Afterthoughts: In the Closet

A visit to the UH Costume Collection has me imagining what my own life might look like if it were documented through clothing.

Photo by: Linny Morris

As an incurable clotheshorse, I’ve for years lusted after an opportunity to see the UH Manoa’s Historic Costume Collection. So when I read that the professor in charge was looking for volunteers, I eagerly contacted her. The collection is one of the largest at an American university and is particularly renowned for its Hawaiian and Asian garments.

I wound up spending five days among the collection’s climate-controlled rooms, mostly documenting the information on tags that hung from each garment. I’d mark down what kind of materials had been used to make the clothing, the condition it was in, when it was worn, and when it was “accessioned,” that is, when it became part of the collection. My favorite things were the slinky, 1930s eveningwear, and some Chinese brocade from the 1700s. That fabric was so rare, I was scared to breathe on it, much less unfold it. 

Exploring these racks of clothes, and thinking about who might have worn them, I started to envision what it would be like to document my own life through clothing. What would the tags read in my costume collection?

Item 1: Shiny, red Mary Jane shoes. Accessioned: 1975. Donor notes: These shoes came with a lollipop, and were modeled on the shag carpeting at Sullivan’s Shoe Store, in downtown Rochester, N.Y. Donor did not wish to remove shoes at bedtime.

Illustration by: Jing Jing Tsong

Item 2: Puffy snowsuit. Accessioned: 1976. Donor notes: Triumphant debut on mountain of ploughed snow in neighborhood cul-de-sac.

Item 3: Deelyboppers. Accessioned: 1981, in Covent Garden, England. Donor notes: Deelyboppers? That’s a headband with two long springs sticking up like antennae, and, at the top, two bobbing, sparkly silver stars. Why this was a good fashion decision is not known to donor. 

Items 4a and 4b: Neon yellow shirt (collar up) and Lee Press-on Nails. Accessioned: 1984. Donor notes: Give me a break, it was the ’80s.

Item 5: Aerosmith concert tee-shirt. Cotton. Accessioned: 1987. Donor notes: Long-suffering MOD (mother of donor) drove donor and donor’s cousin all the way to Weedsport, and endured sitting on bleachers for an entire rock concert because her daughter was too young to drive. [Curator’s aside: Should name this wing of exhibit hall after mother. See item 6.]

Item 6: Prom dress, circa 1989. Material: Yes, my Lord, yards of it. Peach satiny stuff and tulle, with more bows than a gift-wrap kiosk in December. Donor notes: MOD sewed this antebellum getup, which blessedly had no parasol. Photo only, because actual dress was so poufy, it may live on as the curtains in a community playhouse.

Item 7: Hot-pink, “Fun Fur” miniskirt. Accessioned: 1992. Donor notes: Was there anything MOD wouldn’t sew at donor’s request? Skirt was inexplicably worn around cow-town college campus, standing out—oh, just a touch—from the sea of plaid, Nirvana-influenced flannel. [Donor sniffs, “I did not care.”] 

Item 8: Vintage felt hat, circa 1943. Accessioned: 2004. Donor notes: Grandmother wore hats, and often spent Saturday nights whipping up a new version of a hat, such as gluing on feathers, for Sunday church. Grandmother dies at 98-and-a-half years old.

Item 9: Man’s gray corduroy shirt. Accessioned: 2005. Donor notes: Fell in love with cozily-shirted man while he was making pesto. Married man and procured shirt for closet.

Item 10: Black top, jauntily festooned down front with baby spit-up. Accessioned: 2008. Donor notes: No, no, don’t treat that stain. I wouldn’t change a thing.                       

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her “Guilty Pleasures” blog.