the shape of the thing: Eco, Stallybrass and the emotional capacity of clothing

Rayon? Maybe silk? Perhaps it was polyester. Sleeveless, white, transparent. White buttons up the front, the collar had slightly extended tips, a bit of a seventies flair to it. Effortlessly fitted.

My former boss had given it to me, in the fall of 2012, after a bought of closet cleansing, fueled partially no doubt by the mental anguish caused by her recent diagnosis. She brought me two heaping bags full of clothes, an incredibly kind gesture. While perusing the selection with her, I immediately gravitated towards this simple shirt, with its particularly subtle styling. I inquired about its origins, “tell me about this one.” She mentioned that the shirt had been custom made for her, by a local artist friend in San Francisco. “How did you know it was special?”, I explained that something about the details had spurred my attention. From then on, I remember wearing it in passing, a great layer, adding a bit of “pulled together-ness” to my usually pretty haphazard way of dressing. That summer, the treatment for her illness intensified, and doctors informed her that she could not travel to New York for one of our company’s biannual work trips, and she decided to send me in her place. Packing for the trip, I grabbed the shirt, a seemingly perfect edition, not only for the sweltering New York heat but as to fulfill the need to look presentable, and thought of it as a talisman, a bit of her energy with me as I travelled. It made its way into my outfits several times throughout the trip, in work capacities as well as during my off times. In particular, I wore it over a long flowy vintage dress (from my other boss!), for a day of adventuring with an exciting new someone, in what would become our whirlwind romance. Atop the highest vantage point on Coney Island, the apex of the Ferris Wheel, it must have slipped my grasp, I was distracted by the views and the racing rhythm of my chest being in such close proximity to this new person. Later in the afternoon, I wondered out loud about where it had gone, looked briefly around to see if it could be retrieved, and quickly gave up hope, the throngs of park goers and piles of trash quickly discouraging me, yet there was a soreness in that moment that struck me. Later, alone, processing my myriad thoughts and feelings, the highs of these surprising moments of rapture with this new someone, marked with a reality check, my misplacing of the shirt. It occurred to me that losing that relatively unimportant object, in that fleeting moment, struck me because my fleeting grasp of that object mirrored my time left with its original owner, who was quickly coming up against the edges of her life. A year later, on a cross country roadtrip with that person who made my heart race (and still does), now my partner, and my brother, I stepped outside to take a call while eating at a Mexican diner, finding out she had passed away. That moment, standing alone squinting in the hot sun on a sidewalk in Austin, Texas, felt oddly similar to the moment I discovered the white shirt had fled my grasp, it was one of slight discomfort, not particularly sadness, but a confounding moment of puzzling loss. The shape of the shirt came back to me, its gauzy effortlessness that had matched her personality so well, its seamless blending into my wardrobe, as she had into my life, my psyche. The memory punctuated as the realization hit, I was left catching my breath. I thought back to standing amongst the people, the trash and trashy entertainment of Coney Island, the blur of feeling, a premonition to the loss, real loss, that was soon to come. It would take me months to unpack her loss, even years to tap into the deep ebbs and flows of grief that one feels when they lose a friend, a mentor, a beacon in their life. The shape of this heartache has always been hard for me to draw out, to define with words. I found Stallybrass’ work so moving because it closely approximates the weight of loss of a loved one through the visceral sensations, like the worn elbows of the clothes they wore while occupying the liminal space of life on earth and in our lives.

Through their differing approaches, Stallybrass and Eco use similar methodologies, historicizing and theorizing the affective power of clothes through a singular object, Eco’s Jeans and Stallybrass’ Jacket. I ponder Eco’s exploration of the performance of the body in socialized space, and Stallybrass’ connection to the emotive potentialities of textiles, and the incredibly complex manners in which bodies perform social constraints while mediating the emotive histories of the garments that adorn them. While Stallybrass touches on how clothes allow us to inhabit them, while inoculating us with the souls of those we have lost, I wonder, do clothes also hold potential energy, the capacity to contain the foreboding nature of ensuing loss? Would Eco, who philosophizes on the way in which clothes affect how we function in the world, agree that there is an emotional memory to clothes, and perhaps that this emotional memory transcends the object itself? Is the wearing of these items so wrapped up in our personal emotional histories another form of the ‘armor’ that Eco describes? If so, perhaps by stepping into these clothes we are swimming in the notion of mortality, of ourselves and others, adorning ourselves in this acknowledgement, creating some hybrid type of armor that finds strength in vulnerability, the way that clothes record the minutiae of our lives, while often outliving our physical manifestations.

In one of the short stories that makes up Jonathan Lethem’s book Men and Cartoons, a couple arrives home to find their apartment has been burglarized, and besides a few obvious things (a TV and a fax machine) they can’t seem to figure out all that has been stolen. The authorities arrive and employ a spray, that “makes lost things visible” by turning them into an orange glowing holographic image. To their surprise, this spray also elucidates relationships that have been “lost” and they find themselves adorned with the naked, sleeping hologram of their exes, clinging steadfastly to their respective bodies. I imagine the sensation I would feel wearing that shirt now, after so fatefully losing it at Coney Island all those years ago, and I think of Stallybrass’ own emotional breakdown while donning his late friend’s jacket. Try as we might to purge these reminders of the deceased, emptying closets in our haste, in an effort rid ourselves of those clinging memories, like orange holograms, perhaps it’s best to dress ourselves in the armor of personal histories of our loss, and reveal in their uncanny ability to inhabit us, mind body and soul. In fact, I think I might like to wear that shirt again.

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