I kept all her dresses and hung them up in my own bedroom. They filled the walls. I hung them on hooks, the back of the door, the curtain rail, hitched round the edges of the wardrobe. I found a screw in the wall from a mirror no longer there and hung another. A frieze of polyester suspended high above the floor. Almost the exact same style reproduced in multiple patterned fabrics. Short sleeves, tie belt at the waist, length to the knee. The neckline altered in some, a scoop, a V, one folded at the corners with buttons. So many dresses. 1960s ghosts floating very very still. They circled the whole room, clinging to picture rails and architrave. Many more piled on the bed. Boldly patterned polyester. Blue and white a favoured colour combination, florals and stripes. Empty and lonely. Nan was always in charity shops looking for a dress. We spent Saturday mornings rummaging through treasure before stopping for tea and cake. Dresses I now recognise from these Saturday morning excursions, lined up along the walls they look out of place, they are in the wrong place. They look self conscious and awkward. Some I had never seen out before, they were for indoors, dresses she’d go and get changed out of before going out. These were dresses she’d sat in at the kitchen table, stood up in at the Rayburn cooking something in a frying pan, generous amounts of lard.
I learned all the important things in life from my Nan. Stories were told through photographs kept at the bottom of her wardrobe. She’d disappear to ‘the other end’ and return some time later clasping a glossy 6 by 4. Her 1930s bungalow was divided by a corridor from kitchen to bedrooms, lined with patterned floral yellow and orange fraying carpet. Bathroom of avocado and a linen cupboard of crochet on one side, a front door I’d never seen open the other. At the bottom end, the ‘other room’ sat next to the kitchen, where Grandad had spent his days, watching the racing on TV, volume up high, walking stick to change channels, pipe stocked with St Bruno, sucking and puffing. Nan would return to the kitchen from the ‘other end’ with a single photograph and multiple stories. Tales of London and family, growing up, the war.
She was the youngest, you could always tell. She seemed the youngest even when she was the oldest, especially when she was the oldest. She became more frail but none of us saw it coming.
“I don’t want to be here when I’m 90.” She’d announce softly, during a pause in the conversation. In latter years she navigated her way around the kitchen leaning on a strategic network of furniture to get from table to Rayburn to sink. Walking stick holding up the back door, propped at a jaunty angle, paint work peeling, yellowed, brittle. The sitting room was Grandad’s domain, the kitchen my nan’s. We’d go in and see him, sometimes I’d sit and watch the racing, inhaling smoke from his pipe, counting coppers and listening to rhymes about tomatoes in tins. The rest of life happened around the kitchen table, standing at the Rayburn.
I sat with her, held her hand. I was not sure if she knew it was me, if she knew I was there at all. Curled up on her side she’d been there all week. Neat hospital corners coming undone. Seeping alarms the sound track around us. Hard plastic flooring under metal framed beds filled with fragile tissue paper bodies full of lives lived.
Her hand started to cool in mine. I stayed there for a while, not wanting to break the spell, knowing what would come next, that she would be gone. I stayed there, holding her hand. Wishing I’d visited earlier, seen her more. All those things you think, once it’s too late.
So I wanted to hold on to her as long as I could. I wanted to hold on to as much of her as I could.
But I didn’t know what to do with the dresses.
After having them all hanging up, staring back at me from the walls for several days, it was all too much, I was overwhelmed. I was frozen in awe and grief, not knowing what to do. Perhaps it was because they were too personal, too close. I wrote to her, a letter, dipped it in clay and fired it in the kiln. It would be a message only she would ever be able to see. All those things I never got to tell her. Then I decided I would work with her wardrobe instead.
And so grew the Wardrobe Diaries…
“…as also with all the other hiding places in which human beings, great dreamers of locks, keep or hide their secrets.” Bachelard. (1994, p.74).
Wardrobe, closet, cupboard, cabinet, press, armoire, drawer. Hidden spaces. Items of furniture for the unseen, unconscious, hidden from others, hidden from ourselves. Things are kept within, on top, at the bottom, out of sight. Private, personal, intimate spaces. Spaces of fantasy and wonder, of fear and pain. The possibility of worlds beyond.
“Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed without these ‘objects’ and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy.” Bachelard (1994, p.78).
