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.