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Thursday, June 9, 2011

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.