Memory of Clothes

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Tasha Cobb considers the intersections between clothes and memory.

Memory of Clothes exhibition poster

On 15 January 2019 Helen Barff and Suzy Joinson, an artist and a writer respectively, came to the University of Brighton to discuss their research into clothing and memory. This forms the basis for an exciting new podcast and exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. The talk followed a seminar for students on the MA module History of Fashion and Dress: New Directions, led by Annebella Pollen, on the subject of interventions and creative responses to dress collections, in which we discussed recent research exploring dress, memory and oral/personal histories and considered the possibilities for including these ‘disruptive’ narratives in dress displays and exhibitions.

Suzy and Helen have been working with Worthing Museum’s outstanding collection of everyday dress, linking garments with the memories of local women. Their research comprises interviews and workshops with elderly residents of care homes in the town, where they encountered rich and often surprising stories about the women’s lives through the 20th century. Being led by these oral histories, the researchers could explore how the clothing in Worthing’s collection spoke of, or ran counter to, memories of life in the town. Suzy and Helen brought selected garments to the workshops in order to test whether the pieces matched the women’s memories, or whether they sparked further recollections. For example, one resident was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during WWII and recalled feeling extremely proud and glamorous in her uniform. The Worthing collection has an exemplary selection of military uniforms, so Suzy and Helen were able to bring a WAAF beret to the session.

Figure 1: Helen Barff. Work in Progress. 2019. Cyanotype on fabric. 97 x 76 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the seminar Suzy and Helen discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by using oral history to inform a creative exhibit. The practical and ethical implications of interviewing the elderly were also fascinating. The researchers initially planned to ask participants to write their clothing memories on postcards which would be integrated into the exhibition space. However, many of the women were unable to write and preferred to talk, so they switched to an oral history methodology, capturing memories through audio recordings which Suzy is now developing into a podcast.

The nature of the topic meant that interviews could be long and rambling, encompassing numerous anecdotes and intimate details. As other researchers have noted, clothing elicits strong and very personal biographical memories.[i] Additionally, the elderly residents could struggle to remember specific details and especially chronologies of events, meaning there was much to be unravelled.

We listened to a recording of an interview between Suzy and Jackie, in her early 90s, in which Jackie recalls her time in the Women’s Land Army (WLA), characterised both by hard labour and new-found independence. She has strong memories of the uniforms and how these were intrinsic to the women’s identities as contributors to the war effort. Helen explained how she has been working with a cognitive psychologist, Catherine Loveday, who is researching the link between clothing and memory. In biographical memories, including those involving clothes, there is a ‘reminiscence bump’ whereby memories dating from a person’s young adulthood (roughly aged 17-25) are strongest. For the participants of this research, young adulthood coincided with WWII, so the project captured some fascinating stories from this period.

In ongoing research, Loveday is using brain scans to test memories associated with different objects. Findings suggest that clothing, along with music, elicit the strongest reactions. A correspondence already explored by numerous authors in fashion studies, material culture, psychology and beyond, there is no one explanation for clothing’s heightened significance to memory.[i] However clothing, more than simply housing the body, can be thought of as a ‘second skin’ through and with which the body experiences the world.[ii] As well as contributing to our sense of self, clothing is inherently sensory, involving not only touch but smell, sight and sound.[iii] Second-hand clothing often ‘stands in’ for an absent body, or else it seems uncannily invested with traces of its former wearer. This could be through physical traces, marks, tears and smells: as Bethan Bide notes, clothing ‘take[s] an imprint of the body’.[iv]


Figure 2: Helen Barff. Work in Progress (detail). 2019. Jesmonite, rope, concrete. 675 x 65 x 25 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

The idea of memory becoming embedded in clothing is key to Helen’s artistic practice. The central element of the upcoming exhibition are sculptural artworks created in response to the narratives explored in the research. Helen uses jesmonite to craft sculptural forms from second-hand clothing, filling garments with the substance to create an imprint from which the fabric is later removed. Helen’s work engages directly with the materiality of clothing, exploring how clothes ‘wear’ and how they physically mould to the body. Particularly intrigued by the intimacy of clothing and the relationships which it materialises (for example, mother and child), Helen explores boundaries- where does the person end and clothing begin?

Another issue which emerges through Helen’s work is the impossibility of re-creating or recovering a remembered object. Helen asked participants to describe a remembered garment, which she then attempted to rediscover by scouring charity shops. These second-hand items were then transformed by the artist, sometimes sewn together into new formations before using jesmonite to stretch and distort them, transforming them into sculpture. The result is a series of strange forms, resembling textiles but hard to the touch, and appearing somehow excessive and in unrecognisable shapes. The work speaks of the irretrievability of lost garments, and how even in personal memory these may be blurred or altered versions of the original objects. As Alison Slater writes, not only do material objects change, but our memories of dress also ‘wear’ with time.[iv]

Memory of Clothes opens on 23rd February at the Studio Gallery, Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Suzy Joinson and Helen Barff will be running a special tour and Q&A session at the museum on 6 April 2019 at 2pm.

Figure 3: Helen Barff. Work in Progress (detail). 2019. Jesmonite, rope, concrete. 675 x 65 x 25 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

[i] See, for example, Carole Hunt, “Worn clothes and textiles as archives of memory,” Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty 5.2 (2014): 224-228; Robyn Gibson, “Introduction,” The Memory of Clothes, ed. Robyn Gibson (Rotterdam: Sense, 2015) xiii.

[ii] Lucia Ruggerone, “The Feeling of Being Dressed: Affect Studies and the Clothed Body,” Fashion Theory, 21.5 (2017): 585.

[iii] Marius Kwint, “Introduction: The Physical Past,” Material Memories: Design and Evocation, ed. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 13.

[iv] Bethan Bide, “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection,” Fashion Theory, 21.4 (2017): 455.

[v] See, for example, Alison Slater, “Wearing in memory: materiality and oral histories of dress,” Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty 5.1 (2014).

[iv] Slater, “Wearing in Memory,” 136.

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