December 20, 2020

Clare Archibald

Your favourite piece of clothing?

Textiles are so interwoven in my mind with the colour language they offer it is perhaps not surprising that my favourite piece of clothing is one I can’t quite fully articulate with words. It eludes me in the specificity of its greenness, shape, and thread combination, in the feel of it. I no longer have it and realised when writing this that I also no longer have the memory of how I came to lose it or even how I came to have it in the first place. Frankly, this astounds me because I loved this green lurex jacket more than anything else in my wardrobe. I’m not even sure that lurex is the correct term for the sear of synthetic thread that ran through what I probably described as emerald green but was perhaps more accurately – according to colour charts – Kelly Green or Kerry Green. Shades of green are perhaps harder to pinpoint than those of grey. It was the bright green that made whatever else I was wearing feel defiantly alive in counterpoint, whether muted or clashing. Green is an excellent colour with which to clash, especially if you are redheaded which I then fully was. As a pale skinned redhead I was often told what colours I ‘couldn’t’ wear. This green was my retort. It was a short, three-quarter-sleeved jacket with short lapels, fake pockets, the kind of seams inside that suggested it was home-made and the scratch of material that you came to feel at home with. It was also a defiance of shyness, an assertion of visibility. I think I may have acquired it from my friend Lesley because I borrowed it so many times, or perhaps it was me who bought it from the second-hand shop. All I know is that I wore this jacket to a death that I don’t remember.

It was a jacket that often drew comments from other women. There is something special about the sorority of threads that prompt women to tell strangers how much they love what they are wearing. A beautiful French woman once came up to me at Clignancourt market in Paris, complimented my outfit and insisted that I write down the address of the shop in London where I’d bought my wooden handled leather bag from, and this encounter felt the most Parisian of my trip. Many women asked me where my green jacket came from but as with most of my clothes, I’d only be able to offer the unhelpful holy grail of ‘second-hand’. Second-hand as understood before the rebranding as vintage, that is. Second-hand shops used to be a way to find interesting clothes from earlier eras at affordable prices. The repositioning of second-hand as expensive vintage and charity shops as the home of cheaper yet often overpriced regurgitated chain shop clothes marked a shift in the weave of how we frame clothes. Second-hand clothes became less a browsing interest to pursue as alternative fashion choice and more, as vintage, a marker of socio-economic status and aspiration, of collecting, of affording, not necessarily everyday wearing. Before this shift, sometime in the mid-nineties when vintage clothes were still ‘second-hand’ and accessible and affordable, I managed to track down a jacket in the same green. Found in a second-hand shop in Greenwich in London, it is the same green but without the lurex and longer lapels, not a replacement but a strand of colour memory. Although I’ve had it for perhaps 25 years the fabric holds the smell of the second-hand despite the washing; a textile haunting that endures and pleases, reminding me of hours spent in Flip Clothing in Glasgow, a second-hand shop that hinted at possibilities beyond the everyday expected of the present.

I’ve always had a predisposition for clothing doppelgangers. Perhaps because I seem to like the clothes left behind in the sales, and because I have small feet with limited shoe choices, if I find something I like I tend to buy it in more than one colour – if possible. Just in case I don’t find something I like for a while or so I don’t get bored of the possibilities as I tend to keep and wear my clothes for years. This duplication might also relate to my love of the same shirts, different colours for the brothers in the film Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, an inexplicably pleasing feature in childhood, the visual possibilities of the garment spread out in full spectrum. Over the years I’ve discovered that when you buy clothes in the same size but different colour they’re never non-identical twins nor even different coloured mirror versions of each other. Instead they generally have a shift in shape, cut, detail. The hang on the same body is different in some imprecise and unquantifiable way. The same but different but not necessarily in the way expected. My favourite green jacket became another green jacket that is different but somehow the same, but I’ve yet to find it’s true favourite doppelganger and that is perhaps why it will always be a favourite.

Your dream outfit or textile object?

