Leila Selchaif ’18 made a comment to our fiction class a few days ago about how plot can sometimes be structured around objects. In reference to some of the stories we had read, she explained that “it seems to me like these stories are told like our memories: we are triggered by an object.” This idea that an object holds memories has always been one I am intimately aware of with regard to clothes. There are certain items of clothing — a dress, a bra, a hat and coat — that are inextricably linked to certain memories.
But Selchaif brings up something I think is really exciting and interesting: those objects we associate with a particular memory can actually build up their own narrative. What Selchaif was noting in those short stories is applicable to the narrative potential behind an item of clothing. A pair of shoes associated with a specific memory brings that memory into each day you wear those shoes. This repeated contact with the memory changes it with time.
Michaela Krauser ’17 explained to me that whenever she puts on an item of clothing tied to a painful memory, she feels a little defiant, as if she is reclaiming a part of herself that seemed alienated by the memories associated with the item.
“It’s funny, I actually usually really liked whatever outfit it was that something horrible happened in,” she said. And so she wears the outfit again, and it accrues a new narrative.
You both acknowledge the memory-meaning of the object and allow its primary meaning to be the way it looks on your body; that, after all, is the only way anyone else will see it. This is where Selchaif’s narrative comes in: the object becomes a sign of your memory, your ability to remember that memory from the present, and your ability to ignore that memory for the greater part of the day even as it is rubbed in your face by the object. As time passes, all the days you wore the object in recognition and defiance of the memory become a part of the memory object, and slowly a narrative shaped by your own willingness to wear your memories is created.
The possibility that feels so exciting to me here is that in wearing that potentially painful item of clothing, we have an opportunity to face the events associated with it and potentially rewrite its meaning, even just as something you can live with. Being able to say, “this is a great outfit that looks good on me” and choosing to wear it because of that gives you a certain kind of agency over the memories you cannot disassociate from the item. You get to choose which meaning to privilege.
For an item associated with a positive memory or period of time, wearing the item can allow that positive time to seep into the present, and can allow you to interact with that past in a way changed by the present — the item accrues its own narrative as it weaves in and out of the present. Positive or negative though the associations may be, clothes nonetheless can hold their living narratives in our present.
For example, there is a particular grey wool dress I wore on my favorite birthday of all time, a day where everything occurred just as I had hoped and planned that it should. I wore that dress for my Econ final. I wasn’t very good at Econ. It didn’t interest me and it didn’t stick in my head. When I woke up the morning of my exam, early so I wouldn’t stress with rushing, I pulled the grey wool over my head and looked in the mirror and remembered that perfect fifteenth birthday.
I accessed that memory through my dress and the positive associations I had with it — of planning well, of knowing what I wanted and how to achieve it — became part of my narrative that day. But overlaying my acknowledgement of the memories of that dress was my anticipation and the primary importance of my econ exam that day. Now, the dress is as much a sign of that econ exam as it is of my birthday. The object has built a narrative around itself, a narrative defined by my ability both to access the meaning of the dress and to rewrite it. Every day I re-wear it, normal days where I try to arrive to classes on time and listen to the stories of my friends, those events are present as narratives in my day. Their meaning changes each time I wear it, as the way I think about them and the way I think about the present change. Ultimately, the dress becomes a collection of memories and feelings and vacillating states of subjectivity.
Out of curiosity of other people’s narratives surrounding items of clothing they own, and in celebration of those narratives, I asked for anyone with an item of clothing and an associated story to share to do so. So on this page are stories from Swatties, told through clothes.
Hazlett Henderson ’17: I wanted to choose some piece of clothing inherited from my parents, but I think I’m actually happier with these shoes than anything else I own. I bought them in tenth grade? eleventh grade? and they sat in a trunk in my room in Kansas until last summer, when I took them to France and they blossomed into the practical and durable and comfortable shoes of my dreams. I mostly wore them on my farm so they were like sturdy farm shoes but also could fit into my backpack when I needed them to. And it wasn’t my parents who found them; it was me!
Jesse Bossingham ’16: This shirt was given to me originally by my mom, and it has significance both in that I associate myself with the “underdog” — even if I’m not the underdog, associating with that group over anyone who happens to have any power whatsoever — and then secondly, it has a beagle, and my first dog was a beagle. He passed away, so it has a lot of meaning based off that. Finally, it’s just sort of a nice gift from my mom, very thoughtful, like “this is the sort of goofy thing that Jesse would like” and it’s nice when you’re a distance away from home that you have this connection, and you can wear something that looks nice and reminds you of home.
Raisa Reyes ’15: During my year abroad at Oxford I began to appreciate the typically British collegiate aesthetic of wearing plaid skirts, crew neck sweaters, and Oxford shoes. These oxfords that I wore on my year abroad never fail to remind me of what it was like to walk along the wet, cobble stone streets on my way to the Radcliffe Camera or the sound my feet made as I walked through the 17th century courtyard that belongs to Wadham, the college I studied at in University.