Clothes for playing with spirits
The clothes remember the body, that's a fact: our sweat, our dead cells, our weight fluctuations, and, to be completely sentimental, even our blood and tears are inscribed in them. Every stain on the clothes has its story; every rift is a sign of a small turbulence on and in the body. In the end, the body dies, but clothes often remain, defying the aggressive consumerism and the constant imperatives of accumulation and changing of things.
When eighteen years ago my grandfather died unexpectedly, I remember how my grandmother soon after had to dole out a good deal of his clothes, to clear away his things. However, she didn't allow for a part of his clothes to be tampered with. So, I remember there was a wardrobe where, for a few years, my grandfather's clothes were hanging: his caps, vests, dark blue suits: although my grandparents were working class people, the suits for church always had to be fine and of quality.
That wardrobe became something like my grandmother's domestic shrine; it could be opened only on her permission, and it had to pass five or six years after, until I was, on my own request, allowed to inherit his caps. All the caps had a yellow marking in the area above the forehead, carrying an imprint of his face. My grandfather was still alive in that wardrobe - his void filled up his clothes, or his clothes wore him, the memory of him. A fairly large, swarthy man of a hunched stature lived as a house spirit in the hallway wardrobe.
There was one other thing I remember – an intense smell of camphor with which grandmother, to make it easier on herself, decontaminated those wardrobes full of memories as to actually eliminate that which is inevitably reminiscent of death – the smell.
Somehow, I've always later avoided second-hand clothes – I really couldn’t bear the intense smell encapsulated in it. The primary, most immediate feature of one's clothes (be that person alive or dead) is most definitely the smell and the inability of its withdrawal. That actually led me to think about clothes as inevitable carriers of their owner's characteristics, as well as carriers of memories.
A theoretician Peter Stallybrass in his essay “Worn Worlds: Clothing, Mourning and the Life of Things” discusses the relationship towards worn clothes by observing their performative potential and their symbolic role via autobiographical testimonies, letters, novelistic production and the history of English society.
Stallybrass, prompted by the death of his best friend and the reorganization of the abundance of his stuff, started thinking about clothes and the “magic of cloth”. “When our parents, our friends, our lovers die, the clothes in their closets still hang there, holding their gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead”, the author writes. Thinking about clothes, he states that despite the passing fashions and styles, the bodies are what really comes and goes, and the clothes inherit the ones that survive. Then they start circulating through secondhand shops, rummage sales, through generations of younger and older children, from father/grandfather to son, from mother/grandmother to daughter.
As Stallybrass explains, clothes receive the human imprint, unlike jewelry which lasts longer but resists the history of our bodies. He concludes that the dimension of smell is what sets clothes apart and what defines them; it is what inscribes memory in them: of the body, of mortality, of an absent presence.
If clothes are able to absorb our absent presence, to render a game at the boundary between life and death, at least on an ultimately symbolical level, I believe that my aversion of second-hand clothes was born out of this idea.
The outmost feeling of unease, realized in the antropomorphization of clothes, I experienced before the work of Christian Boltanski. To be more precise, I was immersed in his work: a claustrophobic room whose walls are made up of piles of worn clothes, through which Boltanski mediates a metaphor of absence and deals with the experience of collective trauma. Uninhabited clothes in his work become a marker of various destinies, a magnified sign of unease. The pronounced smell he used to fill his installation, the smell of used clothes, was actually a signifier of someone's presence.
Boltanski thus refers to a conceptual equalization of quality between used clothes and the body. “My exhibitions are about bodies, and the bodies smell”, the artist explains in one of his interviews. Finally, he believes in resurrection, the circulation of things, recycling in an ontological sense, admitting that this worldview affects his work. If we decide to give attention and some love to discarded things, as he sentimentally explains, then we offer them new life.
The information that worn clothing carries makes it multi-dimensional, as opposed to the glorification of the new as the only desirable quality. Displaced from a specific (time) context, it wanders seeking addressees and deconstructs the strict linearity of time.
Regardless of whether I bestowed new life to an old dress – which also bore witness to the lives of its previous owners – or the dress found me and will outlive my body, I gave in to the game with spirits, whether they are real or not.