Not an Odalisque

On Owning Too Much Stuff

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A song which was popular among my university friends contained the line, “I’m buried in my bedroom under fourteen feet of clothes, I could drown in all this clutter, I suppose.” At the time I thought it was a metaphor for inertia. As I type this, though, I am warming my feet with a jumble of dressing gowns, tops, scarves and coats, and I begin to understand that it may have been a description.

I’ve just moved into a new flat. I’m really rather pleased with it. It has some downsides, including walls painted in hospital green and one of those beds which may be great for tying people to, but tends to trap the feet of long girls during the night. These in no way outweigh the upsides, however: the generous storage space and the lack of shared walls, making it a space where no one can hear you scream (well, it’s above a church, so most of the time no one can hear you scream, but on Sunday mornings the entire congregation can listen to every moan). Moving, though, has proved trying, mostly because I own too much stuff.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly acquisitive person. I try to live a simple life. The last time my flat, black shoes wore out, I waited three months then wandered into Clarks to ask for a pair just the same, but that didn’t let water in. I don’t have a television, I don’t much like handbags, gadgets, hair straighteners, or whatever young people are buying these days. If I take extraordinary joy in my Kenwood Chef or 1950s dresses, I rest assured that my trainers are five years old and were bought in the sale.

When you try to pack your life into a small car, you begin to notice things, though. I own twenty-two baking tins. I’m sure I have three copies of ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’, but I can’t find any of them, while ‘Rebecca’s proliferate. I sleep in old shirts because the only nightdress left without a hole in it is made of red silk, barely covers my bum and looks like something you’d take on a dirty weekend, but I have five dressing gowns. Then there are the clothes. For years, now, I’ve been locked in a Sisyphean struggle with the clothes.

If some people think that I have a large wardrobe, it is nothing compared to my mother’s. Filling the wardrobes in her bedroom, she kept rails of garments in the attic, rotating them, every six months, to suit the season. It must be said that even on her worst days she looked rather smart. When she died I got the clothes. Grief aside, I ought to have been pleased. All the outfits I envied her when she was alive, the Calvin Klein coat, the cocktail dresses, the Droopy & Brown’s gowns, came into my possession. One problem: they didn’t fit.

Perhaps, I thought, leaving them on their rails, one day they would. Not the Margret Thatcher skirt-suits or the high heeled wellingtons, but some of the other items. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out just yet. Time passed, moths feasted, and eventually through an unhealthy combination of stress, exercise, tongue mutilation, and an addiction to caffeinated sweets, I lost some weight. At around the same time that my father decided he didn’t want to live in a mausoleum any longer and unceremoniously dumped my mother’s wardrobe on my living room floor. The next weekend some friends were visiting, so we had a grand sorting session. I was two sizes skinnier, and yet the clothes still didn’t fit. I had to recognise that my mother was several inches shorter than me, with a different shape and a totally different sense of style.

That was about a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours washing and ironing, and given pieces of clothing to friends, charity shops, asylum seekers and pretty much anyone who would take them. During the process, I realised that I was dealing with clothes ranging from a size sixteen to a small ten. I can’t remember my mother as a size ten. Quite possibly, it was having me that put paid to it. Yet here they are.

Back to the clothes on the bed. The ones I’ve lugged all the way over from Yorkshire. There’s a vintage slip with attractive red lace edging, only one size too big. A top, which was my favourite for the year or two after I bought it in 1999, has a tendency to grow as I wear it, so that it’s hanging off me by lunchtime. There’s my favourite skirt from last winter, which unfortunately needs a safety pin if it’s going to stay up now.

Can you see a pattern here?

Did you think that this was going to be a piece about how I should clean up my act, clean out my wardrobe and live a happier, more fulfilled life now that I’m clutter free? That’s insane women’s magazine logic. No, just when I was in the doldrums of wardrobe depression, packing yet another case with rarely-worn garments, I had a moment of insight.

I had just written an email containing the line, “costuming is going to be a problem.” A friend had suggested an activity for which I needed to dress as a Victorian, and I’d was concerned about my lack of suitable clothing. As I pulled an absurd blouse, with a front full of frills and two bulbous leg of mutton sleeves, out of its box, I realised that costuming wasn’t a problem at all. I might not look all that sexy, and I certainly don’t have any authentic Victorian lingerie, but I can put together a passable outfit. Just as I could for my friend’s medieval hen party, even if I was doing wench while everyone else wafted about as a princess. For her mother-in-law’s 1960s party I was even able to take a spare and rescue my friend from rented costume hell. This pile of clothing is a treasure-trove.

I love my wardrobe, the memories and the opportunities it holds. I’d just rather write about it than unpack it.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

September 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

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