Few things trigger such vivid memories as a special item of clothing. Whether it’s the dress you wore when you first fell in love or a bag your mom gave you as special gift, your closet offers a colorful window into your past.
I was still very young, when I discovered that my mother was married in a ‘’tailleur’’-a chic blush pink color French Lace skirt suit that hung in the back of her closet. It seemed a mysterious and glamourous thing, and also a reminder of how little I knew about my mother’s past and how much I had to learn..
Why a ‘’ pink tailleur’’? I asked her. ‘’ Why not?’’ she replied.
When I was about 11 and started to wear the jacket from this suit myself, a narrow fit lace Jackie O. style jacket with silk satin lining, I realised how young my mother was on her wedding day: just 20, no more then a girl, even though she was meant to be all grown-up, with me, her first baby, soon to be on the way. This skirt suit is lost now-disappeared, like my mothers’ death- but it lives on in my memory, a pink wedding ‘’tailleur’’ the color of hope, foreshadowing an ill-fated battle with cancer, yet signifying my mother’s fight against convention ( a liberation of sorts)
My mother wedding ‘’tailleur’’ is what first taught me that clothes matter far more than we are sometimes given to understand, that they are not meaningless frivolities, for there are stories contained within a wardrobe and even if they seem fragmentary at times, they add up to a precious patchwork of life. I know I am not alone trying to make sense of the pass this way, because whenever I talk other women, the mere mention of my mother wedding attires, is enough for them to tell me the stories attach to their own most treasured clothes.
Take Sylvie, for example, who recently told me about her fragile, much loved vintage pieces that had belong to her great-aunt: ‘’ I have one of her Fortuny pleated dresses, trimmed with terra-cotta beads, and it’s the color of green-gold water. And the hem is ripped from her dancing shoes.’’ Sylvie never met her great-aunt- ‘’she died before she could ever met her –but Sylvie comes vividly alive for her in these clothes. ‘’They are totally inhabited for me by her,’’ said Sylvie, ‘’and all of the more extraordinary because they emerged almost intact after all these years.
There is similar reverence in the voice of Debra when she talks about her favorite bag. ‘’ It’s gold metallic mesh,’’ she says, ‘’and it was my mother’s, until she gave it to me a few years ago. She took it with her on her honeymoon to Hawaii in 1968, and I’ve got a picture of my mom and dad together there, with her holding the little bag. They look so young and hopeful, and she was pregnant with me at the time, and I am pregnant now.’’
It is stories like these that make me realize how a narrative can be fashioned by clothes, for what we wear touches us in more ways than one. A friend of mine, a fabulous beauty writer, evokes an era’s emotions when describing a dress that her mother once owned: ‘’ A pink and orange flowered babydoll dress made by Jean Muir in the 60’s. She gave it to me, and I wore it the whole time I lived in Sydney, when I was 22 and madly in love with French journalist. There is no way I could wear it now – it wouldn’t fit, it’s for a young girl- but I’d never get rid of it. It’s folded up at the top of my closet, and it reminds me of a time when I was happily in love. If I ever get a daughter, I’ll give it to her one day.’’
There is obviously a direct connection with family history in all these stories- material clues about who we are, where we come from, and what we might become. But even clothes from a less personal source can have powerful emotional resonance: for example, Nathalie, a fashion buyer, has kept a secondhand outfit she bought in a London Market when she was 20 ‘’Although this dress and jacket weren’t by Chanel, they looked as if they could have been, with narrow sleeves and trimmed with grosgrain ribbon. I felt entirely self-contained within the outfit: it was the perfect disguise and made me look very formal, even though I was completely wild at the time. I wouldn’t wear the outfit now, but I’ll always keep it- it’s part of how I discovered my identity.
It’s surprising, too, how apparently anonymous clothes can form a crucial part of our individual stories. I remain deeply attached to a simple black and silver knit LeChateau dress that belonged to my best friend mother, Louise. She overcame a difficult divorce and rise to be a formidable woman. I kept the dress, and wore it as a badge of honor and although I can no longer wear it because I have grown out of it, I found comfort in the knowledge that I have benefit from its emblematic power. I would be bereft to lose the dress, though it was doubtless one of thousands of identical pieces. It hangs alongside a black and cream coat, very Chanel-like, given to me by one of my favorite client, Anne, shortly after I open ERA second location. Last Fall I found myself wondering what to do with the coat-its lining was torn, its days were surely numbered- but in the end I felt too superstitious to give it away. It was as if by doing so I might be losing the thread of my evolution, as if the coat itself was emblematic of my journey with ERA.
So, the coat has stayed, having been cleaned and relined by the most amazing seamstress I have work with since 1994, hence adding another layer of attachment to my clothes. I will wear this coat again, for its practical as well as comforting and warm against the skin (unlike an enduring business). Of course, I can’t be as sentimental about everything in my closet- the house would be engulfed in a rising tide of clothes otherwise- and I do make periodic trips from my closet room to the shop (ERA). The trick, perhaps, is to keep only those few treasures that feel essential to one’s sense of well-being, which means chucking the old T-shirts that are remnants of an unhappy period or the uncomfortable shoes that never took you to the places you really wanted to go. And, if, by chance, some precious piece does disappear- through a wrinkle in time, like my mother’s ‘’tailleur’’- then try not to mourn it, for its story will remain, woven into the warp and weft of a life.