platform shoes, coveteur
Photo: Coveteur

An old acquaintance sent me a message a while ago, says Elaine Kingett. A photo of my ex’s jacket, draped on the back of a chair. ‘Is this blah-blah’s? Did he leave it here after dinner last night?’ She’d made a mistake. Got the wrong Elaine. My ex had subsequently married a woman with the same name. The image haunted me for weeks. I saw his shoulders, his broad back. I smelt him, felt him. I was in love with him, all over again.

In a small suitcase, in a wardrobe in my office, I have my late husband’s brown leather, Bass Weejun Penny Loafer’s. With the coin still in place. They are a death mask of his feet. In the same wardrobe, I have my daughter’s hand-smocked, Tana lawn, Liberty cotton baby dresses; my son’s blue and white striped Osh Kosh dungarees and brightly-coloured Nipper sweatshirts. I say they are for prospective grandchildren. But they are momento mori of a past life. When I wear a pair of my late mother’s flashy gold earrings, I say a prayer of guilty gratitude; remembering how often I would silently mock some of her more outrageous fashion choices. I used to sleep with my husband’s Gap grey T-shirt when he first left to work in Germany. In 30 years I had never lived without him and I wrapped it around me like a swaddling cloth.

The emotional power of clothing and of accessories is impossible to overestimate. Still, when I very rarely buy something new from a proper shop, I have to let it settle into my life before I can wear it. It has to hang around my bedroom, waiting to be introduced – like those rigid, crepe-soled, daisy-punched Clark’s leather sandals, bought in preparation for my autumn return to school. Every garment in my wardrobe has a story to tell; where I bought it, why did I buy it, where have I worn it? Who have I worn it with? I have a ‘lucky’ pink bra that fits me perfectly, bought from a charity shop with the labels cut out so I’ll never be able to replace it. I have a marmalade, panné velvet dress, made when I was a fashion student in the 60s and taught by Antony Price. I have the Chelsea Cobbler stack-heeled court shoes I got married in, I tottered ‘round the sitting room in them last week and marvelled at my past dexterity. I have a short-sleeved, screen printed, white, Haines T-shirt bought on a buying trip to New York for Fiorucci in ’73. My daughter wore it clubbing in her teenage years and then I did again in my Mad Brighton Widow incarnation in the early ‘00s. It’s in my chest of drawers, ripped under one armhole, ready for it’s next slice of life – probably at Port Eliot Festival in July, this year. If ever I had a talisman, if ever a story needed a final chapter, this will be the garment to provide it!

Elaine Kingett runs creative writing holidays in Spain and Wales and workshops in London; for more information check out Write It Down.

 

49 thoughts on “The emotional power of clothing

  1. What a moving story – my son’s old Osh Kosh dungarees are in the attic for exactly the same reason, and remember them again almost made tears in my eyes of happy times and times bygone. He is now 35 and no grandchildren in sight. Thank you!

  2. There are many items of clothing I can’t part with, even if they no longer fit. I have a pair of white size four jeans from my thirties (SIZE FOUR!) that I can’t part with. I like to remind, encourage and probably punish myself with the memory of being a size four!

    I have a few old long sleeved tee shirts that I only wear when I’m sick. They have holes and stains, but a softer and more comforting fabric cannot be found, so they stay as well.

    A lover’s shirt, a mother’s scarf, my father’s beautiful ties… Marie Kondo has no idea how much joy these old things can spark, does she?

  3. When my first daughter was born, my (unsentimental) mother appeared with a small pile of carefully saved baby clothes – a Viyella baby dress she made for me, a tiny soft blanket, an embroidered shift dress that was bought during my short sojourn in the states – treasures that I had never expected. When my second was born another little pile appeared – a Scandinavian style red knitted cardigan with dark metal buttons that my sister once wore and a handmade sun bonnet.
    The girls love the stories these clothes hold in their threads – and my sister delights in seeing her niece wearing a cardigan she remembers from her childhood.
    Now I hoard items for their potential future – a dress I made for my eldest, the soft grey cardigan with wooden rabbit buttons bought in France, a tiny animal print babygro along with my clubbing dresses and unsuitable heels. My eldest knows about this stash and sometimes berates me when I try getting rid of something – “But Mummy – save it for me/my child/when I am pregnant” … Clothes full of memories and love.

