It started with a wardrobe clear-out. Before I even thought about sorting through any clothes, I first had to conquer the ever-growing mountain of boxes and folders that teetered threateningly every time I opened the wardrobe door. On closer inspection, most of it was rubbish. Old magazines, empty cardboard boxes and bags of long-forgotten solo gloves. A few old bank statements, which were swiftly shredded without further investigation. Then, deeper still, packs of photos.
I love finding old photos. There’s something about opening the folder without having any idea what you’re going to find; the action of pulling them to the front one at a time, flipping past the numerous out-of-focus brown splodges to get to an actual picture of an actual person. Swiping through images on a phone screen will just never be the same.
This particular stack of photos was a good one – a colourful catwalk of the ‘90s and my late teenage years in all their angsty glory. Fashion, as it always does, has come full circle. The girls in these pictures could very easily be my neighbour’s teenage daughter and her friends – all baggy trousers and exposed midriffs. It was a snapshot of a place and a time and a feeling. But more than that, it was a snapshot of me just starting to work out who I was. You can tell from the outfits.
Fashioning an identity
A lot of thought went into those ensembles. Eyeliner, buffalo trainers and a leather jacket I had saved up for months to buy at Portobello market. I used to turn up every week begging the guy who ran the stall not to sell it until I could finally buy it for myself. For the girl in that photo, clothes were so much more than something to keep you warm and comfortable. They were an identity, a form of self-expression, a security blanket and a source of immense joy.
Putting down the pictures, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, at the person that girl had grown into after a year of at least semi-lockdown. Minimal socialising beyond blowy park walks under a sensible coat, or shouting across a playground to other parents while pushing a swing. Before that, three years of freelance home-working and crawling around on the floor after my two small children.
Somewhere along the line, clothes became functional, all non-crease fabrics and dark colours that hide coffee and chocolate stains. Make-up, too, became less of an art form and more of a sticking plaster, holding me together and making me look just that little bit less tired. When did I stop being that person who relished the creativity of style, instead turning into someone for whom a non-elasticated waist means I’m ‘making an effort’?
A few years ago, when everyone went crazy for Marie Kondo and her approach to minimalism, I remember seeing an interview where she said you should only keep things that ‘spark joy’. Looking at the clothes hanging, folded or screwed into a ball in front of me, I wonder idly what she would make of this line-up. Functional jeans, jumpers, t-shirts, trainers – the things that have made up 99 per cent of my outfits for the past few years serve a purpose, but they barely spark anything at all, never mind actual joy.
But when I dig a little deeper, to the clothes that haven’t seen the light of day for over a year now, I realise that the joy is there – it’s just been in hibernation.
There’s the white, fringed minidress that I bought, fairly drunk, in Ibiza. It was my hen do and the dress was white, so it seemed like a great idea. I wore it for the next 12 hours with bashed up flip-flops until we finally made it to bed at 11am the next morning. Holding it reminds me of freedom, of hysterical laughter and adventures. It is sand between my toes, being out to see the sun come up over the hills and the relief of dipping hot, tired feet into the pool. I want to be someone who wears that dress.
There are the leopard print boots I bought when I started work again after my daughter was born, the bright yellow satchel I got for a fiver from eBay, the green dress and spike heels I wore for the first post-lockdown dinner for my husband’s birthday last year.
Surrounded by piles of clothes I hadn’t seen in over a year – some for a lot longer – I feel a sudden rush of nostalgia, tinged with excitement. Those clothes give me a flash of a different time and a different feeling, and I realise that I want it back.
Everyone I know, myself included, is facing re-entry into the new ‘normal’ with trepidation. We all feel a little lost, unsure of what to talk about and intimidated by the prospect of a blooming social life. I can only describe it as a feeling of being a little uneasy in my own skin, as if I’m not entirely sure who I am anymore.
This feeling isn’t new. Instead, it’s crept up on me as the weeks dragged by, me at home in the same tracksuit, dropping at the school gate in the same jeans and trainers or dragging myself on a run in the same leggings, hair in the universal topknot of ‘I just can’t be bothered anymore’. But sitting there surrounded by pictures of my teenage self, proudly facing the world with clothes that shout ‘I have arrived’, and piles of outfits that speak of happy times, confidence and laughter, it feels like there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
You could argue that clothes and make-up seem pointless and superficial in the face of all the heavy, hard things we’ve had to trudge through in the past year. But I suppose it’s less about the clothes themselves and more about the things they represent – the way they can make us feel like someone who would do something brave, from aceing a job interview to walking into a crowded party after a year of solitude.
I try on a patterned jumpsuit, with some bright heels. I add sunglasses, because why not? I realise I’m smiling, holding myself differently, like someone who wants to stay in the room, rather than just pass through on her way home. I move onto a sundress, loose, bright and ankle-length, that shouts to me about long evenings sitting in a beer garden until the heat of the day finally evaporates. Then there is more, and more still. A blue headscarf, a red lipstick, a white blouse with a massive collar. An oversized pink coat. The huge, Grecian belt I bought to go over my wedding dress.
And finally, that dress. The ridiculous white one, so short I can barely sit down, mad tassels that catch on everything. It’s probably a bit tighter than it was the last time I put it on, but I guess the person who wears this dress doesn’t care about any of that.
I’ll probably never wear it again. But I’ll keep it, just in case.