My dream textile object would probably be one that I’ve made myself that could be passed on and reincarnated in someone else’s life, reanimated by their intersecting difference. I have notions of making a quilt from my daughter’s baby clothes, a new life of ongoing memory triggers and clues passed forward until they fade and become something else. I have no dream outfit as such but many daydreams of the lives that were lived in the ones I wear. It’s a strange feeling when you can wear something for the first time and feel like it has always been yours, an instantaneous part of your self- mapping. Stranger that you can also nevertheless hear the fabricated history of the textile dialogue that comes with second-hand clothes.

I have a teenage daughter who although physically unlike me, shares the same eye – she would hate me to use the word style. If I wear something that she really likes or is seeing for the first time, her biggest compliment is to ask if she can have it when I’m dead. Invariably I decide to give her it when alive but there are a few things I am determined to wear until death. We both have what we refer to as ‘dead granny clothes’ in common. A neighbour’s grandparent died and on clearing their house it transpired that they’d been the depository for the house clearances of other elderly relatives, meaning that a huge range of stuff was stored there. We were invited round to choose some clothes as our neighbour knows us well. I don’t think either of us anticipated the volume of clothes or emotional history held within them. The room was packed with all kinds of clothing, a large proportion of which was still in its original packaging, unworn and untouched, in fluctuating sizes. There was a huge amount of packets of tights, an understandable hoarding for someone who lived through the war years perhaps. Most striking was the vast collection of lingerie and nightwear from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Sheer chiffon nightdresses in turquoise, pink, and lemon. Bedjackets and camisoles, piled up in decades of who can say – unmanifested desire, lack of confidence, fear of mortification, wanting to act in a different kind of life? Some of the items had been piled up for so long that the packaging had partially disintegrated and pastel negligees held the dust of cellophane when unfolded. You could almost feel the dissolve of whatever dreams the person who bought them had had. Buying over and over in the hope that one day they’d actually wear them perhaps? We both came away with armfuls of clothes and a quiet sense of the clothes that are unworn or worn only in rehearsal. Now, when we wear our ‘dead granny dresses’ we are living someone else’s imagined dreams, and when I wear a nightdress as dress I’m perhaps doing so to revisit my younger self or indeed to remind myself some things are essentially the same.

A piece of clothing that haunts you?

I think that all clothes are perhaps a form of haunting, in silhouette of self. A loose or tight configuration of who we used to be, think we are or want to be. Every time I see an Aran cardigan I think of the matching purple heather and bottle green Aran skirts and jumpers my mum made me when I was wee. Whenever I look at my daughter bringing my now unworn clothes to life I try, and struggle, to remember how I used to be within that space. Clothes are elusive, we don’t always have the life that coordinates with them or the body that matches. They are definitely unreliable narrators but packed with fibres of truth. They are also the receptors of our emotional circumstances, carrying the microbes and sweat of our responses to the world. I am perhaps currently most haunted (because hauntings are ephemeral and fluid) by the loss of a hat. It took me a long time to find the hat that felt right for beach life in Scotland after years of city living. I have a cupboard full of interim options, bought in panic with the rain or cold but never feeling right despite serving the immediate purpose. Eventually, after googling mustard hats, I found the right one, a mustard snowboarders hat, homemade in Colorado. It was something like two dollars but the postage of 20 dollars due to its weight meant that it was the most expensive woolly hat I’ve ever bought. Mustard is a colour that comes in and out of fashion but I always love it. It’s an in-between colour. The hat itself is also hard to pin down. Thick knit with clashing and contrasting patterns and three jaunty angled wooden buttons on elastic that emphasised a lopsided edge. I loved it. Lots of people didn’t and someone even suggested the colour didn’t do anything for me. Did I care? Frankly, no. This hat felt like my hat. The weight and warmth of a hat is crucial. It needs to feel substantial but not too warm. In the ten years that I wore this hat my body underwent the perimenopause and associated hot flushes. Blistering  rushes of hormones that at times felt like they could erase my body, my sanity, and the public version of myself, yet this hat still somehow felt right. It gathered my sweat and my thoughts when I sat on the beach or walked the coast trying to both weather and make the most of the changes to my being.