  4. A beautifully written and emotive article. Lisa’s comment is also pertinent – de-cluttering is not always good for the soul. Emotions can be attached to, and entwined in, all sorts of ‘things’. Hang onto the joy.
    Love this space, Alyson…your pro-age message gives me hope for the future. Cheers.
    Sharon Heath
    Full Bloom Makeup for Mature Women
    Melbourne, Australia.

  5. Feeling tearful reading this…clothes, shoes even my Nana’s elbow length kid gloves. All these things that I treasure are far more emotive to me than trinkets or even photographs. Perhaps it’s that they’ve lived a life just like their owner, that they’re more than just a single moment? They lived & breathed the person who wore them. Oh sweet melancholia I do love you.

  6. I have a Mexican hand-embroidered huipil (shirt) bought in the 1970s when I lived there. I wore it to a friend’s 50th two years ago and it was fun, but mainly hangs at the end of my wardrobe rail, along with my memories, plus the Ally Capellino silk shirt/jacket I’ve mentioned before, and a white Japanese-style shirt in a shape I love (longer at the back than the front), but no longer as crisp and white as I’d like.

  7. My mother’s leather gloves. When I wear them, I feel as though she is holding my hand. My son inherited my Dad’s 1970’s fedora and tweed jacket. He is the ultimate hipster in them. All the tiny dresses our first born daughter was given by my mother in law’s Italian employers. My youngest’s soccer and T-ball shirts she wore in grade school both in Memphis and NY. And two of my grandmother’s black velvet, hand beaded evening bags. So many more squirreled away, but these are the ones that still make me cry.

  8. Having always lived in properties without a loft/attic to store stuff and being far less sentimental when I was younger I didn’t keep items of clothing from any of my children or my deceased parents. HOW I wish that I had. The Osh Kosh dungarees that all three of my children wore until they were so soft, the tiny shoes that they wore. I was too ready to ‘move on to the next stage’ with my children and my parents. I did not have the best relationship with my parents and so eliminating ‘evidence’ of them seemed to be cathartic at the time. When I was younger I didn’t feel emotional attachment to ‘things’ at all but as I have got older, gained beautiful grandchildren and changed (matured?) so much it makes me sad that, at that stage of my life, I was too quick discard those memories.

  9. I thought I didn’t care that much about my clothing. But oh boy how wrong I was. There are several garments which I got rid off but still miss. But I still have that old torned silver purple flowered scarve of my mother. So Elaine thank you for let me remember all the memories which I do have.

  10. I still have so many of my mothers clothes. Her old Ossie Clark dress, her handmade blue velvet wedding dress….its been 13 years since she died and I just can’t get rid of bags and bags of her clothes. She was so stylish….and clothes were so her. I have a tiny blue Biba baby’s t-shirt …which was for my half brother who died when he was two days old and it broke my mothers heart forever.

  11. Thank you, Alyson, for sharing this gorgeous piece and, fellow readers, for your beautiful comments.

    My pieces include a mothbitten “Democracy Nepal” teeshirt, boxed Hermes scarves (for my nieces), my second wedding dress bought in Taos, my mother’s good black coat, a Giorgio Armani dress my fingers found on a clearance rack in Bullocks Department Store in L.A. Each is a poem only I can read.

    1. Ann, I love that: “Each is a poem only I can read”. Oh, how true – about more than clothes! Food, smells, letters, places, movies, music. What they might appear or mean to others can bear little resemblance to the emotions they stir in us. Having married late in life, there are so many memories tha I cannot share. I’ve tried, but become frustrated…the meaning resides in my soul, in the person I was then, and no words can convey the resonance created by those memories, those experiences from my past. I too have clothes, jewellery, and yes, elbow length white leather gloves given to me by the mother of my first boyfriend…which induce tears whenever I get them out if he treasure chest. Aah…thank you Alison, for opening up this topic. Clearly many of us have been moved.

  12. I never kept clothing, long gone the Biba trouser suits, silver velvet Bus Stop knickerbocker suit and other delights that of course would look weird on me now, and hopefully did then . I loved to dress wacky and different but soon tired of those outfits.

    Music to my ears on this post : Fiorucci [ Knightsbridge, crazy colours , emerald tunic top with kangaroo pockets at the front !!]and Chelsea Cobbler.
    I’d love those terracotta boots again , Chelsea Cobbler and Elliots …shoe heaven.

