I’ve been thinking a lot recently about clothes of the dead. This is partly because I am writing about them, but also generally I’ve been thinking about the status of a dead person’s objects. I’m curious about their value and their meaning. When I encountered several items of clothing that had belonged to Sylvia Plath in the sale room at Bonham’s in 2018, I was immediately struck by the different status these objects had compared to say a poem manuscript or a book.
First, I guess, there was something more personal about them, perhaps more intimate in a way. But they also seemed (and I find this hard to articulate) like some sort of stand-in. Plath’s body is no longer with us, but here’s what used to encase it, here’s its shape and size and imprint. Margaret Gibson writes eloquently about the powerful immediacy that clothes can offer us — sometimes containing a trigger of memory, sometimes a record of the past, often returning the dead to the spaces inhabited by the living. She says clothes mobilize our emotions because they are partly how the dead person chose to construct their identity. After their death, we are left with these fragments, which we can piece together to somehow reanimate, resurrect.
In this sense then, clothes of the dead offer some sort of continuity. Their biographical history and value resonates through the years. Perhaps that is why I was so moved to touch Sylvia Plath’s blue Chinese silk maternity top, or feel the cotton of a yellow summer dress. Equally, it is why I felt something akin to wistfulness when I discovered that many of Anne Sexton’s clothes had been given to local charity shops after her death. I imagined women walking around Boston in her dresses or blouses completely unaware of who they belonged to, what might have been written while Sexton was wearing them, where they had been.
Melancholy objects, Gibson calls them. And it is true, they are. A reminder of loss, a memorialization, but at the same time, a celebration — the past carried forward into the here and now offering the comfort that the dead never really leave us, but stay in one form or another, negotiating death, ensuring remembrance.
[Photographs copyright Gail Crowther]