Have you ever had the feeling that the old dress you’re wearing, the one you found in your mother’s closet or in a second-hand shop somewhere, is only yours on loan? Or that, regardless of how right that coat feels on you, it is nothing but a temporary custodianship? Old clothes seduce us with their stories. When wearing something that once belonged to another we can imagine a different, more glamorous life, as if the garment itself is granting us an alternate existence. This is how I think of the old clothes in my own wardrobe, the ones I’ve found on eBay at 3am, or in cluttered second-hand shops, or in antique markets on the edges of cities. These are the clothes that were worn by my mother as a young woman. These are the clothes that were passed on to me by old friends. They all, in their own ways, serve as portals to a substitute reality. In them I become another while remaining me.
There is that mustard yellow wool coat that still hangs at the back of my wardrobe in the house where I grew up, completely moth-ridden now. It belonged to my mother when she was in her early twenties, long before she met my father. It has deep pockets and a large hood, a belt that sits on the waist and five plastic buttons running down the front. As a teenage girl I loved that coat. In it I felt sophisticated, suave, urbane. I had just read Jean Stein’s Edie (1994), and I imagined myself as a Warhol superstar making a surprise appearance in my average-size, average-look town.
And then there’s a more recent acquisition: a dark green, scooped-neck velvet dress from the mid-seventies that envelops my body and skims the floor when I wear it. It’s one of those eBay finds, bought while jetlagged in a city across the Atlantic in the early morning hours. Described as ‘stunning’ in the verbose jargon familiar to any eBay user, it’s turned out to be true, after a fashion. When I wear it, the adjective belongs to me. I am a transplant from some heady Chelsea nightclub, circa Rolling Stones 1972 album Exile on Main St.
‘Past things have futurity,’ philosopher Walter Benjamin observed in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ In fashion the past is forever haunting the present. At the intersection where our clothing and our past meet, this coat, this dress, this fill-in-the-blank is part of the material memory that ensures that the past is carried with us into the future. We use old clothes to connect with real or imagined history, to play with characters from our collective remembrance. In that performance there is a certain wanton pleasure. In inhabiting the imaginary persona of another, we enact the roles that have become cultural shorthand for sexiness, glamour, sensuality, voluptuousness. Self-presentation is always a negotiation or dialogue between self-identity and the social realm. We consume, shop and get dressed in order to construct or enact an identity; old clothes (or new clothes, made to look old) help us get there.
The emphasis that we place on (material) memories and history can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the goddess Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and wisdom, as well as the mother of Clio, the muse of history. The Greeks meant that in order for history to exist, we humans must be able to remember; in other words, memory was seen as a prerequisite of human thought. This connection between memory, knowledge and history is a thread woven through the discourses surrounding old clothes. Yet, the ‘art of memory’ (as historian Raphael Samuel termed it) has more in common with nostalgia as practised by the Romantic movement in the 19th century , than with the Ancient Greek understanding of mnemonics. The Romantics understood human nature to be intrinsically dual, something which was expressed in their own longing for an impending utopia, or alternative reality, which ran alongside a feeling of strong discontent with the present as conveyed in their deep yearning for a past saturated with nostalgic sentiment.
The ruins of time were seemingly an important building block for the Romantic movement, which meant that memory was inevitably linked to a sense of loss. Here the act of remembering had more to do with intuition than science. ‘It pictured the mind not as a watchtower but as a labyrinth, a subterranean place full of contrived corridors and hidden passages.’1 So rather than pure anamnesis, memory becomes something instinctual, as with Marcel Proust’s oft-quoted nostalgic recollection of the beloved madeleines of his childhood. The memory to which I refer here is perhaps better explained by the term nostalgia. While rooted in Greek, the term was coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe a disease Swiss expatriates suffered when forced to leave their homeland to study, work or fight for their country.2 The longing for home could be aroused by anything from a smell to the sound of familiar music, much like memories are awakened for (post)modern nostalgics today. The only foolproof cure of this ruinous disease was a return home.
Svetlana Boym writes in The Future of Nostalgia (2001) that nostalgia was a ‘democratic’ disease, affecting primarily soldiers, sailors and those who moved from rural areas to cities in search of a better life. The sickness went beyond the ailment of the individual, turning into an endemic peril revealing the ambiguity many felt when faced with modernity. In this sense nostalgia permits us to study the flip side of modernity and progress, and the disparity between the speed of scientific and technological advance and the comparatively slower reaction time of the human heart. For a romantic, nostalgia was also deeply linked to the erotic, as evidenced by the countless novels and poems dedicated to young maidens, personifications of nature, standing in for long-lost local regions. Yet as much as nostalgia was problematic in the 17th century it also conveyed a commendable love for freedom and one’s motherland. However, as time wore on this type of homesickness lost its romantic qualities.
