Everyone knows the age old idiom about having “skeletons in the closet”. Or perhaps, the phrase “cleaning out my closet” might ring more of a bell; especially if you’re an Eminem fan (see what I did there). Well fortunately, for most of us, we don’t have terrible dark secrets that haunt us every waking moment of the day. A more likely scenario might be that we literally have to clean out our closets because of all the miscellaneous stuff we keep putting in them! It’s a fact: human beings will find any reason or excuse to keep around things that they don’t need. There’s even an entire show dedicated to this idea of hoarding, aptly titled Hoarders. Out of a desire not to become like the individuals on this program, we tend to take time out of our busy lives to throw away the old and make room for the new. Not without a bit of reluctance or pressure from others, however.
So why do feel so much attachment to things we don’t even use on a daily basis? What’s the point of keeping an object if it’s only going to collect cobwebs in a basement, or dust in a closet? There isn’t a simple answer to these questions; rather, every individual has a different answer to them. For this reason, I became fascinated with finding out what treasures and keepsakes my close friends have preserved over the years and the memories associated with them.
Starting close to home, I asked my very own mom Lydia, who antiques and collects as a hobby, to dig deep into the recesses of her memory and choose one of the many family relics we have stored in the closet. I was expecting her to pick from her photographs, postcards or books, mainly because our attic is overflowing with piles and file boxes of them. Instead, she surprises me with a small, red floral kimono. My family doesn’t have any Asian heritage, so you can imagine that I was quite confused as to why we possess a garment that is traditionally Chinese or Japanese. I had never laid eyes on it before, but apparently I wore it on my first Halloween as an infant.
“This kimono was given to me by a family friend, Hazel Fulmer when I was a little girl – about seven years old,” my mom explains, “She was a missionary in China and was fleeing the Communist regime and the family she stayed with gave her the kimono as a remembrance of the little girl in the household that she loved so much. She carried it under her coat as she was hiding in a hay basket while being smuggled to the coastline to escape.”
I was pretty taken aback by Hazel’s story and the pristine condition that the kimono is in after almost fifty years. It’s no wonder that my mom has kept it for so long with such fascinating history behind it, for to throw it out would undoubtedly cause her to feel ashamed. I imagine that many other families will store away or pass down similarly precious objects away rather than toss them because they represent a significant event in their lives or the life of someone dear to them. In a larger sense, that’s why museums, libraries and historical preservation groups exist. It’s why wealthy members of society continue to patron these institutes and why there’s importance placed upon visiting them as young people. For as long as civilization has existed, humans have been unearthing new discoveries and relics of the past, with curiosity driving us to learn their origins and intelligence letting us know that they require safeguarding and reverence. A more cynical person might simply say that people are inherently greedy and materialistic, and capitalism makes us place high value on tangible things to which we transfer our rose-tinted sentimentalism. As they say, there are two sides to a coin.
In the case of my Aunt Cathy, an employee of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, she believes that objects have the power to transport us back to younger, more carefree days. When I asked her to look through her closet, initially she was reluctant to pull things out and mess up her arrangement of clothes and shoes. I know the feeling well as a fellow fashionista – truly, it gets tiring having to put things back in order, especially when all you can think about is how badly you need to downsize your wardrobe! In the end, Cathy chose a pair of brown Mia clogs that she bought when she was in high school.
“You know, I can’t even remember where I got them from,” she laughed, “Probably a big name department store – might be Strawbridge’s back when it was still in business. I wanted them because I was transferring to a new high school in my sophomore year, and I didn’t know anyone, so I wanted to belong and impress the popular girls. I begged my parents to buy them for me and they wouldn’t, so I had to save money from my job at the library. It took a few months, but I bought them and they meant more to me than anything in the world and still do. That’s why I am fifty-two with clogs I bought when I was fifteen.”
Cathy and I had a few laughs about this story, mostly because of how so much has changed over the years in regards to high school. Speaking from experience, even if you are rocking the latest trends in fashion that doesn’t guarantee you’ll attract friends or recognition. I asked her whether or not her plan to win over the popular girls worked and she answered with this:
“Nope. Ironically, the girls who had the coolest clothes were not popular. They had a too-cool-for-school attitude. Valencia and Maureen, I think were the names of the two girls who dressed the best. They had jobs in retail, so of course they had the money to buy designer clothes. I stopped wearing my clogs after high school because they went out of style in the eighties. I wore them again in the nineties and got quite a few compliments from my friends.”
Even though her Mia clogs didn’t help her reach her goal of high school fame, Cathy’s aesthetic love for the shoes and their symbolism of her adolescent years is the reason why she can’t seem to bring herself to throw them away. “I will probably be buried in them,” she confesses seriously. It’s a sentiment that I can’t understand at this point in my fashion career, but hope to if I cultivate an equally fabulous wardrobe.
Evidently, you don’t have to be concerned with fashion to have a strong attachment to an article of clothing. Take my friend Taylor, for instance. She’s a student at La Salle University and a lover of comfortable apparel, not excluding sweats and Nikes. When I told her to look through her closet for something that makes her nostalgic, she chose (you guessed it) a hoodie. It didn’t look very special to me – just a gray zipper hoodie that says “CTFxC is for haters” with two broken, red hearts. Taylor explained that some years ago, she used to be a huge fan of the Youtube channel CTFxC and bought a hoodie to show her support and patronage. She says she doesn’t wear it much anymore because she grew out of it, but when I inquired as to why she doesn’t just throw it out she said that she could never do it. “It would be like betraying them. I mean, I still think they’re great. I could see myself maybe replacing the hoodie with a t-shirt, but only then would I consider throwing it out.”
In some aspects, Taylor’s scenario is the exact opposite of Cathy’s. Recognizing her hoodie would require esoteric knowledge possessed by those select few who watch CTFxC. Its significance stems not from its ability to make her look trendy or recall fonder times, but in its expression of her admiration and loyalty to a pair of entertainers. At the root of her attachment is guilt, which forces her to keep the object until another can adequately replace it. When – or if – that Youtube channel is gone for good, Taylor will still have a keepsake that invokes memories of watching a show that she loved and perhaps even got her through challenging times in her life.
So, if by now you haven’t figured out why your grandmother clutters her closet with impractical junk that carries an odor, or why your dad doesn’t want to toss his vinyl collection or baseball cards, think about something dated that you own that’s close to your heart. Blame the imperfections of human memory for why we need a physical reminder for positive and negative events that have affected our personalities and molded us into the people we are today. Is it a terrible habit to hoard everything you amass over the decades? Yes and no. It’s comforting to be able to looking through old things and smile to yourself as you recall good times. However, being too concerned with the ‘back when’ will cause you to miss out on the ‘now’, or become pessimistic about the current state of your life and the society you live in. It’s an unhealthy status that far too many adults put themselves into when they can’t accept fast changes or continue on with familiar traditions, patterns and behaviors.
“People are nostalgic because it lets them reflect back on what they see as an innocent, carefree, stress-free time in their lives,” Cathy says, “As you age, you start to lose touch with the comforts of the past and pick out the faults in your present.”
Certainly, objects that carry memories and history can act as a safety-mechanism for people who don’t have anything positive surrounding them. They can be cathartic during confusing and trialing times and bridge connections with other people in the family. They can represent the notion that our lives were fulfilling and we confronted emotions, challenges, successes, and failures. Ultimately, objects say we were here on this Earth and here’s the proof.
Loco readers! If you have something in your closet that makes you nostalgic or that you can’t envision yourself ever getting rid of, leave a comment telling us what that is and why it means so much to you!
Photography credited to: Alixe Wiley and Greg Younger (featured image).