Never “too big”, but oversized. Never “too small”, but cropped. Hand-me-downs gain a revived purpose from their new wearers, and in turn bring back lives lost and eras past. ROSALIND JANA breaks down their alchemy, while CLARE SHILLAND photographs her daughter Miriam in a selection of pre-owned and newly loved items
Photography by Clare Shilland Styling by Beth Fenton
“The others, who’d died before I was born, probably never envisaged their choicely tended collections ending up with me”
I come from a tiny family. No aunts. No uncles. One cousin I’ve never met. Most of the interesting ones are long dead. My mum is the only daughter of an only daughter of an only daughter. My dad no longer has a brother. I’ve got one younger sibling – a detail that somehow still feels notable.
For such a tiny family, we’ve managed to amass a staggering volume of clothes.
Precisely because we are such a tiny family, much of that staggering volume has slipped its way down to me: hats, shirts, trousers, scarves, gowns, necklaces, sundresses, kilts, coats. On it goes…
I come from a tiny family, but my wardrobe is crammed with relics and traces of grandparents, great- great-aunts, second cousins, and a few people who aren’t even blood relations – many of whom I’ve only ever known through what they wore, and what they left behind.
Via the contents of this wardrobe, I could tell you about these relatives’ dress sizes or their ability (or not) to mend a hem or take in a seam. I know strange, intimate details about these people: their preferences, their sense of decorum, the garments they kept pristine for special occasions. I could also tell you plenty about the eras they lived in: the endless ins and outs of 20th- century design, all demonstrated in cut, silhouette, pattern, the fall of fabric.
There’s a potent kind of magic found in garments inherited from previous generations. Maybe it’s a blouse evocative of a particular memory, or a handbag betraying some especially telling detail about its previous owner. Maybe it’s just an incredible beautiful item made all the more special by being acquired for free. Whichever way, the thrall of a hand-me-down is hard to beat.
In fact, when I hit my early teens and first realised that clothes held a deliciously transformative power, it was my family who helped me along the way. Suddenly I was hoarding net gloves and damask-pink vintage bedjackets unearthed from the loft. Bits of frippery from great-grandparents were mixed with charity-shop finds, things filched from my mum, and Topshop’s nest on-sale bargains.
Noting my interest, the few relatives still living eagerly offered items they no longer wore. My Babi (Czech for grandma) – who’d spent years working as an actress and had the sartorial treasures to prove it – was especially generous. Each visit was accompanied by a gift: glitzy costume jewellery, pink leather belts, an apple-red satin evening coat, the most magnificent cocktail dress covered in intricate whorls of black silk tubing that she’d bought for $20 in a New York thrift store (having been told, despite the lack of a label, that it was definitely Balenciaga).
The others, who’d died before I was born, probably never envisaged their choicely tended collections ending up with me. It’s funny, the thought of my great-great- aunt Violet and her treasured silk scarves, oblivious to the fact that, one day, those scarves would sit pride of place in the bedroom of a girl she’d never meet.
Plenty of us have some variation on this experience – being able to point towards an item or two (or, in my case, a rather hefty pile of items) offering up not only aesthetic pleasure, and the chance to swan around in a ballgown/suit/ ippy pleated skirt/sturdy wool cardigan/whatever else you’ve been lucky enough to acquire, but also a set of stories. Could be a fully eshed narrative. Or a passing anecdote. Or a scenario pieced together from scant information. Or a set of circumstances that can only ever be speculated at. Whichever way, it’s a charged form of inheritance.
Sometimes I think about all the ghosts that could drift in and out of a single wardrobe. It’s not an especially macabre image. Rather, an acknowledgement of everything that lingers inside the clothes we accumulate from others: the countries and cultures and people pulled together, the tales known and unknown. Through my own, I can map an inheritance of decades and nationalities. Some of my garments gesture towards love or lust or devastating loss. Others betray details of parties, dinners, attempted decadence, failed relationships, first encounters, frustrated summers, and teenagers shaping themselves out of jumble-sale finds. Plenty have histories I’ll never know about.
Here, scattered among things old and new – regrettable purchases, jackets bought on a whim, things lusted after for months, consistently reliable jeans, gifts, unexpected treasures, piles of practical jumpers, items so outrageous they only see the light of day once a year, footwear loved to the point of nearly falling apart – there’s something so special in these garments that make up the literal, material weight of one’s past. They offer a way to look backwards and forwards simultaneously, to add to all those stories each time we put something on and take it out for spin.