The Clothes Off Your Back

I'm running. This is a memory, not a dream. I'm running on a concrete floor, in the dim, industrial light of the large room, among the long shadows of racks and racks of clothing, mannequins wearing tuxedos, and Edwardian dresses and pirate costumes. Between the rows, military uniforms stand to attention, petticoats nod coyly in the slight breeze from the heating vent. I run my hand along the taffeta and tulle as I go. I stop only to peek into boxes full of ladies gloves in velvet and satin. If I dared, I would  try on the hats, with their tickly, elegant plumage, their bows and veils, but the rows of disembodied heads that they perch on, give me the willies.

I was not supposed to touch things anyway, though of course I did, often and with reverence. My mother was a set designer at the town's theatre and I spent a lot of my childhood there. In fact, since none of the apartments of my childhood, ours, my aunt's, or my grandma's, are still in the family, I could argue that the theatre is now the closest thing I have to a childhood home.  

One of the friendly spaces I was allowed to hang out in was the costume department, where seamstresses (they were all women then) created and altered clothing for kings and queens and monsters, for Romeo and Juliet, for Sleeping Beauty, for Marilyn Monroe, for peasant women.They would let me play with scraps of calico and sweep up pins from the floor with a small, magnetic broom, perfect for a kid. There were pins everywhere. They were always drinking coffee. Sometimes, one of the actors would come for a fitting and we would entertain each other while they had to stand still, or risk being pricked by pins.

Often, I would be allowed to follow my mother (who also did costumes), or someone else to the storage room, which was filled to the brim with those vintage costumes, handmade costumes, hundreds of shoes and hats and bags and stockings, as well as skirts and dresses and pants and blouses and coats and jackets.  

I loved how it smelled in the room: of musky old perfume and clean linen, of good shoe grease and that inimitable scent of old clothes. If it was an early evening during rehearsal and another kid was around we would sometimes play hide-and-seek and tuck ourselves inside big sheepskin coats still on the hanger, or hide beneath the cavernous hems of the crinolines. 

All this, of course, is just a long preamble to, at least in part, explain my love of clothes. And not just any clothes: wild, costume-y, magical, witchy, ren-fair, colorful clothes. The kind that make other people raise their eyebrows slightly and look puzzled, often.

You could say that I've spent a lot of my life just trying to recreate that experience. Certainly, growing up in an environment where whole worlds were created out of carefully selected and constructed objects, goes a long way to explain why I like old things so much. It's our family thing, and by that I mean just my mother and I, not our wider, more extended family, or some matrilineal line. It's just our thing. We see objects as symbols and stories, and read their meanings well. My mother was always the interior designer, our homes, no matter what boxy government housing they were located in, decorated so stylishly as to make any design sponge agent drool. I was the one with the yen for dresses and skirts, for closetfuls of wild things. Both of us, of course, were and are thrift hounds extraordinaire.

Thrifting comes as naturally to me as anything, a knack for seeing the value of things, what eras they're from, what materials they're made of, with a single glance. And with thrifting, of course, comes an abundance of things, of items to be rescued from people who might not value them as much, or simply giving them a home because they're inexpensive and, after all, we know each other.

For the past ten or so years, after a brief foray into traditional consumerism, I've bought my clothes almost exclusively secondhand, with very few visits the realms of manufactured clothing. In that time, my sense of style has grown into what it is now, not easily swayed by trends, or the opinions of others, built solidly around certain improbable-seeming blocks, like calico, lace, the 70s, Norwegian sweaters, florals, rubber boots and…vests. 

I've collected pieces in endless variations of each other, embraced my zany dress-sense, hunted for the perfect dress, the perfect denim shirt, the perfect Fair Isle sweater, learned to love jersey, gardened in prairie frocks and rode my bike countless miles in flowing skirts and petticoats. 

In those years I've also gotten well past the point where I feel like I have to justify my interest in clothes to anyone. Whereas my twenties were spent in part marveling at how people judged you if you were a girl and dressed overtly feminine, and in part fighting that stereotype, in my thirties I've not really had any fucks to actively give about what other people might think my clothes say about me. I've always considered the disdain our society has for the "frivolous" interests of women (clothing, make-up), versus the "frivolous" interests of men (sports), to be very indicative of how we as a culture value the sexes*. It follows, that I believe that dressing however you want, is a solidly feminist proposition.

That said, I think my closet is finally at a saturation point. Turns out, that as a side effect of embracing my love of clothing and my own style and my thrifting knack , I've completed the dream closet that storage room full of fancy frocks represents in my imagination. This occurred to me one morning during the busy holiday season when was getting dressed, standing in the middle of the bedroom in tights, peering into the dark depths of the closet: Everything I have in there I love. Getting dressed usually takes a few minutes.There's barely anything outside that closet I'd even like to wear. 

Now it's a sizable closet, it's inhabitants numbering in hundreds (if you count all scarves and vests into the census), and so it occurred to me that perhaps, for the next 365 days I should simply try dress out of there and not add (much of) anything to it. It is, after all, my dream come true. 

It's customary, I believe, to give these kinds challenges a name or a tag of some kind, feel free to suggest something more original than Project 365 by my next post, in which I outline rules and regulations. 

What's your relationship with clothes and shopping? I've heard a few of you are making some closet-related resolutions as well. Tell me all about it. Speaking of which, I can't recommend Tiia's thoughts on minimalism enough and she is also running a clothes challenge this year. 

*It should go without saying that men can be and are interested in clothes as well. Generalization for the sake of the argument, you guys. Don't always have to summarize the entire history of Western Feminism and how it relates to topic at hand.