Clothing Memories: Clothes and personal archaeology

Posted in Baghdad in 1980, my great uncle was present during a terrorist raid on the British Embassy. Shots were fired through the window, but my uncle escaped unharmed. His wardrobe was not so lucky. One bullet passed through his jacket, leaving a small hole that he later had invisibly mended. He was left with clothes that bore the scars of the event: a bullet hole that would forever remind him of how lucky he was.

After an event like this, clothes can adopt a new function as evidence in a personal archaeology.  Many of us keep clothes for similar reasons. Clothing is evidence of our personal development. If we were to gather all of the clothes we have ever owned, we could paint a picture of ourselves and how we have become who we are now. The garments would speak about weight loss or gain, changes to our cultural attitudes or wealth. We would also see key moments in our lives marked by the outfits we bought for special occasions. Damage to these clothes may say even more. A rip may be a permanent reminder of an accident; a bloodstain may be evidence of a brawl.

We have garments that remind us of our most formative experiences, good and bad. Many women keep their wedding dresses, even though we will never wear them again. Some people keep school ties or sports uniforms. Mothers may keep a t-shirt worn during pregnancy, as the overstretched seams are a reminder of their motherhood. These old garments are reminders of former lives and lessons learned [1].

Sometimes we buy clothes with the explicit intention of creating memories. Souvenir clothes – the gaudy t-shirt with ‘St. Lucia’ scrawled on the front, or the rainbow-coloured sombrero – will likely never be worn, but preserve the memory of a holiday in the same way as snapshots or other souvenirs.

Whether our memories are good or bad, sentimentality forces us to hang on to these garments. Clothes that are reminders of “past feelings” are “a means of maintaining identity”[2]. A record of past experiences is a record of who we are. They are part of our personal history, and so to discard them would be an erosion of self.

Once we have such a close connection to a possession, it becomes inalienable. It is so symbolically linked to our personal history that, even if we were to sell it, it would still be tied to us. These objects are no longer just clothes; they are artefacts of the lives we have lived.

This bond between the garment, the wearer, and the event, is so strong that museum collections feature clothes with personal histories attached. The V&A collection of bustle pads includes a piece created for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, designed to play music whenever she sat down[3]. This object is remarkable not only in its design, but because of the historical picture it paints. It provides a tangible connection to a Queen and a moment in her life. Victoria’s wedding dress is one of many thousands in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – a collection of inalienable dresses that will always be connected to their royal wearers and the events at which they were worn. For audiences, knowledge of the ownership of these dresses creates a sense of intimacy with someone they will never meet.

In museum displays, and in our own sentimental collections, the function of clothes has changed. Their primary purpose is not to clothe the body; it is to tell a story[4]. As storytellers, clothes can speak louder than words. The position of the bullet hole in my great uncle’s jacket illustrates a dramatic moment in his life. Whether we have eventful lives or not, our clothes have tales to tell.


[1] Hertz, Carrie, ‘Costuming Potential: Accommodating unworn clothes,’ Museum Anthropology Review, Vol. 5, Nos 1-2 (2011), 17.
[2] Bye, Elizabeth Bye and McKinney, Ellen, ‘Sizing up the Wardrobe—Why We Keep Clothes That Do Not Fit,’ Fashion Theory, Vol. 11, Issue 4 (2007), 486.
[3] V&A, ‘Corsets and Bustles from 1880-90.
[4] Steele, Valerie, ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag,’ Fashion Theory, Vol. 2, Issue 4 (1998), 332.

Abandoned Clothes

On a deserted beach in New Zealand, I encountered a pair of shoes abandoned in the sand. The shoes were neatly arranged, as if left temporally by a swimmer who expected to collect them on his return, and yet there was no-one else in sight (neither on the beach, nor in the sea).

Abandoned shoes on a beach in Northland, New Zealand.

Abandoned shoes on a beach in Northland, New Zealand.

Abandoned clothes on beaches have connotations of suicide – real and fake.  Labour minister John Stonehouse faked his death in 1974 by leaving a pile of clothes on Miami Beach. In the British TV series The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, Reggie fakes suicide by leaving his clothes and personal effects on Brighton Beach. This scene of “psudocide” has been recreated so many times that “the British refer to it as doing a Reggie Perrin”[1].

Abandoned clothes attract attention because we know they are not supposed to be there. More precisely, they are not supposed to be alone. Clothes in a public space are meant to be attached to a body. What is notable, therefore, is not the clothes themselves, but the absence of a human form inside them.

The strength of this message comes across in numerous photos of the piles of clothes and shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz and Dachau. The piles of thousands of garments give us a sense of the thousands of victims who once owned them. These empty garments speak of the non-existence of people to wear them. Each pair of shoes represents a life lost.

These clothes take on additional significance because of their worn appearance. The dirt and tears are evidence of the conditions suffered by the wearers before they died. “Not only do these traces evoke the bodies of the people that are now absent, but the wear and tear of abandoned clothes and objects furthermore stir an empathetic flow between the body in the present and the body that is absent”[2].

A pile of abandoned shoes at Dauchau is a reminder of the many lives lost in Nazi concentration camps.

A pile of abandoned shoes at Dauchau is a reminder of the many lives lost in Nazi concentration camps.

In other contexts, abandoned clothes can have send less somber messages. Shoe tossing is a phenomena encountered in many urban environments, in which people tie their shoelaces together and toss them over a power-line or branch. The shoes are abandoned, out of reach, leaving evidence of the individual wearer’s presence in a shared public space. Abandoned shoes on power-lines are a kind of collaborative street art, perhaps equivalent to the palimpsests of graffiti that develop as numerous graffiti artists layer their work on top of each other over many years.

Shoe tossing is a creative collaboration between individuals. This kind of littering has been transformed into a signifying and/or artistic act. Image: Jon Sullivan.

Shoe tossing is a creative collaboration between individuals. This kind of littering has been transformed into a signifying and/or creative act. Image: Jon Sullivan.

Matthew Smith observes that tossed shoe can sometimes “signify the physical boundaries of gang territory”[3]. Elsewhere too, abandon clothes can be a temporary territorial mark. On cinema seats and restaurant chairs, coats are placeholders. There is an unwritten code, telling us that an empty seat is not really empty if there is a coat draped across it. In this environment, the coat prevents seating disputes. The same territorial behaviour occurs with tourists’ towels on sunbeds beside hotel pools.

There is an unwritten code of conduct for coats abandoned on chairs. A coat left on an empty seat send a clear message: "this seat is taken".

There is an unwritten code of conduct for coats abandoned on chairs. A coat left on an empty seat send a clear message: “this seat is taken”.

Clothes are so regularly abandoned that various businesses have abandoned clothes policies. In most cases, there is a sense that ownership matters: the clothes are assumed to be lost or forgotten rather than discarded as trash. Efforts are made to reunite the clothes and their wearers, like reuniting two halves of a whole.

Though motives for abandoning clothes vary significantly, there is always “personal or cultural meaning” in a garment left behind[4]. An abandoned garment sends a message, not least because we know that the wearer may now be wandering the streets partially naked. Almost always, abandoned clothes will provoke us to ask why. Were these clothes forgotten or left intentionally? If they are left intentionally, what message was intended? What has happened to the unclothed body of the person who left them behind?

abandoned coat

[1] BBC [online], ‘Pseudocide: Doing a Reggie Perrin’ (14 February 2000),
[2] Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Sorensen, Tim Flohr, An Anthropology of Absence, (London: Springer, 2010), 12-13.
[3] Smith, Matthew Ryan, ‘The Mysterious Phenomenon of shoe tossing and shoe posting,’ The Silo (2 April, 2013).