The Private Museum of Loved Ones' Clothes

Our friend Beth came over for dinner the other evening and wore a Scandinavian ski sweater knit by her mother, Martha, in her twenties. The pattern presented leaping stags, geometric foliage and tiny ecru snowflakes; it was finished with mother of pearl buttons thick as poker chips.

Ski sweater, ca. 1942

It is more than a magnificent example of the craft; its stitches carry her memory. I could almost see the petite, slim young student; though Beth pointed to a few tiny signs of wear, the wool had held up for over seventy-five years. 

There is a particular sweetness in life in a loved one's garment; it is no longer "just clothes", but an echo of that person's essence. 

Sometimes, simply preserving the object is enough. When my sister died in the early '80s, I took several items from her closet. My favourite was a burnt-orange terry robe infused with her fragrance, L'Air du Temps. I still have (but no longer fit into) my mother's satin wedding-suit blouse, an appiquéd cashmere bolero, and her pigskin driving gloves. 

Wedding blouse, 1931

Beth has a blue sweater-jacket that her mother wore often at the family's cottage, and a finely-woven woollen shirt, which, she says, "...was my paternal grandfather's—my mother gave it to me when they cleaned his things out, forty years ago, and it became my studio shirt when I'm painting or in cool weather. I love it and it seems to be indestructible." She has had to replace only the odd button.  

Plaid woollen shirt, ca. 1965

I would give anything to still have my mother's skeet-shooting jacket. The back and arms were knit of a wool so thin and strong it was like chain mail; the front was caramel leather with bellows pockets to hold shells. I wore it for years, complete with the objects tucked in its pockets when she gave it to me, a linen hanky and a golf tee. I lost it during a move decades ago; a whole box vanished between two houses. 

We love those things; they cannot be bought, any more than that beloved person can be duplicated. Even the most generic or modest piece—an apron, a little hat—reflects the personality, the style, the voice. We mend moth holes, ignore stains, and when it's absolutely past wearing, we save the buttons, or a label. 

May we have a tour of your museum? What do you have, and whose was it?


Venasque said…
I have my father's thin gardening belt and my mother's kid gloves. She always wore long kid gloves to her elbow and my sisters used to give them to her for Christmas. I also have a pair of white over the elbow kid gloves that were hers. I can't fit into any of them but as you say, they have her scent still. I also used to have her sewing kit but a couple of years ago mice got at it and I had to throw it out. It was very sad.
Susan B said…
I still wear (and love) my Grandmother's sheer silk square scarf from Liberty. It's probably 70 years old now and is still gorgeous.
Madame Là-bas said…
I have my grandma's wedding dress from 1930 and my great-great aunt's fur coat from 1917 when she came from England to live in Winnipeg.
sgillie said…
I have my father's and grandfather's Pendleton jackets. My father's is red plaid, my grandfather's a blue plaid. Buying a Pendleton jacket years ago meant you had "arrived." You could afford quality that would last forever.
My mother was a seamstress and artist. I have a hat she made-hundreds of feathers glued perfectly to form a pillbox hat. I also have her collection of gloves.
materfamilias said…
I have a vest, hand-knit for my father by his sister -- in fingering-weight wool, rusts and browns and creams in a chevron-striped pattern. She would have knit it at some point between 1942 when, at 15, he headed off into the risky waters plied by the British Merchant Marines, until possibly as late as mid-50s when he'd settled in Canada and begun family life. I don't remember him wearing it much, but I always remember it being in my parents' room. He loved my mother passionately, was very happy with us in Canada, but he had loved his home and family in North Yorkshire very deeply and he missed them. The vest is moth-holed, unravelled in spots, and about ten years ago, I had the idea I might try to copy it in similar yarns. Time passed, though, and now I'm just happy to have it in my drawer always, to reach past it as I choose my clothes for the day.

I also have a t-shirt that my Uncle Danny had made and gave to my dad when, at 72 my uncle made his first visit ever to his Canadian brother. On the front of the shirt is the text Dan and Ken Then, over a photo of the two boys, perhaps 8 and 10, still in short pants; on the back, Dan and Ken Now, and a picture of the two of them lifting a pint together, hugging, taken during Dad's visit a couple of years earlier. I have those two photos in the frame my Mom had made, but the t-shirt also holds the memory of my Uncle's shock at seeing how frail my Dad had become since. The photo of the two older gents he'd reproduced as Dan and Ken now represented Dad with that telltale effect of chemo /steroids, puffy, slightly swollen of face. In the time since, he'd been chiselled right down to essence. So difficult for my uncle to see his "little brother" that way, but beautiful, too, that they had that week together. . . So that t-shirt I'll hang onto although I'm not sure it ever got worn, an XL for a man who'd gone from 200 to 90 pounds. . . Sorry if it seems I've gone on and on to leave a sad story on your post, but honestly, I don't feel sad at all when I take that t-shirt out. It's comforting, that material (no pun intended) connection. to two lovely men, both gone now. . .
Frugal Scholar said…
Hello Duchesse--I was going to undertake the arduous (tongue-in-cheek) task of signing into this email account so I could tell you how extraordinary you look in those pearls. Truly an aesthetic rush--especially the one with all the layered strands.

