In our final instalment from Kuwaii’s Conversations series, we’re hearing from author Lorelei Vashti – a writer who explored the power of clothing in her book ‘Dress, Memory,’ and believes what we wear can be a form of self-help that points us to the future, whilst simultaneously letting go of the past…
I’m writing this in the same way any parent has ever achieved anything ever – while the kids are asleep. I haven’t taken a shower, but I’ve changed out of the clothes I spent the day running errands and looking after kids in, and put on a pair of tracksuit pants, and a soft t-shirt. The clothes are well-made and crisp and new, and a freshness sweeps over me. Without even realising it at first, I find myself automatically taking deeper breaths in and out.
It’s not a high-speed change, like taking a drug or shot of alcohol. All I know is that I now feel different to how I did all day. The concept of casual clothing is still quite new to me; it’s only really made sense in the time since I’ve had babies and gave up my tight and ill-fitting vintage dresses. Contemporary casual wear, or ‘civvies’, still feel like a novelty to me, and counter-intuitively luxurious.
I make a cup of tea, put on a barely-there lipstick because I feel like it, and then sit down at the computer. I take another deep breath, in and out. If I’m honest, it’s impossible to know whether it’s from the outfit change or because the kids are still asleep, but I feel relaxed.
I stare at the page, unsure of how to approach the topic I’ve set myself, which is ‘Clothing as Self-help’. I have a well-documented belief that our clothes, specifically dresses, house our memories and emotions. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve been experimenting with them as a deliberate self-help tool. A way to feel better, more mindful, more focused and happy, on a daily basis.
Knowing that what I’ve felt my whole life hasn’t just been imagined has started to help me frame my life story in a completely different way.
I’m not the first to profess that clothing has the power to change your feelings. Women’s magazines have always known that clothes and moods go together, with their flippant advice to ‘dress like the person you want to be!’ and that sort of thing. But the really fascinating thing for me is that now scientists and academics have started researching the area and are proving it’s true. With facts and evidence. Knowing that what I’ve felt my whole life hasn’t just been imagined has started to help me frame my life story in a completely different way, and to help me get through what has been a really difficult couple of years of motherhood and life.
Some researchers did a study in 2012 and coined the term ‘enclothed cognition’ to describe the power clothes have to alter the psychological state of the wearer. Their most famous finding was that when people donned white lab coats and took tests they did much better than people who didn’t wear the lab coats. This was apparently because people feel smarter and more confident when they wear a lab coat. Clothing can change how you feel, and how you think, the results found.
It seems obvious that clothing, which wields such a mighty power on our external appearance, can also influence you on the inside. But not everyone is aware of this secret, and even if they do know it, not all people take it as seriously as perhaps they should.
Until quite recently, I had always worn secondhand or vintage clothes. It helped – or didn’t help, depending on your viewpoint – that my mum was a seamstress, had made many of her own clothes which she kept, and then handed down to my two older sisters and then finally to me. I always felt like I was the final stop for these objects of beauty and love, and so I felt a responsibility to hold onto them. I also thought they were amazing. Outfits from the sixties and seventies in brilliant fabrics you wouldn’t see anywhere else. And being the caretaker of these items, my eye was soon trained towards the vintage and, ultimately, to op shops. I accumulated hundreds of items of clothing over fifteen years, and then wrote about the stories and emotions they held in my book ‘Dress, Memory’. One cold morning at 5am, I even went on the Today show via satellite to squealing about how my dresses were all so dear to me I could never, ever let them go. They had become a part of me.
And it was true. Even after I started working and had more money, I still bought clothes at op shops because new clothes didn’t hold any interest for me. I told myself that they were empty. They came without a story; no-one had lived in them before.
So this how I lived through my twenties, tripping along, having relationships, breaking them up, moving countries, moving back home, changing careers, trying to find out who I was, all wearing secondhand clothes and finding all the many characters I played in those clothes suited me. Then I met Jeremy and moved to the country, and within three years we’d had two kids. I discovered in that turbulent time that I wasn’t all the people I thought I had been. I was someone else, but I didn’t know who that else was.
About a month ago, after we had got through the first year of our second child and it was like we had survived some kind of war, we moved house. I’d had such a bad time with the new baby, with anxiety and what medical professionals call ‘maternal exhaustion’, and I felt like I had been stripped to the core of my very being. Moving house was the perfect opportunity for me to take stock, and try to start again.
