Three months into my self-imposed ban on clothes shopping and I’m sticking to it fairly well. I’ve slipped only once; last week when I bought four pairs of socks, but other than that, no temptations, inclinations or straying from the path of non-consumption. Yes, all was well, until my visit to London at the weekend when the charity shops of Crouch End taunted me: “step this way, take a look, sure what’s the harm in a little browse?” Keep walking, I coached myself as I added an inch to my stride. The thing is, there is nothing I like better than rummaging around the undergrowth of a charity or vintage shop like a squirrel in a herbaceous border. I love those unexpected finds, coming across that perfect something you had no idea you wanted and needed so much. I also enjoy imagining the back-story to the various items that I discover and rehome. Who owned this putty colour ballet-length full leather skirt? Someone who was my age in 1972? That would make her circa 88 years old now – is she still alive? If she liked this skirt, as I do, would she have liked some of the other things I’ve picked up? Invariably, many items will have sad stories attached to them, though I never like to dwell too much on what they might be.
A few years ago, I read Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’. In it, she describes her growing obsession (my word not hers) over the shoes of her recently deceased husband – John Gregory Dunn. She would not send them to charity; rather, she kept them by the fire in case (here’s the magical thinking) ‘he came back’. Her rationale might have been unusual, but keeping a wardrobe of clothes for comfort and sentimental reasons, for many years, is more common and understandable. When my husband died I had to move house very quickly. I had to box everything up in four days to move back across the Irish Sea. I had very little option but to clear out his clothes and send them to charity – in my case, to the Salvation Army. I remember wondering to myself who might buy and wear his clothes. I liked to imagine that his clothes would be worn, both in the town where we had lived and maybe further afield; old things in new hands, waste not want not. Maybe a student of his, unbeknownst to them, would end up with up one of his jackets. Maybe a homeless man would come to possess his quilted outdoor trousers. Maybe some of his warm jumpers would be sent overseas to refugees for the incoming winter.
Still, the enforced hastiness of it all struck me as particularly cruel and brutal when, six months later, I revisited the town where we had lived. I returned to the Salvation Army shop to snoop around, but no sooner had I stepped inside than I realised I was really there to buy back what I could of his clothing. I could find nothing but a washed out cotton khaki zipped cardigan. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t decide if it had been his or not. In the end, I left it there. I spotted the cul-de-sac thinking, and left the old clothes to be passed along in a chain to the living. As those who are left behind have a tendency to say: ‘he would have wanted that.’
‘Dead Men’s Clothes’, by Iggy McGovern
“But what could be more natural,
– waste not, want not, it’s an ill
wind et cet – that I should wear
my father’s elegiac pair
of paisley patterned silk pyjamas,
in which he breathed his last?
By this I try in vain to keep
his self alive, myself asleep.
Fitting then that I should wake
and be convinced that I could make
him out amid the gathered gloom
of this too heavy curtained room.
No Hamlet I, on with the light,
and I am shaken by the sight
of my own son, he looks so spry
in my best suit and new black tie.”