The Clothes You Could Have Worn, The Lives You Could Have Lived

Kwaku Alston, Spring Time in Harlem, 2010. Courtesy ICP.

Our houses, our apartments contain so many archives of the everyday: the to-do lists magnetically attached to fridges, the appointment cards propped up on mantelpieces, not to mention those drawers crammed with old receipts, photographs, and bank statements. Much of this has now become electronic: the digital clutter stored on old computers, on discarded SIM cards, and in the digital purgatory that we euphemistically call the ‘cloud.’ When I was emptying my mother’s home after she died, I had to throw away bin bags stuffed full of printed photographs that recorded holidays, visits to gardens, and the gatherings of the anonymous. Of course, I kept a small stack of photographs for my children to throw away once I too have gone. But ninety-nine percent of the photographs I have taken have never found physical form. I’ll be leaving an archive of electronic paraphernalia, outmoded formats (don’t worry kids I’ve junked the VHS collection and the slide library!) that for some reason I can’t discard.

Wardrobes and chest-of-drawers constitute a less discernible archive of the everyday, but one that is emphatically physical. These libraries of performance-enhancing (or performance-obscuring) attire are never quite what they seem. One of the jokes that movies peddle is the well-organised closet. Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves reach into a walk-in closet to be confronted with stacks of neatly folded black or white T-shirts and hangers full of identical black or grey suites. They look like high-end shops for a clientele made up entirely of assassins or narcissistic hedge-fund managers (who could spot the difference). The more prosaic reality of my wardrobe and chest-of-drawers is some sort of chaotic order. The clothes closest to hand are the ones I wear most often. My sock drawer has layers and seams that correspond to the seasons, favouritism, and newness. The top layer consists of socks that are currently in play: favourite socks, ones recently bought, or, if it is really cold, ones with good insulation. Below that are the recently demoted socks: ones that used to be favoured but have been usurped by others, because these demoted socks have become threadbare or have fallen out of favour. When these second-order socks come into play, I know that it is time to put a wash on. Below that (where only the brave would venture), live the retired socks, ones that are probably waiting for their final excursion to the recycling centre. But amongst this lowest level exist socks that I don’t wear but I would find hard to let go of. Perhaps these are the socks that are still loved but for whatever reason can’t be worn. Socks that for some obscure reason I still have affection for.

Of course, it is nothing new to claim that we have an emotional or an affective attachment to the mute thingness of clothes. The clothes of those we love are flavoured with affection. My partner and I have a box of baby clothes somewhere that are very unlikely to be worn again — perhaps they will never be seen again apart from when our vestiges are disposed of by others. We hang onto clothes that we can’t or don’t wear but also can’t quite throw away. Perhaps we hang onto them to facilitate a presence or to mark a loss. The design historian Judith Attfield described having to dispose of her father’s garments and footwear:

The shoes under the bed were the most difficult. I’ve kept his most loved cardigan. He had simple, almost monastic tastes. He hated clothes, especially new ones. He only got to love the cardigan as it grew old and threadbare so I darned the holes and mended the ragged cuffs so it would last a little longer. He died soon after. The cardigan lies in my jumper drawer rather like a transitional object in reverse, reminding me of his permanent absence. 1

‘A transitional object in reverse’ is Attfield adjusting the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s famous formulation of how babies and infants negotiate separation from their mothers by imbuing teddy bears and bits of blankets (Winnicott’s ‘transitional objects’) with the absent presence of a loved one. But the cardigan works in reverse: not an absent presence but a present absence. Attfield’s dad’s cardigan isn’t a stand-in for a temporarily missing loved one: it mourns a total separation. A loss. It doesn’t placate; it works through an abandonment. And it does so because that cardigan had been entrenched in her father’s daily life, and in hers, too.

Our contact with the everyday is mediated through the clothing we wear, our second skin. That mediation accumulates histories, memories, lures, experiences, agitations – all the orchestrations of our affective, sensorial lives. There are choices to be made about what to wear, but those choices are never ‘free,’ if by that we mean that they are without the weight and complexes of culture. In a world too easily designated as ‘consumer culture,’ the choices we make are never simply personal; they are sifted and filtered through a myriad of mediations including the machinations of commercial publicity. Like Attfield’s dad, we might want to opt out of buying new clothes and ward off the perpetual decision of what to wear, but even the desire to go incognito in clothes that work hard not to draw attention to themselves is still a decision.

When, in 1983, the cultural critic Judith Williamson introduced the rising star of art photography, Cindy Sherman, she began by rifling through her own wardrobe:

When I rummage through my wardrobe in the morning I am not merely faced with a choice what to wear. I am faced with a choice of images: the difference between a smart suit and a pair of overalls, a leather skirt and a cotton frock, is not just one of fabric and style, but one of identity. You know perfectly well that you will be seen differently for the whole day, depending on what you put on; you will appear as a particular kind of woman with one particular identity which excludes others. The black leather skirt rather rules out girlish innocence, oily overalls tend to exclude sophistication, ditto smart suits and radical feminism. Often I have wished I could put them all on together, or appear simultaneously in every possible outfit, just to say, ‘Fuck you, for thinking any one of these is me.’ But also, ‘See, I can be all of them.’ 2