  13. What a lovely, moving piece of writing. Among the clothing items I have held onto, guiltily, are the dress I wore on the evening of my wedding, my daughter’s first tiny, white embroidered dress that my husband went out and bought whilst I was still at the maternity hospital, her first tiny red wellies worn on many winter walks on the beach. Each item brings back memories and feelings of those times.

  14. I can put that to everything in my house, down to who bought me the potato peeler and when. For birthdays and Christmas I ask for little things like a new ruler, a pencil, a watering can for the garden and when I use them I think of the person that gave them to me. Some things I have had for years like the paper towel kitchen roll holder which I was given 40 years ago when I got my first home. Our house if full of meaningful things

  15. I still have my (late) mother’s shearling coat – I was aged 5 when she bought it and still remember her giddy excitement. I wear it occasionally on winter walks along with one of her many pairs of leather gloves (exactly the same hand size). Also bits and pieces of kitchenware from childhood bring the memories flooding back. These precious things bring enchantment to the everyday. Am hoarding a few bits and pieces for my daughter but not sure she is of the same sentimental persuasion. Perhaps it’s a an age-related thing?

  16. This piece was beautifully written and so evocative . How amazing that memory and longing can continue to give us pleasure. You made my morning and inspired me to think about what I have and can still use from my grandmother: Earrings, necklaces, her silver service, a sewing kit, an old cape. How happy these precious objects make us Thank you, Allyson.

  17. Today, under my crisp and brilliantly white shirt, I’m wearing my mom’s old wool undershirt. I don’t know how that happened, as I stumbled in the dark finding clothes. It’s the second time I’m wearing it since she died in 2007.

    When my former husband died last year I yearned to go through his closet and find a shirt (possibly one I’d bought him) and to wear it myself. Of course that was forbidden.

    I have old things from past childhoods, going back 3 and even 4 generations, including little brown leather baby slippers now falling apart. I am very selective about what I keep… so these are treasures.

  18. I am a terrible hoarder of clothes simply for these reasons. Little cotton sailor cardi’s from Jacardi that my son looked so cute in and
    floral traditional cotton dresses that evoke memories of my little girl bouncing about with her two plaits swinging behind her! I cannot bear to part with such special items for they bring those happiest memories of precious days so realistically to life again. As for my
    tartan trousers Ive kept from the Baycity Roller days , they take me back to times when it I felt an adrenaline rush just to hear the band on the radio or see their faces on a copy of Jackie magazine. Fond memories of happy days

  19. My wedding dress still hangs in my wardrobe – I have worn the skirt a couple of times since but the top is tiny, fragile, French lace. When I look at it now, it is full of happy memories but also poignant because I was convinced I was fat. How fucking stupid can I have been? And I am off down to Sussex to visit my mother soon and claim her wonderful baking tin that she no longer uses but which was a wedding gift back in the late 40s. I use her 1970s scales most days in the kitchen. Comforting.

  20. I know exactly what you mean by the emotional power of clothing – I do have things that I cannot give away, mostly from my children when they were babies or toddlers – even a laundered handkerchief my dad left at my home after a visit.

  21. I have my grandmother’s leather fur lined gloves and a handkerchief she gave me. She died 36 years ago. I wear the gloves now and again. They are in my handbag now!

  22. Beautiful blog post Elaine. Justine Picardie wrote about the power of clothing in her book, My Mothers Wedding Dress, also a lovely read.

  23. Although I never keep any of my clothes for sentimental reasons, I do have a box with some of my son’s baby clothes…and I could imagine keeping some of my mother’s jewellery, for example. By the way, Marie Kondo advises to keep anything that sparks joy – regardless if the item is useful or not…..

  24. Wonderful article! I am sentimentally attached to most of the things I own, but especially to the clothes. Thank you for including Elaine’s expressive thoughts. It was just the distraction I needed from all the political stuff going on.

  25. When my mother died, I slept in one of her nightgowns until it was threadbare. Despite repeated washings it managed to smell like her and feel like her; perhaps it was grief or longing that made it seem as though it had come from her lingerie drawer that day. Now it sits in mine, a tattered pink rag I won’t get rid of.

