This essay is featured in the current issue of take care i.l.y, an independent publication based in Paris that aims to create a research space around fashion.
In early February, during Fashion Week FW18, supermodel Bella Hadid was seen on the streets of NYC in vintage Vivienne Westwood. The garment in question was a ’91 corset top with the Westwood logo emblazoned across the chest. Combined with black leather and lace-up heels, the piece added to an overall aura of utter regality.
There is no question that archival dressing is infiltrating the zeitgeist, but what are its deeper implications? Does increased interest in investment pieces from past designer collections represent a shift in consciousness?
Dame Vivienne herself has championed an ethos of “Buy less, choose well, make it last.” This stance has both environmental and social benefits, of course. It is well known that the system by which chain retailers generate disposable garments is one of the most polluting industries in the world. What is more, buying pieces previously owned by other enthusiasts makes high fashion more attainable at various income levels. But what does it mean for us personally when we choose to invest in a piece that will stay in our closet for years? Clothing is profoundly related to our emotional lives, in ways we may not fully comprehend. And engaging in resale and archival marketplaces stimulates this connection in ways that fast fashion may not.
If anyone doubts the extent to which cherished items of clothing can take on symbolic value, it serves to read an interview with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele from Antidote Magazine in which he claims that “the right accessory is like a relic.” The Creative Director goes so far as to call himself a “fetishist obsessed with objects.” This mindset is modern, yet emerges from early civilization. In her book Aesthetic Sexuality, author Romana Byrne explains that a certain subset of educated citizens in ancient Greece practiced the art of “self-fashioning,” through which nothing less than one’s personal ethics were thought to be visible through choice of clothing.
Pieces that stay with us for long periods of time can become deeply associated with important memories. Our own personal archives are often infused with recollections both positive and traumatic. Many people remember what they were wearing when they started a new job, or had their heart broken. Flashbacks can arise as we recall how a material made us feel, or the way a piece imbued us with a certain power we wanted to summon. French novelist Marcel Proust, famed for his seven-part series In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past), described this concept as “involuntary memory.” If voluntary memory is the act of trying consciously to remember the past, involuntary memory occurs when a feeling comes flooding back through association. According to Proust, “the past is hidden somewhere […] in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us).” When we look into our closets, and our eyes fall on the pieces that have accompanied us through so much of life, we can also— as Proust says— “hear the echo of great spaces traversed.”
A peek into the mind of a style professional confirms this idea. Emily Seger, a trend forecaster at Freeze CMI and MintModa, says that when she looks at each item in her closet, “I remember when and where I got the piece, how I felt and why I bought it.” There are many pieces that she associates with positive memories. “I have a Suno top that is my go-to for first impressions, even meeting the significant other’s parents and job interviews. Putting on clothing with an intention is equal to the memories made. I dress according to how I want to affect myself and perhaps others.” In speaking of the difference in how she relates to archival items and fast fashion, Emily muses, “Of course well-made items are more cherished and sometimes require more care. For me, vintage or rare items are just as important even if they were originally inexpensive.” She shares an anecdote about how a cleaning service recently misplaced multiple pieces from her collection. In having to describe each item in hopes of retrieving them, she initially felt “more and more worried,” and then “silly,” before realizing that her concern came from the importance of “the memories I had wearing them as well as the memories I had hoped to create in the future. Luckily all was recovered.”
The shadow side of the positive value that clothing may hold is, of course, association with trauma. If we live through something distressing while wearing a certain garment, are we as likely to keep it? Why do we speak of spaces and buildings as being haunted, but not clothing? Sigmund Freud often spoke of the mind forgetting what the body does not. Fashion, with its element of deeply personal physicality, can be a form of remembering. A physical object can become a container of memory even as its owner seeks to disavow the experience. We have few inhibitions around throwing away clothing, since we can always purchase something cheaper that is devoid of any complicated personal meaning. The longer we own something, however, the more likely those associations are to change, as our perspective on the event shifts. We are often congratulated for relinquishing belongings, but it can be meaningful to keep something that reminds us of a difficult time.
Fashion Month FW18 included strong showings from established brands such as Calvin Klein, Gucci, and Prada, as well as emerging designers like Dilara Findikoglu and Marine Serre. Those who follow fashion are flooded each day with beautiful imagery and thousands of new ideas that reflect what is happening in our society, and what is to come. Certain voices in the industry are beginning to point out the overwhelming nature of staying afloat in the midst of this endless proliferation— perhaps most notably Raf Simons on the cover of System Magazine in 2015, surrounded by a field of wildflowers and claiming that “incubation time [for ideas] is very important.” An archival item from one’s favorite fashion house can satisfy this need for a sense of time honored. When newness abounds, it can become more exclusive, more covetable, to own a piece from a designer’s deep past.
Our society prioritizes rapidly overcoming emotion, as though a natural reaction to life’s events were an enemy to be conquered. Even the language we use is industrial; one speaks of “processing” one’s feelings, rather than experiencing them. The allotted amount of time off for grieving employees in the corporate world is sometimes as few as two to three days. Our dominant culture is unquestionably one of hasty disposal. But is there an alternative? Cherishing our belongings in a throwaway society is nothing less than an act of rebellion. When a beloved garment stays with us through various seasons, it accompanies our emotions, both beautiful and distressing. A carefully considered wardrobe is a symbol of acceptance of our experiences. And this represents a deeper investment— not only in our closets, but in our lives.