Jeremy is wonderful, but he can’t stand mess or clutter. We are one of those charming odd couples who are so unlike each other that we are a perfect fit. Can you see my side of the bed, riddled with books and electronic devices and tangled headphones, as well as the dog, with my bedside table hidden under all manner of things it’s impossible to list them all. Jeremy, on his side, has a solitary book placed neatly on his bedside table – a Buddhist one titled: ‘Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment’ – and that’s it. The doona is smooth and uncrumpled on his side, and on mine it’s all disheveled and creased and bunched up, and I’ve come to see this as symbolic of our mental states. It’s not that Jeremy doesn’t struggle with his too – I believe no one is immune to the personal struggles we have inside our own minds—it’s just that he equates his physical space with his mental health, and so any clutter really bothers him for this reason. I don’t know how we’re still together to be honest.
But over time, as happens in couples, he has influenced me, and I can’t deny I’ve been flirting lately with one of the great passions of his life, minimalism. I decided to do some research. I read books by self-help and decluttering gurus of all stripes and nationalities, including a book by a batshit crazy French woman called ‘L’Arte de Simplicite’ where she recommends that instead of going to therapy, anyone who is depressed or anxious should spend all their money on a very expensive bottle of champagne and ‘zat vill fix zem up immediately’. I bought the first book by Marie Kondo, and then got her second book too to find out if she’d surrendered to the chaos since having her first child. (Spoiler: She hasn’t. She’s still Marie Kondo. But at one point she does imply that some of the advice in the book may be difficult when you have children, and the image of Marie Kondo heaving under a morass of newborn nappy bags and assorted crap, and without enough time to fold her clothes properly, pleases me very much.)
The house we were moving from had only a tiny wardrobe, so I had had to pack up and store eighteen garbage bags full of my clothes in the shed. Shed! What a great word. Filled with all the things you should shed, but haven’t. Yet.
I took six of those bags to the op shop straight away because I knew they weren’t worth my time, and then I was left with twelve bags of some of my favourite dresses. I’d been accumulating these since the age of 15. Talk about emotion and memory: these bags hummed and vibrated with all the old lives I had lived. I unpacked all of the bags and made a huge pile of clothes, then pulled out just a couple of dresses, and then stuffed the remainder all back into the bags again. I went for a walk. When I came back I looked at the twelve bags sitting on the porch and I felt nothing. Whether it was because I’d gotten older, or I’d just had a tumultuous few years with early motherhood and had learnt that there are some things more important than clothes, or whether it was because we were moving house and I was caught up in the vibe of renewal, or whether it was because I was old and tired and just couldn’t be bothered dragging all these kilograms of fabric with me wherever I went, for the first time in twenty years, I didn’t want all these memory-filled clothes.
Clothes do matter, even more than I’d ever realised, because they are all about emotions and memories.
So three weekends ago, I gave them all away. Some went to the op shop, some I gave to friends. I felt light and great. Just like all the self-help books said, I’ve now made room in my wardrobe for new clothes, more suitable ones. And as I scour the racks now, I can start to spot others that I may no longer want either, that I’ve been holding on to for the wrong reasons. Where is the Lorelei Vashti who published the book in 2014 about needing to hold close to the skin the stories and emotions and dresses because they were a part of her? I think that what it comes down to is that eventually I just didn’t want to be her anymore. She was fine, she was doing her best, but you also kind of look back wanting to give her a big hug. I don’t want to carry on with platitudes like ‘I realised clothes just didn’t matter anymore,’ because that’s not true.
Clothes do matter, even more than I’d ever realised, because they are all about emotions and memories. But it’s not because of who or what feelings they remind you of—the comfortable and familiar feelings of being a different character, or reenacting who you once were—but new, unfamiliar feelings. ‘Who might I be now?’ ‘Let’s try this on for size.’
Of being drawn to the cut and feel of a fabric but not because they are familiar and remind you of movies and past dresses, but because they remind you of someone you haven’t met yet, someone way more mature, someone who has two kids and a dog and a new garden which she might like to spend some time weeding and planting new things in. She still likes wonderful, fun clothes, but new clothes help her discover unfamiliar contours of her post-birth body, heart and mind, enable her to wake up with perhaps fewer clothing choices but with more space, imagination and conviction. With less to lose. With fewer fucks to give.
As I’ve aged, clothes have become even more important than they were in my twenties. For almost forty years, I have never wanted to let the old things go, and now I want new things, clothes that actually fit me, that feel like they were made for my body, to help me let go of the old thing, which was me. New clothes feel good on me now, because I don’t want to swathe myself in stories from the past, mine or anyone else’s. I want emptiness and simplicity. I want beautiful fabrics that embrace my skin and remind me of my baby’s tender kisses. I want to live in the future, not the past. Is this enlightenment? How boring. And how utterly exciting and freeing.