I recently finished reading the delightful book The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean. It chronicles the hapless Dora who is drawn back to her home town when her grandmother, who raised her, has a stroke.
Mimi owns a vintage boutique in town, and has been writing the “secret lives” of her stock. If you buy one of Mimi’s vintage dresses with a number attached to it, you get its Mimi-composed “secret life” as part of the bargain.
This was not a demanding book and I finished it in one afternoon.
Do clothes have a life of their own?
I was intrigued by the idea of clothing having not only secret lives, but ANY kind of life of its own.
Many of us are disconnected from our clothing – we have no feeling for them, and don’t even like many of our clothes.
And many more of us have a ‘disposable’ attitude toward our clothing – we buy items with little thought or commitment, and when they have run their course, which could be in days or weeks (rarely years), we get rid of them.
We don’t tend to re-purpose, renovate, repair or up-style our clothes much anymore, do we? If something becomes torn or ripped or falls into some kind of disrepair, most of us would dispense with that item, rather than pull out the needle and thread to fix it.
We often say “well, it’d be cheaper to buy a new one rather than have this one altered or repaired“, don’t we? The idea of caring so much for our clothes that we would repair or reinvent them seems a quaint idea from a bygone era.
An era in which dresses might have secret lives. Secret interesting lives – lives that are perhaps more interesting than the wearer of the clothes even.
In The Secret Life of Dresses, Dora’s approach to dressing changes the moment she steps over the threshold of her family home. This is partly out of necessity – she has left in such a hurry that she forgot to pack, so she is literally clothes-less, and must draw on the “closet” that Mimi has been compiling for her. The impact that this change in wardrobe has on Dora is almost a character in the story – it’s profound and the story turns on it.
Can clothes change our lives?
Through this new way of old dressing, Dora morphs into… well not quite someone else, but a significant change happens when she steps into these Mimi-chosen ensembles.
Her old life starts to lose its lustre. She grows impatient with things that previously she had endless patience for. She grows a backbone, and this wouldn’t have happened unless she started wearing these new old clothes. These dresses with secret lives.
My favourite of the secret lives is the dress that gets worn on the day that a mother of three young children decides to by-pass her domestic goddess duties and packs a picnic for the park instead. She encourages her young ones to jump in as many puddles as they can find on the way to the park.
They have so much fun that day, they exhaust themselves and can barely make it home for dinner.
Some of the dresses have very sad, or saucy, secret lives. These dresses are amazingly observant and some are even insightful.
It reminds me of that quote that Jamie Lee Curtis quips to Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda – “I’ve worn dresses that could outsmart you”. Seems that is, indeed, possible.
Some interesting ideas to ponder
This book brings up some interesting questions, which you might find fascinating to ponder about your own clothes. Let’s try these on for size:
- Do clothes have secret lives? What if, for just a moment, we imagined that they did. What would that mean? What would be possible, if that were true?
- If your clothes had a secret life, or any life – what would those lives and stories be? Start with the clothes you’re wearing now – what life, secret or otherwise, do they have – what stories would they tell? Now consider key pieces in your closet – pick out one of two favourite things and ponder their secret lives and stories. What did you learn about yourself, and your clothes, by giving your clothes a secret, or any, life?
- Do you have a personal style, to speak of? What is it, and how did you come to develop it? Why is it important (or not, if you don’t have or want one) about it? Would you ever consider changing it? Why?
- Have you ever played around with your style, and liberated your style insight? What might you discover if you explored your style territory?
- Think about the clothes you love to wear, and those you feel just so-so in. What’s the difference? What does that tell you about the place clothes have in your life, and how you feel about yourself?
- If you had more of what you need (confidence; resources; self-belief; a sense of adventure; whatever it is for you), what would you try, experiement with, in your clothing and outfit choices? What if you took that challenge: created an experiment lasting 7 days of trying that thing (whatever your thing is) out?
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