For doctors in 19th century America, nostalgia became something shameful, a sign of weakness and regressive attitudes – those affected by it were thought to be time wasters prone to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism. With the passing of time, nostalgia turned from a disease that could be cured by a return home, to an incurable yearning for something much less tangible. In the modern age this ‘hypochondria of the heart,’ can be defined as the human capacity to grieve over times passed, in a manner much less concrete than the longing for an actual time or place that has ceased to be. Nostalgia, the ravages of longing for something beyond one’s reach, has become an epidemic of the modern age.3
19th century modernity was a time of great change. The continuous project of industrialisation was of course key to these changes, but equally, thinkers captivated by modernity like Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin saw the main transformation as being one of human consciousness. To them modernity could be distinguished as the appraisal of consciousness, as a ‘force in its own right.’4 Benjamin to this exploration, perhaps one of the most pertinent critics of modernity, wrote at length about the complexities of modernity and its relationship to history and memory. Benjamin examines Proust’s mémoire involontaire, the remembrance of his childhood that the unexpected confrontation with the madeleines brought about, and means that, as opposed to memory which is a conscious act, remembrance begins as something unconscious, before giving rise to experience.
This unforeseen recollection of the past is habitually tinged with nostalgia, such as that which Proust experienced. And, just as those madeleines prompted Proust to remember times past, it could be argued that old clothing often does the same for us today, albeit in a slightly more complex and convoluted way. Benjamin writes in Theses on the Philosophy of History, that fashion is ‘a tiger’s leap into the past.’ However, paradoxically, at the same time as fashion ‘stirs in the thickets of long ago’ Benjamin acknowledged in the earlier Arcades Project written between 1927 and 1940 that it is ‘irreverent towards tradition.’5 In this dialectic it seems that Benjamin identifies the resemblance between fashion and modernity. Baudelaire’s aphorism about modernity being the ‘transitory, the fleeting and the contingent’ could equally have been said about fashion, and this, it seems, is what has prompted philosophers such as Benjamin to see fashion as the embodiment of modernity. The notion that fashion constantly has to renew itself, that it is ‘transitory, fleeting and contingent,’ is what makes this comparison so persuasive. Hence, as modernity pushes forward towards the future, never, even for a moment, standing still, fashion moves alongside it, the ephemerality of both equally infuriating and compelling.
It is a well-known fact that fashion designers love to use the past as a muse. While they shape it to fit the future it could be said that past and future to come together in the present moment. Benjamin calls this Jetztzeit – the presence of the now. In Jetztzeit time stands still, it is the instance of absolute calm at the centre of ‘a past charged with the time of the now… blasted out of the continuum of history.’6 For fashion, which is constantly looking towards the horizon of the future, while never letting go of the past, Jetztzeit describes this dialectical relationship between thesis (past) and antithesis (future) well. Consequently, the resulting synthesis is then the present, just one fleeting moment in time, blink and you will miss it. Benjamin saw history as embedded in modernity, meaning that the original object, produced in a fleeting moment of time, holds the prospect for reproduction within it. Perhaps then it is possible to see the constant reproduction of the past, of memory, as well as the (mass) reproduction of clothing, all integral parts of modernity, as an essential part of this Benjaminian interpretation of history. For sartorial style this would mean that vintage is a look that will never go out of fashion, since, as part of the collective aesthetic history, it will always be carried into the future through the present.
Still remembrance associated with old clothes is a convoluted one. Whereas Proust’s memory was involuntarily and unexpectedly triggered by his encounter with his youth’s cherished madeleines, the wearing of vintage seems to carry a resonance, made more complex by the fact that the clothes worn were never a part of the wearer’s youth in the first place. Vintage clothing instead seems to reverberate the same imagined nostalgia, or false memories. Memory, like history, is eternally amendable, subject to the dominant fervour of any one particular time. Rather than being fixed these concepts are fluid, metamorphosing according to the demands of the present.
Here I’m thinking of another piece in my wardrobe: an old silk kimono found in a dusty shop in a mountain town somewhere in France. It’s softly faded from the sun and dips gently at the nape of my neck when I wear it. In it I’m a maiko gliding around Kyoto on a rare day off – and in that gap where clothing meets skin there is an unmistakably erotic charge. This I return to often. In this bodycon culture of ours where gyms, offices, restaurants and nightclubs everywhere are full of bums in spandex, whatever happened to hints and elusiveness? The hidden body allows you to concoct; barely perceptible slivers of skin can be sensual in the most unexpected, subtle ways. Think about where a glove meets the wrist, or the way a pair of tights with a tear allows for a glimpse of leg, or a man’s worn shirt on his woman. Think of the back of my neck where my silk kimono falls away. Those gaps are full of yearning. There is something very moving about that unfulfilled desire, about all the lives these old garments have had, and continue to have. The bodies they have skimmed, the bodies they have concealed, the bodies they have protected and adorned. In Slowness Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, remarks that ‘there is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.’ We are bonded to memory, real or imagined, by nostalgia.
