Home / Celebrity Style / Vintage clothes are more than just fashion – they let you wear a memory | Hope Whitmore

Vintage clothes are more than just fashion – they let you wear a memory | Hope Whitmore

The story of a wedding dress left at a charity shop by an anonymous donor has been doing the rounds online this week, after a note pinned to the gown was shared on the hospice’s Facebook page. It read: “I wish any lady who takes this dress to have a life with her loved one – 56 years – like I did. Happy years. I was a lucky man to marry a lady like mine.”

The note was simple and tender. The fact it has gone viral, touching a chord with so many people, reveals the deep connection many of us have with old items of clothing; the way they bring stories with them, a gentle suggestion of a previous owner – a whisper that they were worn and loved before in another place, at another time, on another girl (or boy) who was young and beautiful once upon a time.

In the age of mass-produced clothing (much of which is made in sweatshops in third-world countries), we need stories like this one more than ever, to remind us that some clothes have permanence, and a hint of another wearer.

I, like many of my generation, am guilty of buying disposable clothes: jewelled sandals not designed to last beyond a summer, tracksuit bottoms which I know will bobble after a few goes in the washing machine, a neon pink pair of shorts I will only wear once before consigning to a back shelf of my wardrobe.

But these are not the pieces I love. The items I cherish tell stories and have an air of could-have-been about them. In my wardrobe hangs a dress from cult label Biba, bought in the 70s as the Carnaby Street shop was closing down. My father went to London for work and, walking past the window, he saw the dress and knew it would look beautiful on my mother (though she was not yet my mother – my existence was not even imagined).

It is a deep autumnal orange, ankle length and made of cobwebby lace. My mother bought a cream-coloured slip to go under it, which over the years faded to a tea-stained colour. She wore it for a new year party with brown sandals and her fringe skimming her eyebrows like Jane Birkin.

Aysha Alton, area manager of St Gemma’s hospice shop, wearing the dress. Photograph: Caters news agency

Years later my sister would eschew the slip, choosing instead to wear the dress with brown underwear and bare feet at a summer beach barbecue, a nod to Brigitte Bardot. The dress finally came to me when I was 20. I took it secretly, one long summer as I waited for university to start, and slipped it on in front of the mirror. It fit perfectly.

Often the cut, quality and fabric of old clothes is better than the mass-produced stuff we see on high streets today. The wedding dress donated to the charity shop is indisputably a beautifully made thing. But an item does not have to be beautiful or expensive to tell a story, though wedding dresses with their connotations of romance, adventure, and embarking upon a journey are often magical – leading many to identify with the anonymous donor and feel touched by his story.

My friend, Ana, owns her grandfather’s cotton shirts from the Portuguese colonial war. He was tasked with flying his plane low over people and setting them on fire but he chose to disobey, deliberately only flying low over uninhabited areas. One day a fellow pilot saw he wasn’t doing his job “properly” and reported him. He was suspended. But when the war was over he was given a medal. He’d done the right thing after all. “He was everything to me,” said Ana. “He gave me my first Graham Greene novel and Somerset Maugham. I wear them all the time.” While someone else might just see a pretty woman in a man’s flannel shirt, Ana knows why they matter – and this is important.

I hope that whoever buys the wedding dress from Gemma’s hospice will love it, have a beautiful wedding and a happily married life. Perhaps every time things seem bleak – or they feel like throttling their spouse – they can remember the previous owner and the 56 years of happy marriage. I like to think that clothing has a memory. It holds on to every person who wore it.

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