I have a black dress that has just been hanging in my wardrobe for the past 8 years (at least). It never fails to remind me of a specific moment with a specific person. At some point the essence of the dress shifted from that of an object to the recollection of a feeling; I no longer see the dress when I look at it, I feel. Reflecting on my emotional connection to the dress I realised that I have not worn it a single time after the person left. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the dress. In fact, I have always been very fond of it, it fits me perfectly, and it has a timeless style. Out of all the dresses I have ever owned it is one of my favourite. Yet it continues to simply hang in my wardrobe and I could also never bring myself to part with it.
Clothing is not simply a material object. It is closely linked to the body and ultimately does not exist unless there is a body; clothing is always designed for the body – even when it is not intended to be worn. Clothing is also closely linked to performance. The ritual of getting dressed is preparing for a performance by highlighting yourself, disguising yourself, or even trying to become someone else. There is always an element of performance in dress. Dress is transient and driven by the moment; it is linked to the user’s needs and feelings in the present (Medvedev 2007).
Clothing constructs a personal habitat (Abbot and Sapsford 2001 referencing Craik 1994), where the clothing and self become entangled with people and moments (Banim and Guy 2001). Banim and Guy (2001) have observed that sometimes the clothes themselves and the images they portray are much less important than the ways in which they represent a relationship with people who are (or have been) connected with the clothes.
So does throwing out clothes like these represent a decision to let go of part of yourself (Banim and Guy 2001)? Or vice versa, does holding onto them represent a desire to preserve a connection to the past or to a relationship?
Because of its close and intimate proximity to the body, clothing has the potential to carry deeper emotional meaning than many other objects. This becomes particularly apparent in the case of ‘a boyfriend’s T-shirt’ and the wardrobes of lost loved ones. The following quote illustrates the role of affective objects in our personal narratives and the intimate emotional connection to a lost loved one’s wardrobe.
‘…I have a recurring ritual as soon as I arrive at my parents’ home that helps me settle in and adjust to the Hungarian way of life faster. I open drawers and cupboards and examine their contents. I spend quite a bit of time looking through my father’s possessions, which are still the same and still as blue. When I stroke them or inhale their scent, I sense his presence: his smile, his slight stoop, his delicate hands. When I shut the wardrobe, his presence vanishes.’ (Medvedev 2007)
Similarly to my experience with the black dress, Medvedev is transferred back in time via her father’s shirts. Medvedev’s mother found it hard to discard her father’s blue shirts. She did not even want to give them to her brother because she did not think he was responsible enough to wear them and even though she gave him other objects such as his favourite watch. (Medvedev 2007)
Dress shapes our identity and vice versa, we choose our clothing based on our present state, we hold on to clothing that is no longer being worn, and we wear or do not wear items because of what we associate them with. But exactly how much do the relationships we have to our clothes, as well as other people’s clothes, shape our narrative identities? And how can the affective connections in our wardrobes be used for self-reflective and therapeutic purposes?
What are the affective, mnemonic, and therapeutic possibilities of dress?
Note: In the first paragraph of the text I mention dress as the style of garment that is traditionally worn by women in the Western world. In the second part of the text, dress mainly refers to the things we modify and adorn our bodies with, including but not limited to, clothes, shoes, jewellry, and body modifications.
Abbot, P. and Sapsford, F. (2001) ‘Young Women and Their Wardrobes’, in Guy, A., Green, E, and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 21-37
Banim, M. and Guy, A. (2001) 'Discontinued Selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear?', in Guy, A., Green, E. and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women's relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 203-219
Medvedev, K. (2007) ‘Dress, Hungarian Socialism, and Resistance’, in Johnson, D. and Foster, H. (ed.) Dress Sense: emotional and sensory experiences of the body and clothes. Oxford: Berg