of yore. She’s practical, colorful, and outdoorsy, more coastal than crunchy. Think Gorpcore goes to the beach, but less self-conscious. Who has time to find limited-edition Japanese hiking socks?

To be clear, I am actually a surfer and a mom, and while both catching waves and caring for my daughter bring me great joy, I’m still shaky at times doing both. I don’t feel wholly comfortable claiming either identity, except perhaps for where they merge. You might say, actually, that I surf like a mom and parent like a surfer — a little too cautious in the water, and a little too cavalier at the playground. But in both roles, continuing to paddle when terrified or exhausted has been essential — and delivered me at times, to happiness verging on euphoria. Whether or not I feel like an adept surfer or mother is irrelevant; I just keep doing it.

I’m bringing this same kooky determination to dressing these days. The Surfer Mom doesn’t ask “Am I pulling this off?” as she barrels full-speed ahead in a sweet pair of bike shorts with a perfect pocket for a kid’s smoothie cup. (It’s probably for a cell phone.) It’s not that I feel beautiful or cool with a miniature milkshake on my hip; it’s that I feel comfortable, and even a little amused. With a high-necked tank and a neon sandal, I’m telling the world—and perhaps more importantly, myself—that I’m doing this thing with joy and aplomb, and hanging onto my sense of humor.

The author with her daughter's cup tucked into her "smoothie holster."

Embracing an aprés-surf look long after I’ve rinsed out my wetsuit also reminds me that at some point earlier in the day (or the week, or my life), I was floating in the ocean staring at the horizon, or even better, gliding along a glassy wave. It’s helpful to access that same semi-relaxed and able-bodied person, for example, when we’re headed to Urgent Care on a holiday weekend and a squirrel has chewed through our power lines. (That was yesterday.)

Plus, when my one-year-old sends a spoonful of chili sailing through the air in my general direction, it’s nice to be wearing highly washable clothes. Form follows function, baby.

The Surfer Mom’s staples may be beloved, but precious they are not. Among my own, which tend toward a late ‘80s/early ‘90s color-blocking vibe (perhaps because that’s when I was forming my own impressions of what moms wear): sweatshirts from Heron Preston, Ilana Kohn, and Baserange; a long-sleeve tee from Smock; pale soft jeans and men’s swim shorts from Rachel Comey; a baseball cap from a local female-owned market; a handful of t-shirts from pizza places; a Patagonia fanny pack; Wayfarers on my dad’s old Croakie; yellow vintage OP corduroy shorts; drawstring pants from Isabel Marant and Xirena; a matching terry cloth shorts-and-tee set; a stripey Swatch; neon pink EVA Birkenstocks.

And how does a Surfer Mom dress up, you ask? Casually. When I went for dinner recently at a fancy Hollywood hotel, I skipped the ruffled sundress and went for a minimal black linen tank top with oversized white jeans, and a swipe of chalky pink Zinka-ish lipstick.

One need not be a surfer or a mom to embrace the Surfer Mom state of mind. Its power lies in liberation from any pressure a person might feel to look polished or cool. White sunscreen on your nose? You’re not a dork, you’re responsible. Unbrushed hair? You’re not haggard, you’re beach-y. Unidentifiable stain on your sweatshirt? You’re too chill to even notice!

You’re a surfer, mom.

Jenni Avins is a Los Angeles-based journalist who writes about food, fashion, travel, cannabis, and other topics. She also writes the Substack newsletter Have a Good Day: Living Well in Weird Times.

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