Cloth(ing) as Witness

Our skin is marked with spots, and lines; dimples and freckles; scars, cuts and bruises. We might use cosmetics to conceal these marks, but they are there, as signs of our body having been in the world and lived in. Clothing is often referred to as a ‘second skin’. But we do not like when our second skin becomes stained or torn. We bleach and scrub; patch and mend.

Clothes have the ability to amplify our feelings--about ourselves as a person, and about our bodies, separate from who we are. Clothing allows us to express ourselves as individuals, or as a collective. We can stand out or blend in. They allow us to individualize our bodies, and alter their form by hiding or accentuating certain parts. We might like to think of it as purely utilitarian--a covering to protect the skin from the elements, or something that is necessary because we can’t (always) walk around in the nude--but clothing is deeply personal, whether we like it or not. Clothing has also long served as a form of communication. It can be used to communicate what tribe or group or clique you belong to. It can be used to communicate your socioeconomic status, or the socioeconomic status that you wished you belonged to. Clothing can communicate your music preferences. It can communicate your morals or beliefs. Clothing is able to make the loud statements we are too shy to say with words.

A garment becomes beloved because it brings out positive feelings. It makes you feel strong, beautiful, or sexy. It makes you comfortable in your skin and with your body. Other garments sit and languish because they don’t fit quite right, either too big or too small. Or because you wore it and something happened that made you feel bad about yourself, maybe a rude comment or a breakup. And now, when looking into your closet, you are reminded of those memories, the emotions lingering in the fibers of the garments. You just can’t separate those emotions from the garment, and so it gets tucked away into the back of the closet.

The clothing we wear is often the only witness to our lives. It is a witness to public moments of success or discomfort, and private moments of celebration or sorrow. Our clothes are a record of the everyday. In the act of getting dressed, we are deciding what garments are going to witness our life that day. What garments are going to keep a record of our body and its interactions with the world, and others--did we sweat a lot because we were uncomfortable?; did we spill any food down our front during lunch?; did we cry and wipe our eyes on our sleeve?; did our pant leg or sleeve get snagged on any furniture?; did we trip on a curb and fall?

These moments captured on our clothes--a pulled thread, a stain, a rip--are how the cloth keeps a record of emotions, actions, and time. And yet we view these as a failure on behalf of the garment. We go to great lengths to make our clothes look brand new, no matter how long we’ve owned them. But in doing so, we are bleaching away the record of our own life in the garment.


Garments that Witness

There is a new television series called The Laundry Guy, where a man named Patric Richardson comes to your house, and helps remove stains from beloved textile objects such as quilts and clothes. He doesn’t use harsh chemicals, only things you can find in your pantry. On his show, he is told sentimental stories about the textile and its origins, and then he removes the stains. In one episode, he restores a wedding dress--a garment that is only worn once to witness a celebration of love and commitment--that had severe smoke damage from a fire back to its glorious, pristine, virgin white state. 

In fashion designer Hussein Chalayan’s spring/summer 2016 runway show, two models stood still on the runway in paperlike plain white shirt dresses. Other models paraded between them, strutting down the catwalk. At the end of the show, hidden showerheads above the models rained down on them. Their paper dresses quickly began to fall apart and disappear. Underneath, it was revealed that they were wearing delicate sleeveless silky evening dresses, embellished with Swarovski crystals.

In the early 1990’s, Hypercolor t-shirts became incredibly popular. They were dyed with leuco dyes, which disappear when heat is applied. A warm hand placed on the shirt would cause the image of the hand to appear. A hot and sweaty back would cause a noticeable splotch to appear. Anywhere there was heat, either applied or naturally occurring on the body, the dye would disappear momentarily.

The pioneering avant garde musician and artist Charlotte Moorman performed Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece multiple times throughout her career. The premise of the work is that the performer's garment is slowly cut up and cut apart by viewers, one snip at a time. Several of Moorman’s cut up garments were mounted on canvas and displayed in a touring retrospective, A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s. The mounted garments record a moment of intimacy, where viewers were invited to violate the garment, and reveal the body in a gentle, yet violent way.