There’s that saying about leaving the world as we come into, alone. Yet we also arrive in the world naked and invariably, in the UK at least, leave it clothed. Clothes chosen either in advance or by relatives after the event. I’d perhaps have chosen to have worn this hat. The choosing of the clothes of death is a complex thing and one I hadn’t thought much about (despite seeing several dead people at wakes) until I gave birth to a baby that died shortly after birth. It was a death that I’d expected yet I hadn’t thought about the clothes of after. Friends had knitted a blanket and tiny hat and mittens, the scale of tiny being an unknown guess in the dark, yet I hadn’t, in my premature grief, considered what else we might need to leave her behind in. Luckily, a network of volunteer knitters create tiny textiles for hospitals to use specifically for this purpose. I was shown a choice of knitted gowns and able to choose one for my daughter. Part of me feels some sadness that I didn’t make or ask a friend to make one but mostly I feel grateful to the anonymous woman who knitted a part of someone else’s short life and death. The hat in many ways was the repository for many of my thoughts and feelings relating to this time. It held my hair that I let go wild at points when least in control, lopsided from pulling at split ends for focus. It held my sweat from the physical exhaustion of crying. This hat was with me as I walked through many stages of inside and out. Sometimes clothes become enmeshed with a sense of time and place, in extreme cases even becoming part of the flesh. My hat almost became timeless. I lost all sense of how long I’d worn it until my head started to itch whenever I put it on. It was only when my neighbour asked if I’d washed it recently that I realised I hadn’t, seasons had both accelerated and frozen and what I thought was recent was in fact a long time before.

Almost timeless but not quite because I lost it. I was in London and on my way to a darkroom in Woolwich to develop film for the first time. I’d been taking photographs of women in public with and without their permission as part of a project, The Sky is Better Looking Than You. The project was prompted by my experience of when asking men on two different occasions not to photograph/film me when at the beach they responded with a variation of the defence, ‘why would I be taking your picture when the sky is better looking than you’. These interactions said so much to me about how women are seen in public and how their response to being looked at is framed. I had my hat in my hand as I spoke to women and asked to take their picture whilst waiting for the DLR at Stratford station. I’m not sure if it was still in my hand as I boarded the train and sat down, if I dropped it when moving carriages because the businessman next to me was eating porridge very noisily or if it was already lost. I have visions of it riding the ghost driver DLR trains for years or being stuck to the head of someone else who likes mustard. Who knows. The last two photographs I took with the film are of women in hats, one with and one without permission or knowledge.

Clare Archibald is a Scottish writer who uses sound, image and materials in her work. Recently awarded a Postgraduate MSc with Distinction in Filmmaking and Media Arts from the University of Glasgow, she plans to further her research with an interdisciplinary practice-based PhD. For her MSc she made a 20-minute time-based art media installation, Can You Hear the Interim. Can You Hear the Interim forms the concluding part to her work of experimental nonfiction, The Absolution of Shyness, a section of which was long-listed for the RMIT/Lifted Brow Experimental Nonfiction Prize.  She is currently recording a site responsive album, Birl of Unmap, with Scottish composers Kinbrae in relation to the Fife Earth Project, an abandoned Charles Jencks land art site and former mine in the kingdom of Fife where she lives by the coast. She has a pamphlet of words and images planned for Gorse editions, the publishing imprint of Irish experimental art and literature journal Gorse, and has gender and place-based work forthcoming in anthologies from Manchester University Press and Leuven University Press. Widely published, Clare has read and exhibited her work at literary and arts festivals, in galleries, car parks and woods. She runs Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project exploring women’s ideas on and experiences of aloneness, darkness, and wilderness and was commissioned by the inaugural London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest, to lead the first ever night walk for women in Epping Forest.

All images Clare Archibald