Renate was wearing a very cute cap today, which suited her really well so I complimented her on it. She told me it was a very special hat. Her sister had bought it for her granddaughter, but the granddaughter wasn’t impressed – more evidence that you should never buy articles of clothing for teenagers unless you are a teenager yourself. Consequently, when Renate admired it the girl very generously said, “Oh Aunty, you can have it!” Her sister didn’t mind, the girl was glad to be rid of it with a clear conscience, and Renate was amused, but also pleased to have something that had special associations with two close members of her family.
Clothes are very personal items, like a second skin. Such things embody a private bond and carry a kind of blessing for the person who inherits them. A friend of mine delights in wearing a particular pair of shoes that her daughter no longer wanted, and another friend takes similar pleasure in a scarf that used to be a favourite of her mother’s.
I remember as a child inheriting a green tweed coat with a velvet collar from Tiggy, the daughter of my mother’s best friend, who also happened to be one of my best friends. It was a hand-me-down, yes, and had seen better days. It had probably been worn by Tiggy’s older sister before she passed it on to me, but I felt honoured to be allowed to wear a garment that had graced someone that I loved and admired. It became my favourite coat, and I wore it for best.
The idea that I could be ashamed of wearing something second-hand never occurred to me, any more than being ashamed of wearing dresses that my mother had made rather than shop-bought ones. I was indeed proud of my homemade dresses, which were unique because my mother adapted patterns to her own designs. To my mind they were far superior to those from shops, partly because in an era of austerity she made the skirts a little bit fuller, so I could show off when we little girls competed for the best twirl.
If my winter skirt was made from a pair of my father’s old trousers or my jacket cut from the material of an outdated coat of my mother’s, it only made it all the more desirable to me. Perhaps that is a family trait. My mother still has a very pretty black silk brocade jacket she made for herself when she was about 17 out of a skirt belonging to her grandmother. The material is worn under the arms and it doesn’t fit anyone in the family, although the 1930’s style would be highly fashionable again today, but that is one article of clothing that is definitely not going to be discarded.
Handmade clothes link the wearer with the dressmaker or knitter in an inexplicable way. I have a scruffy old Arran cardigan, pilled and worn, beautifully knitted by a lady long dead but of whom I was fond. It is no longer fit to wear, except maybe for gardening, but continues to hang in the wardrobe because it would be a betrayal to get rid of it – sacrilege even. Can we explain sentimental value? Something of her spirit is still in the things she made, and that makes them precious.