Fashion, Licentiate Columns

Licentiate Column 09/06/11: Clothing as Memory

How do you remember people? Do you use mnemonics, or acronyms or mind mapping? Or are you one of those people who has an eye for the little details? Is it the face you remember, or the voice, or the perfume?
Memory is a funny thing. Anything can trigger a once-buried picture into either painful or joyous resurrection from the deepest, darkest regions of the hippocampus or temporal lobe.

In a hens-teeth email from my father (as in ‘as rare as..’) he wondered what images of him were built in the minds of close friends and family.

We had just been sent a picture of my grandparents when they were both very young. My grandfather is impossibly chiseled in white tie and tails. My grandmother is radiant in floor length chiffon, blissfully unaware of just how many children she’s going to have. It is Christmas Eve. She is sporting a brand new engagement ring. They are both very happy.

They are not the parents my father remembers. He remembers my grandfather with a perpetual cigarette in his right hand. I barely remember him, because he died when I was very small.

It’s the little details that you remember, the trivia that acts as infill and enriches the bigger pictures. You might remember a person’s filthy anecdotes, you might remember their grating verbal tics. All of it adds up to a memory. I remember a person’s clothes.

It might seem shallow to see the world through material things (in both the literal and figurative sense) but your memory glues itself to the aspects of a person to which you pay the most attention. It seems that I’ve been a clothes monomaniac since conception.

My father? Shirts. Floral shirts form Liberty, stripes by Paul Smith. My mother? Black Agnes b and rows of jersey wrap dresses hanging in their dry cleaning bags. My brother is tracksuit pants occasionally tucked into socks, my sisters are cocktail dresses and bright, Alexander Wang-ish vests, the collars slightly blemished by the odd dab of foundation. My mother’s mother is a pair of neatly ironed slacks in stone and olive.

It’s this way of thinking that leads me and many others to believe in the importance of vintage clothing. Every piece tells a story. It might mean nothing you you, but that tie belonged to a father, a brother. Even though they may have discarded it, it can still hold some powerful and distinctive memories for another person (if not a powerful and distinctive odour). That Penneys top may be super-cheap and on-trend, but is it really that special? Is it the stuff that memories are made of?

This isn’t a diatribe against cheap clothing and for designer goods, it’s a call to realise how important old clothes are. Because, when a loved one leaves you, what are you left with? There’s you. There is a full, yet empty wardrobe. And there are your memories.

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7 thoughts on “Licentiate Column 09/06/11: Clothing as Memory

  1. >This post really touched me! I just love it. Vintage clothes are amazing. There will always be a story with vintage pieces. Penneys is Penneys. End of story. Like you, I remember people by what they wear. :)SarahD x

  2. >What a thought provoking post…about a simplistic but rarely discussed phenomenon! I remember so so so much details about peoples faces. I met a girl years and years ago, and she had a freckle on her lip, like the pink puffy bit. I'd never seen someone with freckles on their mouth before. Then years and years later, when she'd shaved half her head, had a tattoo on her face, and wore make up then Lilly Savage, I saw that freckle and went 'Oh Hi Lisa!' Memory is a strange thing! x

  3. >Smells are the thing I remember most about people – anytime someone walks by me wearing certain perfumes/aftershaves, I am reminded of someone.

  4. >That's a really beautifully written post. My grandmother once allowed my sister and I to raid her attic, knowing our love of vintage clothing and black and white photos. I found this great mens grey aran knit cardigan. A couple of months ago we visited her and I was wearing it, I walked in and she instantly recognised it and could tell me a story about when my grandfather had worn it. Was really touching and I will always treasure the cardigan because of that. Things like that make it really irritate me when people call clothing fickle, sure it's not going to save the world but it's not shallow either, it's remarkably personal.x

  5. >A (slight) tangent – faux vintage and or new distressed by design. Why the demand? Just a look or a wish to manufacture sell and acquire memory? Shelley had it sussed-'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard   Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on'Maybe if as he concluded you can't beat real -'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'But as demand will outstrip demand I suspect the soft pipes will continue to be drowned out by the clamor of rocks and denim colliding in a tumbler drier somewhere near Bangalore. 

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