“Clothing is a memory exercise… It allows me to discover my past… How I felt when I wore it.” — Louise Bourgeois, Museum of Modern Art, November 26, 2018
Looking inside my wardrobe, I see a pile of clothes, dresses on hangers, shawls in boxes, and my favorite tote bags. If only they could speak, they would probably tell stories about my past experiences. I am not a collector, nor so attached to artifacts that I must keep them forever, but I consider my wardrobe an archive. My clothes are records of my past that become legible when I look closely, and my wardrobe is like a library. Selecting an outfit is like choosing a book I’ve read before and scanning for a chapter I especially enjoyed.
Above the entrance to Aby Warburg’s private Library of Cultural Studies — now the Warburg-Haus in Hamburg — the word “Mnemosyne” is written in Greek letters. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother of nine muses, embodies Aby Warburg’s approach to art history, and points toward his final, incomplete project, the Mnemosyne Atlas. Here, antiques and imagination mix with memory to accentuate the history of modern art. Warburg built his library to make interconnections in a system that changed with the kind of research he was doing. My wardrobe has a similar system that changes depending on the season, my personal choices and style, and my feelings.
Like Warburg’s library, my clothes also have a wide range of mnemonic capacities to retain different memories, from the odor of naphthalene, sweat, or lavender to a specific rustle of fabric. Even the way I sort my clothes can store the personal details of memories and stories. When I look at my favorite scarf in my wardrobe, I can remember the heavy winters I have lived through in different countries. When I look at my prom dress, I remember when it was given to me by the designer Bora Aksu, when I was his intern in London ten years ago. And when I wear these clothes, I am not only expressing myself but also calling upon my good memories. I can’t discard these clothes easily, as they help to anchor my memories, and I would feel like I was also discarding my past.
I’m researching the process of upcycling clothes, reusing unwanted and discarded materials to give them a second chance of life, and how memories can play a role in such practices. Reading Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, I was drawn to the selectiveness of individual perceptions. Each individual’s process of perception depends on what is appropriate for their own experiences and self-interest. This filtering process creates what we call memory.
In practices such as repair, reuse, and repurposing — and especially the “re-“ in all of these terms — I am interested in the question: What do we claim from the past to present for future possibilities when we upcycle clothes? When we hang onto well-worn clothes, well past the point that they have worn out, the attachments of memory tend to play an important role.
A few months ago, I had to repair a rip in my jeans, which offered me an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the clothing. I chose to mend the tear in a way that was visible on the surface rather than hiding the flaws. Repairing my jeans was not only restoring the quality of the material, but it was also stitching the memories of the time that I had here. My year in NYC was a crazy ride between the emotional investment to be accepted and the constant deep inquiries of my self-sufficiency. I felt like I was in continuous emotional flux, that perhaps I didn’t have the presence to honor the moment actually being here, yet I was trying my best to learn something new every day and enjoy the opportunities that I had. Giving myself such time and space to apply my feelings in a small repair to my jeans made me feel like I made a hidden gift for myself that I can wear.
I stitched those memories into my jeans at a mending group at the Textile Arts Center, and so the act of stitching itself became a treasured memory. I will always remember that night with the mending group, stitching, talking, and drinking wine together. A fire had recently broken out in my house, and I needed to busy myself and escape from the construction work that was going on in my apartment. The outcome of the repair looked quite lovely, with a variety of patterned patches and exaggerated orange stitches on the back rise of the jeans. I used pieces cut from the textiles I made at school with natural dyes, which took special care to achieve the desired effect, making them even more meaningful for the time and labor I had invested.
The repair also said something about my relation to New York City, which has offered me such a feeling of liberation. Here, I can be an anonymous woman who can wear whatever she likes, without judgment. So I felt carefree as I stitched my jeans, not thinking too much about the outcome of the repair, even though it was in the back of the crotch — a quite vulnerable spot. I am mindful that the choices I made reflect a luxury not possible for everyone. Because of the job I have, the school I attend, and this city I now live in, I am allowed to look a bit quirky. In a more strict office environment, my fashion statement would probably put me under a lot of stress and discomfort. My mended jeans will always remind me of a freedom and an identity that I have won for myself here that I have not always known in the past.
However, I am also aware that not all clothes or memories should be kept. Not all memories recalled by clothing are good. Sometimes people also have traumatic, negative associations with their clothes, as I was reminded one day when my mom asked me about a black jumpsuit that I used to wear. Apparently, she liked to see me wearing it and told me that it looked good on me. Perhaps she was right: when I used to wear it, I always felt good. But I also remember that I was wearing that jumpsuit on the most upsetting day of my life, when I lost my cousin. I couldn’t wear it again. To me, the jumpsuit was almost like a living being that witnessed the most significant trauma in my life. Some clothes we just can’t keep or reuse, and there is no future to be found in them, because they are haunted by the past.
When we attach a personal story to a garment, we also wear that story. It is a particular type of embodiment, where our clothes can be seen as accumulations of both tangible and abstract aspects of materiality, from the fundamental components of the textile fiber to the distinctive personal features or mnemonic values. In this way, repaired and upcycled clothes have great potential to help us rethink our consumption practices and our use of clothes. We might look closer at fashion objects before we buy, use, and discard them, since we will create a bond with them no matter what. We may love, hate, or dislike them, and we may also find that we have no future with them. We might own garments that we never connect well with. And those relations and perceptions affect the reusing and repairing of our clothes.
Yet, a question remains: how we can design an openness to this value in our clothes, to keep them in the long run and to facilitate a more sustainable life with our garments? I know that I will keep the jeans that I repaired here, and wear them proudly, since I personalized them with my time, labor, and personal story. On the other hand, while reuse shows us the ways to be productive and positive, it doesn’t respond much to what we should do when we feel the opposite. Maybe, garments imbued with sadness will find their way to a second-hand shop, to create new possibilities for consumers oblivious of the memories these garments carry with them.
Clothes are matter in motion, as everyday garments encapsulate processes of change and personal stories. When I look at my wardrobe in this way, the mnemonics of clothes show the power to unpack hidden meanings, values, and desires. I think this may be one of the reasons why the practice of repair, upcycling, and reuse starts with an idea of care and attention. Merging memories and creative actions, upcycled clothes have the potential to nourish both our physical and inner world. I must certainly agree with Louise Bourgeois: clothing is a memory exercise.
Sanem Odabaşi is a PhD candidate from Eskisehir in Turkey and a Visiting Scholar at Parsons in 2019. Her research focuses on practices of upcycling, and personal relationships and memory in fashion.