Just as for the Swiss expatriates in the 17th century, nostalgia still today serves as a sort of anchor, a way to keep us grounded in an ever-changing milieu. In terms of vintage clothing this means that the consumer may perhaps act on a subconscious impulse to remember a past that, although one which he or she was never a part of, nevertheless instigates fond memories. Similarly, it could be argued that when, to make use of fashion historian Caroline Evans term, ‘fashion turns back on itself’ it can simultaneously act to bring a further dimension to times gone by (meaning that the past acquires new implications based on new events in the present) as well as filtering contemporary concerns through the continuum that history represents. Hence, that the past is continuously re-evaluated because of the constant changes taking place in the present, is a perception that makes much sense when looking at past fashions being interpreted and reinterpreted in the present. The fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson writes in Adorned in Dreams that ‘the “now” of fashion is nostalgia in the making’ – perhaps this is why a disingenuous term like ‘timeless’ has such cachet in fashion circles. The past is never fully behind us but moves alongside our present, taking on new meanings and interpretations as we move forward in time.
Old clothes can be employed in order to reconnect with bygone times, wearing them can be a way to hold onto the past while simultaneously remoulding it in the image of the future. In vintage clothing past, present and future seem to converge in a manner that incarnates each element in equal measure, while concurrently not embodying any of them. Just as fashion is supposed to represent the absolute present, although it is conjured up several months before this present has come into being, in vintage clothing this already convoluted logic gets even further abstracted. Here the past is reinterpreted to fit with a present that is, in fact, not the present at all, but rather the future. This penchant for nostalgia in contemporary culture has been accused of moving so far from historicity that it risks losing all meaning and instead becoming an empty gesture, a mere simulacra, of what it seeks to represent. The philosopher Paul Virilio talks of a ‘rushing standstill,’ which seems to describe contemporary culture well. The cult of speed can sometimes feel overwhelming, but in the cracks of the system, a slower, more reflective pace is gaining traction. Old clothes and the wistful nostalgia that they evoke aid and abet us here. Putting something on that once belonged to another connects us, to each other and to time. Even in this world where the corporeal is sometimes overlooked in favour of concepts and ideas, the garment as second skin gives us permission to touch ourselves. From the casual touch of getting dressed in a hurry on a Monday morning to the elaborate undressing that you perform for a lover, clothes coming on and off allow a carnal mind limitless possibilities.
There is one final memory I’d like to share with you. It’s about another coat. This one is large and black and made of gabardine, and I wore it when I met the man who is now my husband. Much later he told me that he noticed the coat before he noticed me. This particular coat hides more than it reveals (this you might have noticed is a theme in my wardrobe), though I’ve always thought that its tailored shoulders and sharp silhouette is sexier than anything else I own. My future husband invited me for a drink, I said yes. Before sitting down, he reached over and took my coat. It was an exaggerated gesture, kind of affected; the hipster playing genteel. But in that fleeting, jokey touch, he had me. That coat is part of our past now; one day it will belong to our daughter.
Discarded garments reflect our history, becoming tangible material memories of times past, love lost or found, disappointments endured or victories won. These lost objects of desire could then be read as a map to our past, here resurrected and brought back to life once more. And through breathing life back into what would otherwise be fleeting ephemera, mere fragments, we somehow mourn times of yore yet celebrate our own history and the fact that we have lived. While material memories may not be true, they nevertheless unite us with the wistful notion that, as we all know, time does pass. Textile memento mori are tactile, ever-present reminders of a culture in perpetual flux and of our transience, yet at the same time they provide a comforting aide memoire, reassuring us that, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, history is merely an echo of the past in the future – a reflex from the future in the past.
Yet another way to understand our love of old clothes might be through Nietzsche’s principle of the eternal recurrence. Although Nietzsche never made an explicit connection to art or culture here, it is an alluring concept seemingly open to reinterpretation in this context. To paraphrase this enigmatic component of Nietzsche’s philosophy, if the world is a game of dice, then the outcome is bound to be repeated. Perhaps similarly we are bound to endlessly reiterate the same aesthetics, vintage then being the proof that our world is not one of boundless innovation, but rather one where nostalgia ties us firmly in place in a world of inevitable and constant flux, albeit one that turns in circles.
- R. Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, London, Verso, 1996, p. ix.
- Noso meaning ‘disease’ in ancient Greek, and nostos, the return home, connected to the Indo-European nes, meaning a restoration to light and life. Algia means longing.
- S. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, New York, Basic Books, 2004, p. 7.
- J. Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers – From Structuralism to Postmodernity, London, Routledge, 1994, p. 201.
- W. Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History in Illuminations, London, Pimlico Press, 1999, p. 253.