But this post--even more extraordinary. I could present a long list of perhaps too many things saved--or rescued--given my birth family's prediction for tossing everything. I have a ski sweater made by my great aunt for my mother in college, a dirdl worn by my grandmother before the family escaped from almost certain death in Vienna--on and on.

I am sure you will get many lists from your readers. My contribution: an incredible essay written by Peter Stallybrass, which centers on the experience of wearing a friend's jacket given to him by the widow: "Worn Worlds"--Yale Review 1993.
Unknown said…
I had two of my mother's beaded cashmere sweaters from the early 60's. Having worn and treasured them I recently passed them on to my lovely 28 year old daughter, who fits into them much better than I do now, and who misses her grandma as much as I miss my mom.
I come from a long line of sentimental folk. My sisters and I all have many clothing and baby items from my mother and her side of the family. I have have velvet beaded and embroidered evening purses from my grandmother. We split up the hand sewn and beaded wedding and ball gowns - for Barbie dolls - that our aunt made. I have my mother's 1946 satin wedding gown, which had a fitted waist and covered buttons down the train, along with her pearl tiara, which she had hand beaded. In her cedar chest, she had kept for 57 years her satin and lace honeymoon peignoir set. After her death five years ago, I posted a photograph on Facebook of my mother at a cousin's wedding. She was wearing a chiffon gown in a deep blue print and was surrounded by her granddaughters, all bridesmaids in their gowns. A friend of my daughter's saw the photograph and surprised me with an painting of the scene. I can never part with the gown or the painting. I have several of her blazers and structured cardigan jackets and wear them often and always receive compliments on them. People are so surprised when I say they belonged to my mom. Some items are too sentimental to wear but I keep them in my closet and take them out and inhale her scent a few times a year.
eleni said…
Lovely post. My daughter has the same ski sweater with the "stags" in a dark green and white wool which I knit for her some 30+ years ago. She still wears the sweater. I kept a sleeveless fine wool sweater knitted by my mother over 60 years ago. It has tiny, tiny beads sewn into the yoke. The beads had to be threaded on to the fine wool. My younger sister and brother had to thread the beads on to the wool for my mother to help get it finished !! They were not a happy duo. Will never part with that one.
Carol in Denver said…
My dad was an electrician and wore heavy cotton pants and shirt to work. After he died, I used good parts of those pants to make myself an apron to wear while I dye fabrics. He was so creative, even made a tractor from scratch, then used it to dig the basement for an addition to our home. Now as I go to my dye studio I say to myself, "Come on, Daddy, let's get to work." His creative spirit lives on.
Jane said…
Oh! Thank you for this post! As a little girl I used to play dress-up with my grandmother's fabulous collection of gloves -- she had all lengths, infused with her scent. She died when I was five so that was the way I got to knew her. Her hands were small and her gloves fit me perfectly when I was around 18. Then the house burned down and all the gloves with it.

I used to berate myself for feeling so attached to material things but after all, we're human, and material things have value to us.

I must admit I still regret the loss of those beautiful gloves!
Unknown said…
Ah, the strange things that we can not part with. I wear an old hat of my mother’s while gardening. It is truly hideous, but will never throw it out. I have kept a shirt of my father’s that is probably fifty years old or more. It is a type of Hawaiian shirt and is so very not what he would ever wear. It gets washed periodically and put back in a drawer. It’s amazing that we all do this.
Duchesse said…
Venasque: Your mother sounds elegant. Gloves are an especially evocative memory, and keep fairly well.

une femme: I remember you posting a shot of the scarf. Scarves can be handed down (when they are of that quality), so there's one more reason for collecting them.

Madame Là-bas: 1917! Do you keep it in cold storage? That is very old for a fur.

sgillie: If you can keep the moths away, old Pendleton was indeed forever. New, not, and I am so disappointed that they discontinued the 49er, and let quality slip. I wonder if you display the feathered pillbox? It sounds like it would make a fantastic piece on a stand.

materfamilias: Not at all,, thank you for the memoir. The vest and the t-shirt show how a garment can summon not only a person, but an entire story of the person at that specific time. My mother's cashmere bolero was part of an ensemble she bought for my sister's engagement party, and seeing it always takes me right back to that grand celebration.

Frugal: Yes, I remember you writing about the various heavy, intricate hand-knit sweaters. (Sometimes we keep things even though they are wrong for our climate- it's not about usefulness, it's the memory.) Thanks for link to essay. Linda Grant's book "The Clothes on Their Backs" also addresses the role of clothes beyond utility.

Unknown: Three generations of wear! Witness to what cashmere was in that time, and also to your dedication in preserving it.

