On the Act of Dressing

When I was about to enter the fifth grade, my father had an idea to combat my constant tardiness to school. After my back-to-school shopping trip to Old Navy, he had me put on my different outfits, so he could take photos. And that way I’d have this Rolodex of outfit ideas, and hopefully I wouldn’t take so long to get ready, and arrive at school on time. One outfit consisted of flared red plaid stretchy pants, and a bright white short sleeved collared shirt. Another consisted of a denim skirt, the same white shirt, and knee-high argyle socks in pale blue and purple. I also had a burnt orange-copper backpack on wheels. For Christmas that year, I received a pair of thick knitted rainbow striped stockings, which I remember wearing to school with my denim skirt, and a matching rainbow striped belted cardigan sweater.

That bright white collared shirt became a staple of my sixth-grade style, when I began wearing my dad’s old ties with Dickey’s and Van’s shoes--not the hip checkerboard slip-ons, but the puffy, chunky lace up sneakers-- purchased at the discount department store, Mervyn’s. Eventually these were outgrown and abandoned in the pursuit of a new style.

Themed dress up days were part of the middle school experience, from pajama day to twin day to crazy hair day. Once, I convinced my parents that it was a crazy dress up day, so I could wear an outfit I had dreamt up-- a black t-shirt that said ‘Wonder Woman’ in rainbow-glitter letters, a vintage pleated plaid skirt, knee high rainbow toe socks, and pink high top Chuck Taylor’s.

There is something wonderful about the act of getting dressed. Standing in front of your closet, or open drawers, and seeing all of this possibility-- although sometimes it can feel baffling or overwhelming, and the best you can do is a t-shirt and sweatpants. Putting on your favorite sweater, a bright-tomato-red crewneck in the softest merino wool, that makes you feel invincible, yet cozy.

Clothes have the ability to amplify our feelings--about ourselves as a person, and about our bodies, separate from who we are. 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.

Shortly after entering the ninth grade, our dog passed away. To comfort me, and get me out of the house, my mom took me to the Rose Bowl Flea Market. She said she would buy me one dress, although I can’t remember if there was a price limit or not, the one I ended up with was only $12. It had a wide-rounded neckline, with an off-white synthetic yoke embroidered with red stitching. The body of the dress was made of the same off-white synthetic fabric, printed with large red polka-dots, and a zipper in the back. That was probably the first time shopping was a way to deal with emotions. On days when I am in a crappy mood, going to a store--usually a second hand shop, because the thrill of finding something fabulous hidden amongst the mundane is part of what makes it so curative-- and running my fingers over fabrics, and admiring all the different garments brings my mood back up. My friend Veronica and I have a term for the emotional shopping we do: ‘a shopping accident’. ‘A shopping accident’ usually occurs online, after scrolling blindly through the sale section of an expensive retailer, and buying something we might not have otherwise, because our emotional state told us to.

It was during high school that I got into shopping at thrift stores and flea markets. My best friend Ellis and I had a route we would make. If we started at my house, we would go to the Clare Foundation on Pico at 10th street. When you walked in, it was dark and musty. I remember rifling through a giant bin and coming up with a short sleeve cashmere sweater, which they sold to me for only a few dollars. Nothing had a price tag. You would walk up to counter with your pile, and they’d come up with a total. From there, we’d go to the Salvation Army, which operated two stores next to each other--one was smaller, and specifically for ‘designer’ or ‘high-end’ goods, but we never went in that one. The Salvation Army offers the chance to ‘choose your own adventure’. Wiley racks of uncurated garments, loosely grouped by some system of organization allow you to spend hours searching for just the right thing. Ellis and I would always say to ourselves, “Someone with good taste died” when the racks were particularly full of good finds. I still have a scarf I bought on one of those trips, a giant polyester triangle printed with paisleys and trimmed with 12-inch-long cream fringe. If we started from Ellis’s house, we would walk to Main street, where there were several secondhand shops. On one of those trips, St. Matthew’s Thrift Store was having a sale. I remember coming home and my mom being horrified by what I had bought--all I can remember is a purple vest and a white ruffled shirt, which I wore for Halloween that year, dressed as a pirate.

Maybe it was not what I bought that horrified her, but more so the act of wearing another person’s clothes. I don’t have any siblings, so I didn’t grow up with hand-me-downs--although my father’s younger brother once sent a box of clothes that once passed between his three daughters, which were great for playing dress up; one dress was black with large puffy sleeves and white polka dots and a red bow, another was pink and satiny.

Clothes have a memory. They carry signs of being worn. Armpits become yellow with time and sweat. They mold to our form. Off the body, you can still see where an elbow would stick out. 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.

Clothes also hold the memories of things that happened while wearing them. That polka dot dress will forever be associated with the passing of a beloved pet, but also with moving past the grief and finding joy again. My black pleated skirt, woven with pink, green and metallic flowers, will always hold the memory of a first kiss. Holding these memories is just part of the power of clothing.