I couldn’t help feeling an unlikely sense of excitement when my sister told me she'd volunteered to catalogue Victorian underwear at her local museum. I had this vision of mountains of white lace, linen, ribbons, strange things made out of whalebone and lots of stockings. Words I rarely use tumbled into my mind: bustle… petticoat… crinoline… bloomers… I can’t wait to find out exactly what kind of drawers she’s going to be rummaging through – probably some made from calico.
I think it’s pretty amazing that any undergarments from a hundred years or so ago would survive at all. Why were they ever kept? I don’t know about you but, whilst I’ve been tempted to hang onto the occasional special garment, or at least pass it on to a new owner rather than throw it away, I’d never have considered my undies.
I had one of those muslin ‘Destroy’ shirts which I bought from Seditionaries on the Kings Road in 1979, sold to me by (ooh!) Vivienne Westwood herself. I loved it dearly, I loved its soft feel and the little metal spring clips on the sleeves. At 16, I had no qualms about wearing a logo which combined a swastika with an upside-down crucifixion and our decapitated Queen on a postage stamp (I know…). I have to remind myself of how all this imagery seemed in the context of that time. It meant nothing more then than just being into punk; it was where all that shock-symbolism began and ended. That shirt was one item of clothing I hung onto for many years; I’d stopped wearing it long ago of course but I was reluctant to throw it out. It had some kind of meaning, it was from a very specific era. Eventually, about six years ago, I sold it for £100 to a collector who didn’t even mind the paint stains on the sleeves (I’d worn it to college); I think he was going to frame it and hang it on his wall. The money was more essential to me than having it as a piece of memorabilia by then. Maybe in another hundred years it will end up in a museum somewhere.
There are a couple of items of clothing I’ve continued to keep, however, even though they weren’t mine originally, but just ended up in my possession.
One is this fantastic Sixties shirt which I feel extremely privileged to have been kindly given over twenty years ago.
It’s made by ‘Donis of Carnaby Street’ and it’s in lovely condition, with the most amazing collar and cuffs.
I just love the idea that it would have been bought and worn by some trendy young thing, probably at the height of psychedelia… Maybe he wore it to the Speakeasy where he danced the night away to the Yardbirds..? My reasons for keeping it are perhaps quite romantic, really.
Then there’s this now musty and literally moth-eaten dress.
The dress as it looks on me today. Amazingly, it still fits -
it’s just a shame that it smells like a stagnant pond…
It was my mum’s; she bought it in the late 1940s. It's made of layered lace and has velvet straps and neckline. Originally it had whalebone in it too but she took that out some years later and let my sister and I play dressing-up games in it, adorning ourselves in plastic beads and clip-on earrings from Christmas crackers, whilst hobbling about in mum’s five-sizes-too-big-shoes with fancy old curtains draped over our shoulders.
There was a spell during the Eighties when I discovered it was a good enough dress to actually go out in and it ended up as an essential item in my (mostly black, mostly second-hand) wardrobe. Apart from being genuinely vintage it had all the credentials for that indie/post-punk/goth look. Black. Velvet. Lace. And it was nicely tatty and torn by then too. It went perfectly with fishnet tights and crimped hair. Now, nearly seventy years old, it’s stored away in a box. I don’t know quite what to do with it but I just can’t bring myself to part with it.
These are two items of clothing which aren’t going to be discarded anytime soon - unlike my old undies, which no museum in the future will be cataloguing, I can assure you. And I’ll resist saying any more about volunteers rummaging through them, too.