The quipu was a textile device used in Andean cultures across South America as a way to record information. It consisted of one main cord or rope, and had many cords that were attached to, and hung from, that main rope. Those secondary cords were knotted over time as a way to record numerical information. The quipu was a soft, portable, and wearable way to record information in a culture without an alphabetic writing system.


Cloth(ing) + Memory

Clothes have a memory. They carry signs of being worn. Where they age, stain and fall apart shows us the relationship that our garments have had with our body over the years. Fabrics respond to our emotional states by absorbing our sweat--armpits become yellow with time and sweat. Like an Aran sweater, they mold to our form. Off the body, you can still see where an elbow would stick out. Threads wear away in spots of constant friction. Seams come apart after years of stress from movement. Waistbands stretch as bodies change. Buttons fall off. Zippers break. A sweater unravels.

Our bodies are often imprinted with the ghosts of what we wore that day. Too tight bands and underwire of a bra. Waistbands. The side seams of jeans. A corset. Close fitting garments that hold and squeeze the body leave impressions of their form on tender skin. Garments can mark the body, leaving a memory of being worn. But when the garments become marked by wear, we see that as a sign of failure.

Wearing something that used to belong to another person, usually a stranger, means wearing their memories, and making your own on top of theirs. You are re-molding that garment from their form to yours. Or, maybe it was something that wasn’t worn much to begin with. Maybe, for the previous owner, it was a garment tinged with a bad memory. Then you are giving that garment another chance at life. Of being worn, and accumulating those stains and signs of life and wear. When someone passes away, clothing can feel like the most concrete way of holding onto them. Their body once inhabited that garment. The scent of the person still lingers in the fibers. Stains, marks, and holes remind you of how the person lived.

A garment is a living document. Every time it is worn, a new entry is created. New smells are added. Spots and stains. The fabric will wear away a little each time and become softer and thinner, until it can’t hold together any longer. These changes might not be evident after each wear, but over time and washings, the use of the garment will become apparent.


Garments that Remember

But we don’t like it when our clothes fall apart. More often than not, we throw them away, instead of repairing them. We see this response to use as a failure on the part of the garment. For so long, we have understood our garments as a second skin. It must shield and protect. So, would the failure of clothing be a failure of purpose? What if we designed our garments to fall apart in response to our bodies, and in that falling/failing, to communicate on our behalf.

Driven by that desire, I have decided that I want my clothes to fall apart. Not unravel. Not come apart at the seams. But come apart in the same nuanced way a person can fall apart, but still be physically held together. I want my clothes to remember, keep record, and witness the everyday. To achieve this, I have begun to make my own clothing out of dissolving material. Dissolving material has often been used during the creation of embellishments on clothing. It is a backing that can make a cloth stronger, and then be washed away when it is no longer needed.

When I am in the practice of crying, and I wipe my nose and eyes on my sleeve, my sleeve will begin to dissolve where it has been marked with snot and tears. When I am uncomfortable during therapy, my armpits sweat heavily, and that place where the sleeve and side seam meet will melt away. Those crevices created by folded arms accumulate sweat while walking and talking on the phone on a hot summer day. Behind the knees. Between the legs. I want my clothes to remember those places, witness those emotions and keep record by dissolving.

Wearing a garment that dissolves is an act of incredible vulnerability. It highlights and accentuates the humanness that some people go to great lengths to conceal. We use antiperspirants and other products to mask these bodily functions we deem embarrassing. As the garment dissolves, parts of the body are exposed. And because of the nature of the dissolving, I might not even notice when my body has become exposed. Armpits, elbows, knees and backs might not seem like the most intimate of places on the body, but the act of dissolving makes the entire body become a site of intimacy.

At the end of the day, the garment has become an artifact, a moment of time and emotion recorded by way of dissolving. It has molded to the body. It has witnessed emotions, splashed water, and perhaps even a bit of weather. Instead of viewing a garment as ruined, because it has been worn and lived in, the dissolving material of these garments captures the moments of being worn and lived in. The history of being worn has been paused and preserved, as a record of the ever changing body, and emotional state of being.