A Closet Stuffed With Memories

February 23, 1992|By Mary Corey

The lace dress with the wilted handkerchief hem is staying, I say to myself, as I have umpteen times before whenever I clean out my closet and contemplate giving away a garment that basically resembles a tablecloth.

So what if I look like a wannabe bride in it? So what if it's so tight I use a safety pin to close the waist? So what if it was last seen on me in 1987?

No matter. During the annual search-and-destroy mission through my wardrobe, it -- along with dozens of other outfits -- is being spared.

Each year when the first spring fashion magazines arrive, I resolve to streamline my belongings. Maybe it's the promise of sun dresses and warm weather, but I find myself yearning for empty hangers and new styles. By being ultra discerning, I'll pare down my mishmash of clothes to a few key basics. Getting dressed in the morning will be a breeze. In seconds, I'll have every scarf and belt I own at my fingertips. And I may even discover the essential me amid those T-shirts and jeans.

It never works.

A lifetime's worth of clutter always gets in the way.

I begin the way wardrobe consultants say you should, asking myself a series of utterly rational questions when I look at a piece of clothing I own: What shape is it in? Does it fit? Is it still fashionable? Would I wear it again if I had it altered?

But it's not weeding through the skirts and slacks, blouses and sweaters that's the tough part; it's deciding when to put something out to pasture.

Even when all signs point toward the discard pile, I can rationalize why a piece of clothing should (must!) stay.

Take my bubble dress. Several years ago, I (and about 13 other women) believed that looking like a mushroom cap from the waist down was going to be the most fashionable thing since wearing platform shoes. Unfortunately, I didn't realize the trend was only going to last seven minutes after I bought mine, a pink-and-black houndstooth number with shiny black buttons.

But after all, fashion is cyclical, isn't it? Next time, I say, as I look at the dress, its sales tag still dangling from the sleeve, I'm going to be on the cutting edge. That, of course, is if moths don't get to it first.

Then there's my denim miniskirt. It has to stay as incentive for me to lose the 10 pounds necessary to fit into it again. OK, so it's a size 3 and it was snug when I bought it back in 1981. Maybe better make that 15 pounds. Nothing's impossible, right?

But I'd say goodbye to all the clothes I own as long as I could keep my lace dress. I blew two weeks' salary as a waitress on it, paying more than I ever had for a dress before. I graduated from college in that dress. I wore it with pearls and pumps and thought I was the essence of chic. I was congratulated in it. I got compliments on it, and I felt proud wearing it.

How could I turn those memories over to Goodwill?

During lunch recently, a friend admitted she feels the same way about the suits and silk blouses she accumulated while living in New York. She works out of her home now and never wears them. But whenever she sees them in her closet, she still pictures herself as a real-life Grace Van Owen -- burning up Manhattan, going head-to-head with the big boys of business.

Another acquaintance refuses to part with any of her sexy cocktail dresses, even though she rarely has a reason to wear them. There's one -- a black crepe mini with spaghetti straps and a snug bodice -- that makes her feel like a modern-day Marilyn Monroe.

So what if she may only have one chance in a lifetime to wear it?

In many ways, the whole process reminds me of another late winter ritual I took part in as a child. Every March I'd promise my mother that I'd organize a box of photographs she kept in her closet. For days, I'd go through the snapshots, inspecting each one of them, reliving memories and badgering her for details. I never finished the task because I discovered that I liked the disorder in that box and the joy of discovering a vacation photo from 1966 alongside one marked Christmas 1973.

Going through a closet of clothes that traces 10 or 15 years in my life brings back the same kind of memories. Maybe I wouldn't be caught dead in that paisley pantsuit anymore, but I can remember somebody who would.

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