Transitional objects, from one world to another. Clothes held within are for particular purpose. Things for best, work wear, going out. Garments that prepare us for specific places, specific occasions. As I grew up in the 1970s, Mr Benn* is one of my immediate wardrobe associations. A man who entered a shop in pin stripe suit and bowler hat and emerged in any number of wonderful places or times. He would be entirely reinvented by a change of clothes.
A wardrobe – an everyday piece of furniture which holds such possibility. A transitional object, from one world to another.
“But the real wardrobe is not an everyday piece of furniture. It is not opened every day, and so, like a heart that confides in no one, the key is not on the door.” Bachelard (Poetics of Space p79).
Bachelard, G. (1994) The poetics of space. Beacon Press. Boston.
* Mr Benn was a children’s television programme in the 1970s. A regular visitor to a fancy dress shop, he would leave through a door in the changing room, wearing his new outfit and enter a whole new world, travelling through time and space.
Wardrobe Diaries: 2007 to 2012
My first days, weeks, months with the wardrobe, I stood it next to the dressing table. I focussed on the dressing table that had been in my Nan’s bedroom for ever. Green glass candlesticks, small glass jars with broken lids and larger ones. Each in turn was filled with jewellery, hair clips, bits of fluff, buttons. I filled the drawers with objects. I placed them carefully, documenting each shift with photographs. Things of my Nan’s, things that reminded me of my Nan. I liked the action of opening and closing the drawers, of the surprise at there not being what was expected within. Tea sets laid out, cups in saucers waiting to be filled with steaming hot tea, plates awaiting a French fancy or two. Closing the drawers up again it returned to being an ordinary old fashioned dressing table. Unremarkable. My final act was to spray paint it gold and screw closed the drawers. This seemed to be the best thing I could do at the time. Tight shut but golden.
Then I could work with the wardrobe. I built a false wall behind it, removed the back and stepped right through. It was miraculous and marvellous and it felt exactly the right thing to do. I painted the space behind black. I fixed up heavy black fabric, ensuring no light could get in or bounce out. I spent time just sitting in the back of the wardrobe, in the empty space that did not exist beyond this 1940s piece of furniture. It was my safe place, a cocoon of sorts. An absent space. I hung an empty hanger and strung it with her pale coloured wooden rosary beads and a silver plastic horseshoe on a ribbon from my own wedding, also recently deceased. Opening the door, it looked like an eternity stretched beyond the small insides, a void. Even though I knew what was there I felt a bit queasy looking in, afraid I would fall, disappear into a vacuum. I felt exposed. It made me think of death. Stepping in, I felt safe. An escape. I could sit and hide.
After that, I took the wardrobe to a residency in a crypt space, St Mary’s in the Castle in Hastings. It became a starting point to several subsequent residencies to which it played a greater or lesser role. In the crypt, I used an alcove where I worked with the wardrobe for three months. I liked the stone, the contrast of textures and colours against the small piece of bedroom furniture in this cold, windowless space for death. I spent time experimenting with light, with placing the wardrobe in different positions, with placing other objects next to it, in it, on it. I looked at shadows, at size and scale, its relation to me, my relation to it.
I had by now written to my Nan. A letter I dipped in paper clay was fired in a kiln. Only she would read it. The result was of the most fragile structure, clay absorbed into the paper was all that remained. A new object made through the destruction of the thing itself. A more beautiful thing remained. But terribly frail. I threaded other pieces of paper, unwritten notes, unsaid conversations, and suspended them from above and within the wardrobe. Endless lengths of fishing line. White notes hanging, moving silently when a door was opened or a draft stole its way in through dusty crevices and air vents. I hung more and more unwritten notes, unsaid words, returning to the ladder time and again with longer or shorter pieces of nylon line, looking for more places I could tie them to.
After enjoying this for some weeks I returned to light, outside and inside, reflected through the fine paper clay pieces I had since made. I studied the stone more carefully, colours and marks, getting distracted by the beauty of the building. I returned to the wardrobe, stripped naked of objects inside and out. I treated it as an object, no longer a wardrobe, no longer a thing that held clothes, no longer a functional piece of furniture. And I wondered what it might do then. I twisted it and turned it. A similar size to me it was difficult to move and demanded a new physical relationship. A body in its own right. I leaned it against the wall, moved it around in its alcove.
I laid it on its back. Once I had laid it down, I could not move it again. I had made a coffin.
22nd August, 2017