Recently I read an article about a woman who is considered to be an oracle in the fashion world. When she looked into her crystal ball, she saw people simplifying their wardrobes, moving towards organic fibers and dyes, and buying well-made, long-lasting garments that could be repurposed later on. She went so far as to predict that in the next few decades, we will treasure our possessions so much that they will have derived an almost animate life of their own.
It made me think about that when we bring care to the things around us, we bring meaning to our lives. The orchid that is blooming on my table was given to me by a friend who wove it into a poem, and now it’s a gentle presence that lives between us. Orchids have taught me to care for orchids, just as my canary once taught me to care for birds. Sometimes it’s a loss that awakens the love. Once, I put all my favorite sweaters in a bag that accidentally went to Goodwill, and the loss of those mostly handmade sweaters taught me to more tenderly care for my clothes.
My grandmother knew this kind of care. Years ago, after she had moved to a retirement home, I went through her dresser drawers and held each one of her cherished belongings. She treasured everything that might serve some future purpose – pieces of fabric, silken embroidery thread, buttons and trim, all living in their own special boxes and tin containers. She never kept anything cheap and she always looked for quality in the materials she used, whether it was wool for knitting, or flour for baking her heavenly bread and hot cross buns.
My father used to call the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 60s the ‘throwaway generation.’ It wasn’t our fault, of course. We grew up in a throwaway culture. Everything was disposable, including, I felt, our own selves. I did not treat my body with care in adolescence, let alone the things around me. I was uprooted many times, moving from school to school in a whirlwind. I belonged to the Wizard of Oz generation, and Oz was the dream advertised to us on TV. We were taught to work hard so that we could make money and buy more disposable things. Things were supposed to bring us happiness, but we didn’t have to look any further than Oz to know that the promise was false. Accumulating things would not make us happy, and many of us eschewed the possession of things. Now I think objects might bring us happiness if they were less disposable. If we cared about them more.
In the back of my mind I keep seeing the steadfast tin soldier in Hans Christian Andersen’s story. He is lying on the table, discarded by the boys playing soldiers on the floor. He only has one leg and so he’s destined for the disposal bin. But he finds himself falling in love with the paper dancer who is twirling in front of a paper castle. Love animates him and moves him out of the myth that he is nothing more than a flawed, disposable object. The story suggests to me that if we were to develop a more loving relationship with things–give them a longer life, repurpose them instead of throwing them away–we might do the same for ourselves.
In the spirit of bringing things to life, I thought I’d share something I wrote years ago. I have a backless red dress that I still haven’t been able to let go. It’s been with me since I left my husband in 1987. I bought it because it represented hope for a new life, passion and romance. My clothing had reflected an identification with men from the time I had started university. I wore shirts, trousers, vests and ties. I never wore dresses. I disdained frills.
I bought the red dress to take me into a new, more feminine era. I wore it only a couple of times and they were disasters, so I never wore it again. But I couldn’t throw it out and I didn’t know why until the red dress started to speak. She had a whiskey voice and lots to say so I allowed her words to flow through. I wrote them in red ink and vowed not to edit her. A hundred pages later, when the red dress had had a full airing, I wrapped the pages up in the dress. It still sits in my bookcase, like the pelt of the Seal Woman.
Here’s what she said when she started to speak.
The Red Dress
What has stayed in the closet? Are you asking me? Ha! What is it now? Twenty-two years I’ve been hanging here—no longer in plastic (thank heavens) but doubled over in a clump on a metal (ugh!) hanger. I’m a backless red dress made of the finest, VIRGIN wool crepe. I am your own personal FEMME FATALE. I laugh at you from my hanger. I am Erishkigal to your Inanna. I hang here in the dark waiting for you but you won’t wear me. Why?
Oh, for godsake. Forget the past! So we had a little trauma. Get over it! You never should have worn me to that wedding, you say. Well, that’s gratitude for you. I thought you looked smashing walking into the church wearing me (and little else). I think they were expecting the bride—all heads turned to the rear of the church, and in you strode. I told you, throw your shoulders back, show up, show everything, come on, we’ve got to carry this thing off! And, well, yes, who was looking back at you but friends of the ex-husband you’d thrown off only a year before. They weren’t about to forgive you now, were they? Not wearing me, looking as if you were there to sweep up the groom!
They shunned you. Oh, so what. You sat alone in the only unoccupied pew. Everybody else jammed in, shoulder-to-shoulder and nobody to sit beside you. Boo-hoo. And it was cold in that church, you won’t forget that either, I know your nipples remember.
Oh, and then there’s that little thing about the DOG. Must we go there? You couldn’t handle the rejection one second longer and you vanished from the crowd long before the reception. Scuttled home, an exile. What a tragedy!!
Only to come back to your aunt’s house and walk into the door to more trauma—your normally pleasant, serene aunt, white-faced and frantic, telling you that her husband had taken their black lab to the vet because he’d thrown up his innards in the heating vents! “There’s blood in all the pipes!” she shrieked. How he managed to upchuck his intestines is anyone’s guess. All night long you lay in bed, nose full of blood and viscera.
Okay, so we had a bit of a rocky start, but what did you expect when you bought me? I’d been hoping for a braver frame upon which to hang myself!
What are you doing? No, come on, you don’t want to take me down. You’re not going to FOLD me, are you? Oh, come on, you know full well that if you put me in that bag you’ll regret it. You won’t be able to show up. I’m warning you. You’ll just get smaller and smaller. You’ll go from blue to moss green to brown, and it’s straight on from there to black. Come to think of it, you’ve already arrived. You need me, I’m telling you. Your glory days will be over, my friend.
Fine, then. Shut me up if you must but don’t give me to the Goodwill for godsake. Find me a real home. I don’t know, who do you know who wants me? Oh, come on, you must know someone. Everybody wants a little GLAMOUR in their life!
Well now, I see you didn’t stuff me into the bag. You tried me on for size. Pretty good fit, eh? You haven’t put on a pound since 1986. I see you’ve torn out the shoulder pads, good for you. Water off a duck’s back. You’ve got perfect shoulders. I enjoy hanging off them. I was made for those bones.
I know the problem you’re having with me. I’m not dim. I can see what you think. You put me on and you’re going to get judged—plain and simple. There’s a curse on red and everything 80s and I’ll hit a double whammy. Not to mention the fact that nobody dresses up anymore. There’s no room for glamour or sequins in your crowd. Gone are your feathers and pelts. You’re trying to figure out what drawer your husband hid your wings in. There’s no use blaming him. He’s no ballroom dancer, but he likes red so much that he smeared himself all over with his mother’s red lipstick when he was just a little buck. So he’s not the bad guy. There’s no one to blame but you for stowing your wings away.
I see good times ahead for us. I do. Hang onto me. Throw me in a suitcase. I’m virgin wool crepe—I won’t be crushed!