Each choice demands a host of negations: not this, not that, and not that either. Wearing one thing means not wearing a host of others. Williamson’s morning encounter with her wardrobe is filled with choice, but it is also filled with frustrations. How to appear? How to disappear? What clothes might make you noticeable or allow you to fade into the background? Williamson’s frustration is about the performativity of clothes. We chose an outfit, and that outfit has already chosen, or so it seems, a repertoire of performances. Williamson, like Sherman, is concerned with the way that clothing and poise narrate us in advance of our actions. Clothing is part of a script that permits and persuades authors, and at the same time dissuades and refutes. Both Sherman and Williamson are concerned with gender and the asymmetrical way that clothing functions: the workwear choices for women seem infinitely more complex, infinitely more loaded than they do for men.

It is hard not to feel that for all its personal entangling, clothing is a social skin that is outside our control. And it is this social element that can feel that clothing is at times a form of masquerade, or that we are dressing up, playing a part, making a scene. Every time I have to wear a suit, which is not often (infrequent job interviews and the usual weddings and funerals), I can’t help feeling the way I did as a teenager when I had to dress up for something posh. My nonchalance plummets. Ease takes off for the horizon. I’m unmasked: the teenage boy obviously blagging it, trying to pass as an adult man and failing.

My wardrobe has several items I have never worn, and perhaps never will. I have, for instance, two waistcoats that I bought because I had been toying with the idea of occasionally being the kind of person who might at times wear a waistcoat. But while I might like to imagine being this kind of person, I also feel that I’m more likely to be the sort of person who just couldn’t pull off wearing a waistcoat. I’m missing the waistcoat elan. What would I do if someone said, ‘Hey, nice waistcoat!’ I would have no idea if they were being ironic. And, more likely, what if they said, ‘What were you thinking?’ No doubt it has something to do with masculinity and with class. There is a low-level and very minor hum of shame here: as if someone had found my secret stash of bowties, cravats, and cummerbunds. Stick to what you know. Stay in the safe zone of muted greys and worn, baggy T-shirts, and old jumpers. You can’t go wrong with navy-blue trousers. Forget those dark-turquoise corduroy trousers – you’re just going to draw attention to yourself.

We might wear clothes, but clothes wear us, too. And some clothes refuse our advances. The leather jacket has never returned my calls. The clothes we don’t wear are with us every day as clothes not worn, of lives not lived. They seep into the world of the daily. And there are a lot of them.

Once, when teaching, I asked my class to write a description of an aspect or two of their everyday archives. Most chose to focus on the music on their smart phones, particularly the way that puncturing their carefully curated selections were various ‘shameful’ songs that went against their taste but which they still loved, often for hard-to-pin-down reasons. Some described their digital photo albums, and how there were always a few photographs of themselves that always made them cringe, but which they couldn’t delete. One theme that came up in discussion was the way that these archives seemed to suggest that we cling to embarrassment in an almost structural way. The thought of giving up these minor humiliations was obviously impossible. We were those humiliations. Who wanted an everyday archive stripped of awkwardness?

One student chose to describe her wardrobe. She described the mix of clothes that she wore most days and those that she wore only occasionally. She also described outfits that she would never wear again but which had sentimental value because they reminded her of her former selves and the styles that she had once liked. Good times had been had in these clothes, even if now she ‘would never be seen dead in them.’ But there was one dress that didn’t fit in with any of this. It was a dress she had worn only once, for her eighteenth birthday. Her parents had divorced a few years before this, and the landmark birthday (when she achieved her ‘majority’ as some people still say) was the first time they had been together since an acrimonious split. My student had hoped that in coming together to celebrate her birthday, they could put their differences aside. They didn’t and the party was awful. Her dress was tainted by the bile of that evening, of her parents’ inability to get along just for one night, so that she could have an enjoyable birthday. Perhaps the dress was another sort of affective, humiliating reminder of what had passed, but also of how the future might unfurl. Hanging on to the dress rather than throwing it away in disgust, actually having it hanging it in her wardrobe rather than folded it away in the perpetual twilight of an attic, suggests that the dress was (like Attfield’s father’s cardigan) a perpetual and insistent presence of an absence. Something that was there, presenting itself as a route cut short, something to mourn, something to hang onto because it was hanging onto her, onto us.

Where do all the negations of clothing live, all the choices of what we are not going to wear, all these decisions to fold away clothes in bottom drawers and squirrel them onto hangers beneath more wearable clothes? What role is there in daily life for the stuff we can’t let go of but can’t wear either? It is a mistake to see the everyday as the straightforward palpability of our outward material display. Here I am, declaring each day, ‘See, I’m not wearing a waistcoat. I’m waistcoat-free.’


Ben Highmore is a Professor of Cultural Studies, a Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Cityscapes and editor of The Everyday Life Reader.


This article is exclusive for Vestoj online. For more stories about our clothes and the everyday, get our current issue ‘On Everyday Life’ here.

  1. Judith Attfield, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, Berg, 2000, p. 149-50. 

  2. Judith Williamson, ‘Images of “Woman”’, Screen, vol. 24, no. 6, 1983, p. 102.