Is This The Real Reason That You Find It Difficult To Throw Out Clothes?

Is your unweeded wardrobe a PANDORA’S BOX of precious, and sometimes, painful memories? If so, you’re not alone, discovers self-confessed collector RUTH O’CONNOR. Here, she explores the DEEP EMOTIONAL RESONANCE that exists in the clothes we choose to hold on to …

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If Coco Chanel said that old clothes are old friends then I find great companionship in the gang of allies sitting slightly crumpled in my wardrobe. They abide, un-donated and un-dumped, to remind me of my first year in college, of trips to New York and Bangkok; of how never to send a letter written when drunk without re-reading it first and of the fleeting beauty and fervour of youth.

Unlike a hoarder who collects obsessively, sometimes secretly and often shamefully, my collection of clothes serves as a reminder of who I have been. I’m fascinated by those who easily bin their clothes when no longer fit for purpose – perhaps they see them merely as a covering for the body rather than a conduit for self-expression.

While others store up memories of the past in shoe boxes stuffed with tickets for trains that whisked them to adventure long ago, the clothes I hold onto are the (admittedly edited) symbols of my past. I keep the trousers that prove I was once youthful and svelte, maybe cool and certainly at liberty, rather than the ones that show me at my most rotund or frazzled. After all, who wants to frame a bad photo?

It’s to do with the fact they are extensions of our identity and ourselves because ‘style’  is how we’re judged by others. So clothes have a way of making you feel really good or really bad about yourself, they’re how others make judgements about you.

Linda Grant is a British writer whose novels include The Clothes On Their Backs and We Had It So Good. Grant’s non-fiction works include The Thoughtful Dresser, which explores our relationship with clothing; from how wearing the wrong garments can brand one as an outsider to “the shapeless pieces of dead sheep called Uggs”. Grant tells me that perhaps clothes become imbued with sentiment more strongly than, say, an ornament or train ticket because they are so close to the body that they are “moulded to ourselves”.

“But, more than that, it’s to do with the fact they are extensions of our identity and ourselves,” she says. “Because ‘style’ by which I mean your personal style, whatever it is, stylish or not is how we’re judged by others. So clothes have a way of making you feel really good or really bad about yourself, they’re how others make judgements about you. And when you look at old photographs of yourself, invariably you recognise and remember what you were wearing because the clothes stood for you at that moment in time.”

Grant says that while the propensity to hold on to an edited collection of clothing may not be entirely surreptitious, it is wrapped up in issues of vanity and self-esteem. She believes there are few people for whom clothing means nothing but function: “There are not that many of them, and very few are women. Because most women don’t look in the mirror and not mind what they look like,” she says.

A lamented omission is the pair of painted Doc Martens worn to a soundtrack of Radiohead’s Creep and Beck’s Devil’s Haircut, which I hastily threw out in a purging fit at my parents’ house. Each item sparks a snapshot – moments in time captured in the very fabric of the garment.

My own clothing collection is varied. I frequently box up items for the charity shop, but invariably retrieve them before making the trip. There’s the blue jumper my mother knitted at 16, my aunt’s vintage David Classic dress with the label that asserts it to be a “perfectly satisfactory garment … designed with carefully planned details to enhance and flatter the essential charm that is [mine]”, a 1970s bag in the shape of a Salem Menthol cigarette packet with their “full, rich tobacco flavour” and my mother’s “going away” trouser suit that is very Autumn/Winter 2012.

There’s the secondhand, skinny-ass denim jeans of my clubbing days; the boots bought with a voucher won in a competition at Rí-Rá nightclub for the best handbag, which will never again be wearable; maternity dresses and the wisp-waist dress worn by my aunt when she modelled in Slynes of Grafton Street in the late 1950s. A lamented omission is the pair of painted Doc Martens worn to a soundtrack of Radiohead’s Creep and Beck’s Devil’s Haircut, which I hastily threw out in a purging fit at my parents’ house. God, I miss those shoes.

Each item sparks a snapshot – moments in time captured in the very fabric of the garment. Standing on St Marks Place, New York when an old lady bellowed admiration
for my crocheted poncho. Rummaging feverishly in a stifling Phnom Penh market for just the right style of silk dressing gown. The denim skirt worn to an illicit beach party and the heady anticipation of youthful love. The personal can become the cultural, and many items belonging to individuals are now being archived as symbols of a collective cultural heritage.

There’s a solace to be found in cutting ties and letting go of material attachments, but even then, Lionel Shriver admits that before throwing things out she takes a photo of them.

When Zarrah Ahmed-Kadi sought refuge in Britain following the Sierre Leone coup, she brought an ensemble which featured in Black British Style at London’s V&A Museum and which serves as a vivid reminder of the urgency of her flight. “It was one of the things that I just got into a suitcase … It reminds you of your lifestyle back home, because these are the only things that we have that keep us in touch with our culture … well, one of the things,” she explains.

Not everyone’s wardrobe is worthy of the V&A though, and the question now is what to do with my oddball collection, with only sons to pass it on to (though it’s doubtful any daughter would want it either). The items are pretty meaningless after all, having a reference point only in my own head. Author Lionel Shriver wrote of her decision to discard a lifetime’s worth of “embarrassing crap” in the form of salt and pepper shakers and high school bumper stickers: “Objects are valuable purely for being mine, and they accrue still more value the longer I own them,” she writes.

There is freedom for Shriver in the dumping of her belongings. “In becoming bored by these totems of my past, I grow bored with the past itself – thus loosening the constraining ties that bind me to myself.” Gretchen Rubin, author of bestseller The Happiness Project, also reports that “outer order contributes to inner calm”. There’s a solace to be found in cutting ties and letting go of material attachments, but even then, Shriver admits that before throwing things out she takes a photo of them: “Jpegs don’t clutter the cellar”, she points out.

