The Stories Our Wardrobes Tell
‘Can I wear this?’ my teenage daughter asked, holding up a black silk shirt from my wardrobe. ‘I need a black top for drama and I don’t have one.’
‘Ummmm….’ I paused, remembering that the last time I wore that shirt, it was ripped off me in a moment of passion by a man (not her dad) back in the days when I had that kind of power over men. Look, it was a long long time ago. Which begs the question why I still have it in my wardrobe when a) I haven’t worn it in sixteen years and b) it’s unlikely I’m ever going to wear it again. It seems it has survived the bi-annual spring and autumn wardrobe cleans, not for its wearability, nor its timelessness as a fashion item, but simply because it holds the memory of a hot and lustful night. And let’s face it, who couldn’t do with the harmless thrill of opening one’s matronly wardrobe and catching a glimpse of that memory nestled between the daggy old sundresses and bath robes?
My wardrobe is divided into two clear halves. The half I wear and the half I hoard driven by the same sentimentality that keeps me holding onto my late granny’s pill box and my grandfather’s tie pin: they link me viscerally to times and places and people-gone-by in textures of silk and satin and chiffon and lace. And when it comes to memories, I’m an antique collector.
Take for example, the long tie-died navy dress I wore the day I find out I was pregnant with my son. I had bought it at some festive little flea-market I was wandering through with my daughter. I then wore it at her second birthday party because she was enchanted by the butterflies on it, her miniature fingers tracing them on the material over my newly pregnant belly. I haven’t been into long dresses, tie die or butterflies for at least a decade. But nostalgia and superstition prevent me from giving it to St Vinnies for fear that I might throw away some of that joy with the dress. With its ties at the back that could be loosened, I wore it right up until I gave birth, and I feel a certain loyalty to such a giving and forgiving dress that, with almost Buddhist kindness never (unlike the bitchy bikini, the haughty halterneck and the mocking mini-skirt) made me feel huge or claustrophobic.
Then there’s my wedding dress, a plum satin slip with a pink netted overlay with embroidered flowers and an even pinker chiffon jacket which now reminds me of a dressing gown I imagine one might wear in a brothel. Back then, I dismissed white as conventional and regarded pink as radical. I must have been having a Laura Ashley moment, common in even the most tomboyish of brides. I now look at that dress and feel the way I do about ex-boyfriends whom I loved once upon a time, but have no desire to ever run into again. But getting rid of it feels adulterous.
Cluttering up my shelves, is a medley of scarves and shawls, and sari-inspired items when I fancied myself as a bohemian gypsy; long flowing colourful pieces that can be worn in layers, and did a fabulous job of hiding the flab for years after my children were born.
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Then there’s the collection of t-shirts with political slogans: IAMAZON, ‘What part of No don’t Men Understand?’ ‘Love See No Colour,’ and ‘Peace on Earth,’ which I wore during political protests and activist feminist years, making up my collection of androgynous apparel. And though I’m nowhere near fired up anymore to wear them in public and risk confrontation with misogynists, sexists, racists and polluting capitalists, they sometimes come out when I’m cleaning and I need to access some hard-core muscle memory.
Hanging despondently at the back of my cupboard are a few vintage pieces I purchased when second-hand was hip and was all I could afford as a uni student. And then there’s that range of blouses and baggy pants in soft pastels made from organic cotton that cost a small fortune for extremely large women who want to inhabit their clothing like a small and airy marquee, which apparently I must have wanted to do at a particularly unflattering stage in my life.
I still have that sexy nightie I bought from Victoria’s Secret in New York while I was a student in the U.S., imagining the multitudes of sexual encounters in which I’d wear it and is probably the piece of clothing I’d reach for in the unlikely event that I were ever asked to be filmed in a love scene with Colin Firth, even with a stutter. I’ve been unsuccessful at parting with the dress I wore at my sister’s wedding despite the fact that summer colours do nothing for my complexion. There are those outfits I wore at this book launch, then at that one, in colours to match my latest book’s cover. There’s the black silk dress with ancient kimono material across the bodice I will wear only for celebrations (not funerals); shoes I will wear to retrace steps, and some I will willingly endure the discomfort of because they make me feel so foxy.
I have a separate drawer for my black Tai Chi baggy crotch pants and white t-shirt with my sensai’s school logo on it, a yin and yang sign with an I-Ching sign of earth above heaven, in the hope that someday I might feel strong, centred and balanced enough to wear them again.
When I put these clothes on, I step back into my memories. I re-inhabit the incarnations of my life. Opening my wardrobe, my past flashes before my eyes and I remember, ‘I was once a girl in red velvet giving a law dinner speech,’; ‘I was a bridesmaid in peach to my childhood friend,’ ‘I lost a shoe in the mud wearing that skimpy periwinkle blue dress,’ ’he bought me that hand-made waistcoat on the side of the road in Malawi,’ ‘In that pair of satin black pants, I felt like I could conquer the world,’ ‘I found that hat at that little shop in Uluru,’ ‘he fell in love with me in those army pants,’ ‘I wanted to dance all night in that silver dress.’
Our wardrobes hold our stories, tell of where we’ve been, who we’ve loved and how much or little we’ve loved ourselves. What we wear is a message to the world, a code for our sense of self-worth. Our clothes either say, ‘I celebrate,’ or ‘I hide,’ or ‘don’t look at me,’ or ‘I shine,’ or ‘I’m lost,’ or ‘get a load of this!’ It’s a register of our stories, the map of our lives folded on shelves, leaning on hangers.
A wardrobe is a testament to the thousands of ways in which we change in our lives – not only change clothes, but transform as human beings. They are palettes of our kaleidoscopic personalities, closets of our evolution. No matter whether something has been outworn, or outgrown or surpassed by the fickle tap dance of fashion, I cling to it for who it reminds me I once was.
In the end, I let my daughter wear that shirt. Time for it to have new stories to tell.
Published in Prevention Magazine
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?