Loretta: What a wonderful gift from your friend, and you are a serious curator! I had more of my parent's things, some of which we wore out. Their Maus and Hoffman raincoats for example, made of the fine, supple Egyptian cotton. This taught me that a raincoat need not be a heavy, rubberized tarp! They were made in Italy for the store, and I have never found anything close in probably 40 years of looking. Yes, some things are worn but others kept because they are so deeply "them".

eleni: Fascinating; that would have been a vintage look even 30 years ago. As for the sleeveless sweater, little did they know their work would be appreciated over half a century later

Carol: Oh, wonderful! I had not thought of repurposing fabric and it's such a great idea.

One of my friends was diagnosed with cancer and was able to spend the last year of her life with a good level of energy. She made the most exquisite quilts for each of her two children and her husband. The quilts used some of her clothes, some new fabric, and for her children's, their baby clothes.

Jane Pinckard: When I talk to friends who had house fires, it is the sentimental family things they mourn; you can always get another TV. I notice that gloves are often kept and cherished. They are an intimate accessory, and summon not only the person, but what they did, whether fine formal ones, or humble gardening gloves.

Ali: Maybe the shirt survived in good shape because he did not wear it much? Gardening in your mother's hat- nurturing your garden with her along.

Mary said…
Two of my father's things: a tartan vest and a pure silk neckerchief--both items made in and purchased in the UK as we lived there when I was growing up. Both items at least 60-70 years old.
Anonymous said…
I have the dressing gown we bought my mother on one of her last stay's in hospital. It is nothing special in workmanship but sturdy enough in its M&S construction from 20 years ago but I still wear it and think of her. I also had a velvet scarf from Liberty and stupidly left it on a plane. I still mourn that one.
Duchesse said…
Mary: Those old pure-fibre British textiles last extremely well, if pests don't get to them.

anyresemblance: You are so right about how much better things were made even a relatively short 20 years ago: I read somewhere that even ordinary thread is much weaker than it was then, as manufacturers look to cut costs in every tiny way they can. Feeling a pang for your velvet scarf.
Liz Rice-Sosne said…
We used to ski in those sweaters as kids. I have just spent ages trying to find you. I seemed to have dumped all of my blogs. I finally found you under "Canadian Pearl Bloggers."
My life was too nomadic to have many of those, and the moths got to those I'd carefully saved. Funny, I'd had them for decades, washed them regularly, and bang -the moths. A lovely tuque made my ma mère, a few woollens, including at least one blanket. Not much more.
FYI - your latest post gets listed at other sites as being about "A Rant"??? But all I get is a 404 Error.
Susan said…
I have the remnants of my Polish grandmother's wedding dress, with its lace that she brought by ship with her to Ellis Island. I also have her only "good" piece of jewelry--a necklace with carnelian from the late 19 teens. I have my father's leather wallet. I surprised myself with this one--and have't been able to set it aside. It sits in a drawer underneath my nightgowns and whatnot. It gives me great comfort to see it there. While not clothing, I also have several patchwork quilts (none fancy) made by two different grandmothers. I also have baby /toddler clothing worn by my sister in the late 1940s and then by me in the early 1950s. We also have my father in law's navy peacoat from WWII and my father's Navy blanket.
Duchesse said…
Margie: Thanks; it went up by mistake, only a draft. Needed more work and will be up later.

Susan: An eclectic museum! Makes me wonder what of ours our children or others will keep to remember us. I allowed a son to give my daughter in law the first piece of jewellery my Dad gave my mother, in about 1920, a beautiful art deco lavalier.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: The best way I know of for those of us who are not museum curators and want to conserve natural fabric or organic-content heirlooms is to put the clean item in a large metal canister, even if you have to roll it to fit. Large items: a heavy, reinforced box with the seams sealed with duct tape. That makes viewing a chore but it does conserve them. Otherwise, eventually moths or other insects (depending on climate) find them.

A friend had a •huge• moth infestation and traced it to her mother's fur coat, hanging unworn for at least 12 years in a garment bag that had a small hole for the hanger... and moths. Kind of like a wren house for moths.
Lovely. I don't have a lot; was very much the nomadic artist while younger. Some of my more settled cousins have more of my mother's things. I have a couple of tuques my mum knitted, some jewellery, none of it very valuable. I do have a woollen blanket my parents received as a wedding gift - it was the most beautiful soft rose, but is mostly faded beige now. Not a Hudson's Bay, another brand made in England and well-known, with a mountain ram on the label (which has fallen off). I also have a few things from friends who have died, including two crystal beer glasses. Since I live in a little flat, I try not to accumulate too much stuff.

One of my favourite things is a photo of my mother as a young woman in wartime, by an old-fashioned upright telephone, with a "skunk" stripe in her black hair. She is wearing a black fitted dress with a white collar.

We all greyed young. My youngest uncle is in his early eighties and his hair is all white - but he has a full head of very curly hair.

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