the fabric of memory

Do you dream of textiles? Clothes, in particular, form a routine focus of my dreams. In a dream, I might find myself wandering through the streets of an unknown city, and, arrested by a window display, be drawn inside to browse a whole collection of imaginary garments in an imaginary store. Dreams also frequently involve my selecting a particular outfit from a wardrobe, or admiring the fabric or style of someone else’s clothes. The clothes my dreaming mind conjures up usually have no specific referent in reality, but they are nonetheless palpable and vivid. I can call particular outfits I’ve dreamt about immediately to mind, and the colours and patterns of dream-clothes certainly affect my everyday design work as well as what I like to wear. Waking from such dreams, I often think my brain must be some sort of freaky jumble sale, continually sorting through piles and racks of clothes and textiles.

The hues and textures of my own and others’ clothes are the focus of my very earliest memories too. One garment that particularly sticks in my mind is one worn by another child, a yellow jersey, with a brown bear on the front. The bear was formed from a sort of raised transparent plastic, and it squeaked when pressed. I recall the child’s appearance but not her name (she spent a few weeks only at the reception class of my primary school, before leaving) and I also remember the feelings of affection I felt towards her, her yellow jersey and its brown bear. I was four years old. I wonder whether I can see her jersey so clearly because I loved this garment so very much, or because it and its wearer were such fleeting presences. That is, I wonder whether my childish feelings of loss of a new-found friend discovered their material correlative in my memory of her jersey, and that I am now only able to remember the wearer (and such feelings) via the vivid recollection of what she wore.

Claire Wilcox, Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes (2020)

The powerfully redolent effect of clothing on our memories and identities is the subject of Claire Wilcox’s brilliant Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes (2020) Wilcox has spent most of her working life at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a fashion and textiles curator, and in this book finds an intriguing means of exploring who she is and what she does via her memories of the garments she’s encountered. Through groups of lucid and lyrical short prose pieces, Wilcox carefully catalogues a collection of textiles and garments that together make up the archive of her own identity, as someone who loves, wears, repairs, and cares for clothes. For Wilcox, clothes are the tellers of our stories, repositories of desire and longing, and perhaps, most of all (in their making and their wearing) material expressions of what it means to be human. Even in the apparently de-personalised language of the accession catalogue, clothes express their own human agency:

We talk of shattered silks — when the brittle fabric splits, often down an old crease; fugitive dyes that have faded through time, leaving behind a curiously unbalanced palette where blues become green and reds become brown. We notice signs of erosion, where a fabric has rubbed against a stronger element such as a metal buckle and isolate perished objects that reek of chemical degradation (we have a collection of mackintoshes with rigor mortis.) We remove tired pieces from display, speaking of their need to rest.

Thinking about clothes in this book is, for Wilcox, a way of comprehending not only her own experience of familiar markers of human time – births, deaths, unions – but life’s many incidental moments and brief encounters whose meaning might only be fully understood through retrospection. Reading this powerful and deeply personal book was like wandering through someone else’s dreamscape. I loved it.

Wilcox’s book called to mind another lively and lyrical memoir I really enjoyed reading recently, Michel Pastoreau’s The Colours of our Memories (2012) Pastoreau is a historian of colour, and this book is his own personal history of a relationship with shades and hues that began in very early childhood, and went on to play a central role throughout his life and work. The book’s first section focuses on Pastoreau’s memories of clothes, and there’s a wonderful account of his adolescent discovery of his own “chromatic hypersensivity” in relation to a blazer he was forced to wear to a wedding that was quite obviously the “wrong” shade of navy blue. Pastoreau deftly weaves together personal recollections with broader narratives of social and cultural memory, and on matters of French taste he is very astute and often very funny. Writing of “Mitterand beige” Pastoreau speculates (with his tongue only slightly in his cheek) about how many votes the left lost in the early 1990s due to the peculiarly abhorrent neutral shade for which the suits of the president of the republic became notorious:

“Their [the suits’] shade of beige was disastrous: both too pale and too flashy, like that of some petty provincial miscreant, and with a suggestion of mouldy mustard that was really unpleasant . . . a nasty beige at once out of date yet too new; a provincial beige or the beige of some shady district; a vulgar beige like something out of a 1940s novel, clumsily reintroduced as fashionable after excessively thorough treatment at the cleaners. In short, a “Simenon beige” that had become a “Mitterand beige.”

