I am an avid hoarder of autobiographical objects: of beer bottle tops, toy soldiers, dog eared books and shoes. I still own the black pencil skirt I bought in Bloomingdales, age sixteen, while falling in love with my first boyfriend. I own a pair of knee-high winter boots given to me on my eighteenth birthday, which walked me through a year of funerals, love affairs and friendships until the soles broke on a night bus between Clapham Junction and Swiss Cottage. Sunglasses from formative holidays, cocktail dresses from memorable evenings, stilettos from an awful break up. Like the protagonist in my most recent novel, The Museum of Cathy, each of these curated possessions represents a memory and tells a story.
My most precious piece of clothing is a silk patchwork ball dress with layers of voile under the skirt, which used to belong to my grandmother. It teeters somewhere between charmingly eccentric and really-quite-ugly, like what a Raggedy Ann doll might wear to a ballet recital. It’s knicker-flashing short at the front, long at the back, and sticks out like a tutu, but I love it.
My grandmother was hawk-eyed in a sale, so her wardrobe was full of eccentric bargains. As a badly dressed kid with birds nest curly hair and glasses often held together with tape, I used to love sneaking in there to touch her Ossie Clark jacket with red fabric buttons, her floor length Bill Gibb lace coat, her soft white silk blouses and odd cocktail dresses. “Vain trifles as they seem,” as Virginia Woolf writes in Orlando, clothes “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
When my grandmother had the first of many subsequent strokes she began to pack away her daffodil yellow harem pants (unworn and with the label still attached), BIBA suede boots and perfumed cashmere. As her memories fell away, her high-necked Liberty dress with button cuffs no longer held meaning for her. It became complicated enough for her to keep the most basic sense of ‘self’, enough to be aware that she liked milk in her coffee and the smell of lavender, let alone think she might ever wake up one morning and be the sort of person who wears a purple velvet cap at a jaunty angle. So she gave it all away, putting much of it in boxes for me and my mother.
I adore all her clothes, but the ballgown somehow encapsulates her humour and sense of the absurd. I have worn it a few times, but mostly it’s a a memory object that sits, with a wink and a smile, in my wardrobe. Every time I see it I’m reminded of getting the giggles when she came back from a shopping expedition with it stuffed into a Waitrose bag (to avoid being found out by my grandfather), and tried to persuade me that a strapless pink patchwork ballgown would be a useful addition to the wardrobe of a gawky teenage girl who at the time mostly wore black jumpers and wanted to blend in.
“Nobody I know wears things like that,” I frowned, raising my hands reluctantly while she pulled a haze of bright pink over my head.
“You’ll love it one day,” she replied, doing up the zip with a flourish.