People find exhibitions of famous people’s clothing at the V&A or the Newbridge Museum of Design Icons fascinating, I believe, because people’s clothing somehow enables us to witness how they filled
a space in the world.

Wardrobe-weeder Tara Crowley of Optimise Your Wardrobe explains that “a woman’s wardrobe is an emotional place” where “clothes evoke certain memories, emotions or highs and lows”. Crowley says that there is always room for sentimentality, but that hanging on to non-sentimental items is an obstruction to the development of that “elusive” capsule wardrobe. For those must-keep sentimental items, she recommends tissue paper, good quality hangers and suit bags or vacuum bags that can be kept under the bed and out of the functioning wardrobe.

Carol Tulloch is Professor of Dress, Diaspora and Transnationalism at the University of the Arts London and a Fellow of the V&A Museum. Her areas of research include style narratives and personal archives. Tulloch recently held a symposium of fashion academics at the V&A titled Dress as Auto/Biography, to which fashion academics were asked to bring an item of some importance. At the event, Tulloch herself spoke of her grandmother, whose death struck her younger self so hard that her hair fell out. When she died, Tulloch requested two things: a sky-blue coat, and the suitcase her grandmother carried when she left Jamaica for England.

“I had always thought of her as a giant, but looking at the coat I know that she was a very tiny woman,” she reminisces. “Someone at the workshop remarked that I held the coat as though she was still in it … I remember holding her hand walking to the market.” There is something complex about holding on to the clothes of a loved one or of somebody who has died than those that simply belong to ourselves. People find exhibitions of famous people’s clothing at the V&A or the Newbridge Museum of Design Icons fascinating, I believe, because people’s clothing somehow enables us to witness how they filled
a space in the world. Similarly, the clothing of a loved one is tangible proof that they did somehow exist, but more than that, that they had a life.

Jeannette Montgomery Barron is an American photographer whose latest book Scene documents her time spent with artists such as Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 2010 she published My Mother’s Clothes, a photo essay documenting the wardrobe of her mother, who married the heir to the Coca Cola Bottling Company and who died having battled Alzheimer’s.

In her later years, my mother would do a sort of inventory in her closet – revisiting the clothes she had worn – the long ballgowns, and the short cocktail dresses. She had Alzheimer’s disease, so it was amazing to me that she still had these memories.

“My mother’s clothes were very important to her,” Montgomery Barron tells me. “In her later years, she would do a sort of inventory in her closet – revisiting the clothes she had worn – the long ballgowns, and the short cocktail dresses. She had Alzheimer’s disease, so it was amazing to me that she still had these memories.”

Montgomery Barron says that the process of her mother “visiting” her clothes was the impetus for the book. “It was for her – a tribute. And then it was a way for me to grieve, to try to understand her more through the process of photographing the clothes, really getting close to them. It has definitely been a cathartic experience.”

An item of clothing seems to take on the shape of the character who wore it, as a shoe takes on the shape of a foot. It is the imprint of memory in fabric form – a perspiration stain, a torn pocket or a dropped hem. Carol Tulloch wonders, too, what it is about certain items of clothing that allows them to be kept when a person dies, while others are cast out. But if there’s great responsibility in inheriting an item of clothing, there’s a greater guilt in giving it away. There is deep resonance in the clothes that we choose to keep.

Linda Grant’s novel We Had It So Good is published by Virago; Jeanette Montgomery Barron’s My Mother’s Clothes is published by Welcome Books.

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Which High Fashion Hoarder Are You?

1. THE ARCHIVIST

The dress she had handmade for her debs … the oversized sweater she was wearing when her ex told her that he’d met someone else – you can still see the spidery mascara stains on the cuff with which she dabbed her eyes. The archivist files outfits as if they were artifacts, reassured that if anyone wants to make a biopic of her life, they’ll find all the historical documentation needed there in her closet(s). LOVE magazine editor Katie Grand is one such hoarder: not only has she kept every item of clothing acquired since age 15, Grand files her garments in alphabetical order (A for Alaia, B for Balenciaga …).

2. THE RENEGADE 

Just because you own millions of euros’ worth of couture, doesn’t mean you have to be precious about it. The renegade hoarder holds on to everything, but keeps it in appalling condition. When Italian fashion writer Anna Piaggi died, kilos of highly collectible and valuable couture pieces were found rotting in cellars. Not afraid of taking a scissors to a one-off Versace piece when she fancied a new headscarf, renegade Piaggi and other hoarders like her differentiate themselves through a merciless de-sanctification of their collections.

3. THE SENTIMENTALIST

The most common type of fashion hoarder is the sentimentalist – a nostalgic, romantic creature, such as Carrie Bradshaw, who believes that each time we wear an item of clothing, we exchange molecules with that item and it becomes almost part of who we are. The clothes a sentimentalist clings to are not just reminders of the past, but intrinsic to their very identity.

4. THE CURATOR 

Viewing fashion as art, the curator’s closet is a priceless collection of fabulously impractical clothes of which they are immeasurably proud. Anna della Russo and Daphne Guinness, with their flair for fine art styling and blowing budgets bigger than their architectural shoulder pads, is an example of how a hoarder’s habits can be passed off as high-brow curating.

5. THE POLITICIAN

If money equals power, then nothing makes an authoritative stamp quite like a collection of 3,000 Manolo Blahnik sandals: just ask Imelda Marcos. Having a wardrobe so large it defies the realms of wearability sends out clear signals about your political potency – unless, of course, buried under all those fur stoles is a gnawing insecurity, as public opinion slips through your fingers like fine Italian silk.

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.

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