  26. Such a great selection of comments to a very thought provoking piece. I am a researcher in positve psychology & dress connections and if anyone would be available for an interview to expand their ideas about the emotional relationship they have with clothes I would love to connect.
    Rebecca

  27. A beautiful ,moving, post. About keeping your new clothes for a while before you start to wear them , that struck a chord, I always do that ! Even as a little girl I would have to hang up my new dress where I could see it before I went to sleep, and first thing when I woke up.
    Now I have a special shelf high up at the top of my wardrobe where I keep the clothes that were special, usually worn on the happiest times, that I no longer wear but would never throw.
    I wish I,d also kept my Biba things.
    I have kept all the clothes from my childrens baby and toddler years, I hope some of them will be used again if they have kids.
    I recently said to my daughter, ” what will you do with all this stuff when I’m no longer around ? ” “I’ll probably keep it all ” she answered ! She has certainly inherited my sentimental gene.

  28. I TOO BUY something and do not wear it for MONTHS…………..
    ALL MY CLOTHING HAS A STORY AS WeLL………………
    THIS WAS BEAUTIFUL to read this morning in the rain sipping my tea!

  29. What a beautiful post and touching comments from others. Every now and again when having a ‘sort out’ I come across a box with my now 35 year old daughter’s first pair of ski boots and tiny sunglasses from when she was 3 years old. Just can’t get rid of them. Seems only yesterday……….

  30. Both my parents passed away last year, well into their nineties. Going through the clothes was the last thing I did before putting the property on the market, because I knew it would be the most emotional . I for sure will save and treasure my Dad’s fedora and suspenders, my Mom’s hats and several pieces that just remind me of her, including her rolling pin from the kitchen. So many wonderful things came from her kitchen!

  31. I have a floor length Biba nightgown in plum coloured soft fabric, high yoke and tight sleeves. I wore it round the house and felt like a Pre-Raphelite. I tried it on the other day and my arms won’t go into the sleeves! Who ever thought when you were in your twenties that your arms would grow! I love it; it hangs on the back of a door and when I come upon it I smile.

  32. I used to take my new clothes to bed for their first night when I was a child! I’d quite forgotten that until now. I haven’t a clue where such an idea came from but I remember my mother laughingly pulling my bedclothes back to reveal the fur boots I’d bought with my first pay packet. I can still hear her saying, “Yep, I knew that’s where they’d be!” and us both giggling. I was 15 and so proud of them.
    My daughter has had her grandmother’s fur gloves on her dressing table in faraway Oklahoma for the past 24 years and also keeps a sweater of mine tucked away in a drawer because “It smells of you, Mum!” Aw! Memories, eh?

  33. Stunning piece, makes me want to run home and rummage for the buried boxes of such treasures. Like many others I have selected children’s bits and pieces and some from my mother and aunt but also I treasure the pre-sponsorship Celtic shirt bout for me by my partner of 36 years when we first met (probably in celebration of finally finding a woman who likes football and classical music!). I also use some clothing as decoration, a reproduction 30s evening dress hangs on the back of our bedroom door looking beautiful so I can enjoy it every day as well as the once in a blue moon I get to wear it.

  34. Whenever I visit my beautiful and still stylish 93 year old grandmother we always end up upstairs looking through the clothes in her cupboard. She doesn’t go out much these days but as we take various items out on their hangers we can journey back to days gone by and together re-live those special timeswhen dressing up for this or that was an important part of her every day – we talk about the occasions when the garments were worn, who she was with, where she bought them, how much they cost; we touch, feel and smell; laugh. Each time I learn more about her. We discuss when she will wear this or that again and plan new and different combinations for the future. We look at recent purchases and bargains and relish any ‘good finds’. Of course most of the outfits will never be worn again – but just for a moment we can enjoy the past, imagine the possibilities and most of all – she can reminisce… and dream. There is such togetherness in these moments and I truly cherish them .

  35. I’m awaiting my first grandchild, a girl (yes!). When my daughter arrives home from the hospital, I will give her a box containing her very first fancy dress, my own first dress, doll clothing sewn by her grand- and great-grandmothers, and the tiny pink cowboys boots she wore as soon as she learned to walk. I’ve preserved this collection for a long time, and I’m happy to finally pass it on. May it spark joy for her as well.

  36. I also have treasures that I can never part with – my mum’s 1970’s silver lurex long dress I remember her trying on in the shop, my brother and I sitting on the floor underneath the racks of dresses (coincidentally tried on just the other day!), and the rhinestone evening bag she wore with it; a rose gold bracelet watch belonging to a grandmother I never knew; a tiny, plastic Miss Muffet-motif coathanger from my own infancy; the dress I wore on my wedding night; favourite childhood books and precious teddy; kitchenalia and Christmas decorations that were handed on when my mum went all minimalist. I mourn items I gave away in an attempt to condense my wardrobe that could transport me back to the time and place they featured more importantly in my life. Memories of all the bits and pieces that pass through our hands are strong and sometimes enough but it feels such a privilege to be a guardian of the tangible, to use or wear something and immediately breathe in the essence of its giver or former owner.

