This issue, Katie Abson explores our attachment to clothes and why letting them go is so hard.
We all have that one item of clothing that we just can’t let go of, no matter how old, damaged, or dated. Even if we know we’ll never wear it again – we don’t have the heart to say goodbye. Perhaps it’s the shirt we wore on our first day of university. Or maybe it’s an ex’s hoodie that still smells faintly of their aftershave. We hold on to christening dresses, wedding gowns, leaver’s day jumpers, and, theoretically, we’ll never wear these pieces again. Some of them might not even fit us anymore. So, why do we hold on to them? Why do we emotionally attach ourselves to clothes? Why are they so important to us?
We constantly revamp our wardrobes to suit our evolving style and latest trends, but most of us simply don’t have the storage space to keep every item of clothing we purchase throughout the course of our lives. The dreaded clear-out is a must, particularly with the changing seasons. It can be a great way to sell clothes or donate to charity and to clear space for our next fashion season. Although the process can be freeing and therapeutic, it can equally be exhausting. Selecting items to donate or throw away can be painful, particularly when we feel a certain attachment to them. Memories, good and bad, are woven into the fabric of our clothes, and parting with a pair of beloved jeans bought on holiday half a decade ago can trigger an upsetting response, despite how worn-out they are. Because, to some people, it feels like saying goodbye to that memory or that part of their lives. When in reality, they are just a pair of jeans that are taking up space.
This response, although somewhat seemingly irrational, is psychologically very natural. Studies have shown that our emotional attachment to clothes develops early in our childhood. As early as the age of two, we may not understand the concept of ownership, but we certainly feel it. This evolves into attachment, and emotions such as jealousy and rage can be felt in babies when that object is taken away or given to someone else. In our teenage years, possessions begin to expand into a sense of self and can help boost self-esteem when confidence begins to dwindle. As adults, clothing can become an extension of ourselves as we begin to establish our personal style and the way we present ourselves. Loss of such items that we associate with our sense of self can ignite pain and unhappiness, our attachment turning into an obsession with finding what is lost. We are psychologically wired to claim objects as our own, later establishing meaning behind what belongs to us.
The same goes for holding onto items once belonging to another person. If that person is no longer around or accessible to us, it can feel as though we are keeping part of that person with us in the present day. Our senses are tuned into clothing, such as touch and smell, and being able to physically touch something previously owned by someone we loved can be the closest thing we still have to them. We feel connected to them in some sort of way. When you really think about it, it’s perfectly normal to want to keep possession of such beloved items.
Family heirlooms that pass through generations have associations to people we have never met formally in this lifetime, but serve to provide us with a connection to previous family members. These heirlooms may come from a time of war, struggle, love or different countries. Textiles from a certain time period and clothing made by brands that no longer exist make us cherish the item more, as we possess something that cannot be purchased anywhere else in the world. Particularly when a piece of clothing or jewellery is handmade, such as a woollen jumper knitted by a great-aunt or grandparent, the sentimentality for that object grows deeply within us. Materials that age well, such as leather, appeal to us more than a newly bought item. We search for such items in vintage stores and charity shops as they are more aesthetically pleasing to us.
A piece of clothing can go from something you throw on casually in the morning to an item you wish to cherish by the end of the day, depending on the events that follow. An old summer dress can turn into the dress you get engaged in. A satin fitted blazer can become the item you land your dream job in. The safekeeping of these clothes is significant to us as they serve as reminders of a monumental time in our lives, and consequently develop into our ‘lucky’ clothes. One item of clothing can hold many meanings and associations with wonderful memories. We hold onto them as a reminder of that time, but also in the hope of repeating similar experiences when we wear them again.
There is a multitude of reasons why we find it hard to rid ourselves of clothing. Memories are as powerful as the physical object itself, especially when the memory is heightened by vivid emotions. There is a certain beauty in the long-term possession of an item enveloped with meaning and memory recognised exclusively by the owner, and the stories that come along with it.
But be warned – there is a difference between emotional attachment and using it as an excuse to hoard clothes! At one point or another, we must give in. We can’t keep every piece of clothing we own forever. And the truth is, someone might need it more.
So, if the dreaded clear-out is in your schedule for winter, keep an open mind when rummaging through your wardrobe. And if something truly pains you to let it go – keep it safe. You’ll be reminded of happy memories when you find it once again at the back of
your wardrobe in years to come.