One of my favourite sections in this book concerns Pastoreau’s vivid childhood memory of eating mandarin-flavoured sweets, which he’d buy from snack dispensers on the platforms of the Paris Metro. He recalls the dispensing machines as being painted a particular shade of orange, but he later discovers (from old photographs) that these machines were never, in fact, orange at all, but rather grey, or yellow.

“Had I projected onto the sweet dispensers the colour of the sweets themselves? The fact is that I do not remember ever having obtained from these dispensers anything other than those round, sugary, garishly orange mandarin-flavoured sweets. So had I, in my memories, coated the machines themselves in the colour orange?”

Pastoreau’s synecdochial attribution of the colour of the sweets to their dispenser provides a vivid illustration of the way that human memory might make (and remake) what we experience as material reality. This mutually defining relationship between the “real” material world and the world of human memory is the subject of Veronica O Keane’s recently published The Rag and Bone Shop: How we Make Memories and Memories Make Us (2021). This wonderful book (which I read at a sitting, unable to put down) takes its title from the final line of W.B Yeats’ The Circus Animals Desertion, in which the poet, bereft of inspiration, resigns himself to the discovery of a theme from his own memory, the “rag and bone shop of the heart.” While poking about among the detritus of personal recollection is something Yeats regards with tired resignation, for O’Keane, memory’s rag and bone shop is rather the locus of the most inspiring, the most creative, the most marvellous and often the most troubling aspects of the human brain. In exploring the fascinating subject of how our brains make up the world, O’Keane brings together recent advances in neurological research, the history of psychiatry, the literature of memory, case studies drawn from her own practice, and her own personal experiences, with a deftness and lightness of touch that makes for a peculiarly engaging read. This is a beautifully written, deeply empathetic, and hugely evocative book in which O’Keane pulls many different strands of philosophic and scientific thought together to elucidate the mutually-constitutive sense-making relationship between our minds and the material world. I can honestly say that I never thought I’d regard the interplay between the pre-frontal cortex, the insula and the hippocampus with such awe, or be so startled by the mechanisms our brains use to recall place with such remarkable specificity, but O’Keane elucidates such matters for the reader with an immediacy and sense of wonder that’s palpable and gripping. Because the experience of psychosis and different forms of amnesia have a lot to tell us about the operations of memory, there are a lot of difficult human experiences in this book too, but O’Keane opens out the complexities and perplexities of such experiences with a combination of generosity and tenderness in which sight of the whole person is never lost.

I read (and have read) a lot of books about the brain and, as someone with personal experience of acute brain injury as well as severe psychiatric illness, I am perhaps peculiarly sensitive to the experiences they describe as well as the place from which they are written. There’s often a tedious and predictable kind of masculine ego behind the writing of such books, alongside an equally tedious tendency of such writers to objectify or tacitly exploit their female patients, so I found it particularly refreshing to find O’Keane writing so clearly and so thoughtfully from a woman’s subject position, and that so many of the formative experiences she carefully explores and shares are specifically those of women. I also loved the emphatically Irish cultural context of this book (drawing on the work of many of my favourite Irish writers from Samuel Beckett to Paula Meehan) and the fact that this is a book that makes one feel peculiarly hopeful about age, ageing, and the remarkable creative work of one’s own individual rag and bone shop.

In The Rag and Bone Shop, O’Keane relates one of her own earliest memories, which combines a hand-knitted cardigan and a button with her childish awareness of an adult matter that she did not understand – which turned out to be the assassination of John F Kennedy. It interests me that it is a cardigan and a button that provided such a powerful hook for the memory, their tactile materiality defining O’Keane’s early sense of her own separateness from the adult world, as well as a seismic political event. Anyway, I’m obviously thinking a lot about clothes and memory at the moment, and would be very interested to hear if your early memories are similarly attached to clothes and textiles? If you are happy to share your thoughts I would love to hear them.

Titles discussed:

Claire Wilcox, Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes (Bloomsbury, 2020)
Michel Pastoreau, The Colours of our Memories (Polity, 2012)
Veronica O Keane, The Rag and Bone Shop: How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us (Allen Lane, 2021)

If you are interested in reading these titles, please seek them out directly from the publisher, your favourite independent bookseller, or your local library!