  37. This really hit home. I have shoes of my daughters. Her beloved little patent leather Mary Janes that she wore when she was three. I also have all of her ghillies and her heavy jig shoes from her years of Irish Dance–and we kept her favorite dance dress. I can’t bear to part with them because they bring me back to a great time. Same with the boys’ sports equipment and baseball mitts.
    I have a wood tweed cap that belonged to my dad. He loved that cap and wore it constantly–he picked it up in Ireland. I also have a navy wool sweater of his. And for the longest time, I could still smell his scent on it. I’ll tell you one of the saddest days was the day when I could no longer smell him from that sweater., Yeah. I completely understand the emotional power of clothing. This was probably one of my favorite posts ever!

  38. APPRECIATE YOUR POST ( AS ALWAYS ) BUT FROM A FAMILY WHERE EVERYTHING HAS A STORY AND HAS TO BE STORED, DUSTED ,MENDED AND LOOKED AFTER ,I WOULD MUCH HAVE AN EXPERIENCE , TRIP, TIME FOR CHATTING OR TEA OR JUST TIME SPENT TOGETHER THAN THINGS ! ESPECIALLY CLOTHING

  39. Wonderful Post-!
    I loved reading All of the Replys – All ring so True-!

    I Treasure a Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt of my Late Husband’s –
    It’s made of the “Softest Ever” Beige Corduroy – His very Essence is Present in an Instant –
    His Sensuality – Intellingence – Sensitivity – Talent – Everything . . . . !

  40. Hanging on a hanger in current ‘work room’ is a tiny 2 ply cable sleeveless sweater, knitted to a french pattern. Did these now huge, 6’6″ 18 stone men really wear this? did I just knit this up for them? That thin 2 ply strand of emotion and memory ties me to another world, another life. This weekend they will all be home, their father is 70: they will spend the time looking at old photographs of times past, wearing things I made for them opening the memory bank. It is so wonderful to be reminded of these times. Thank you Alyson.

  41. Beautifully written and most evocative post here. I belong to the keepers and though I have bought and read Marie Kondo certainly things are staying despite recent move and general downsizing of our house. What floated to the surface when I packed ? Tiny coloured socks I bought for my firstborn son who is a strapping six foot man aged thirty now. My 1977 wedding dress : cream coloured rayon sweater dress with some stripes and fair isle detailing. And my favourite 1980s dress : red silk English Eccentrics with graffiti like print. I found a photo of my wearing this looking super glamourous holding that baby. I photographed it with iPad so have a record of myself as that young woman. Dress was featured in V & A ’80s fashion exhibition so I might donate it to the museum along with some other pieces by same designers. Most of special clothing designed by my deceased mother I have given away so I can move forward unencombered . This is a significant topic which books on de cluttering don’t help with too much.

  42. I still have the dress I wore for my 18th birthday (I’m 54) hanging in my wardrobe and the outfits I brought my two sons home in after their deliveries plus their first shoes. I also have a jacket from Next’s first season (1982 I think) tucked away. I’ll never throw them away. It’s little wonder I have no space in my overstuffed wardrobe. Thannkyou Elaine for allowing me to feel normal about this collection!

  43. I took my mum’s worn horn handled bread knife when I went to college, I don’t really eat bread, but I remember being in tears when I thought I’d lost it.
    My mum used to wear our old M and S night dresses and vests to bed.
    My sister has kept the tee-shirts given to our niece and nephew by me and my sister.
    I have a pair of butter soft chocolate brown Chie Mihara Edwardian front laced boots that I have only worn once, but which give me joy every time I take them out and look at them.
    My sister still remembers a pair of powder pink court shoes I bought when I was a teenager.
    I still remember a pair of multi coloured sky high stilettos that my sister had when she was 16 and able to run about in heels.
    I have clothes that I don’t wear, but can’t get rid of, a beautiful devore silk gold and green frock coat I wore to a wedding, a pair of pillar box red round toed court shoes……………..it’s all about memories, stories and feelings

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