If this hand-knitted dress were the main character in a novel, the opening chapter might detail it being carefully wrapped in starry paper – opened the following day. Then there would be a flashback to the night some three weeks previously when a woman with red hair sat at her computer, screen illuminating her face as she placed her bid. The action would be suspended so that the author might make some ever-so-meaningful point about the beginning of a new story.
Put simply, my mum bought it second hand on eBay, as a Christmas present.
We love to give things narratives. A piece of costume jewellery from a market stall had a previous life while a battered sideboard was obviously either unloved or much loved in its former existence. Inanimate objects are personified. Their use and experiences are discussed. Trunks, dresses, tins, clocks, vinyl records, hats, cushions, books – on and on goes the list. ‘Second hand’ signifies a previous owner. Items are brought into the home and cleared out again; a tidal pattern of emerging and retreating. As objects move from one set of hands to another, they take on (or rather we give them) extra resonance.
There are two types of stories – the known and the unknown. Actual stories attach themselves to embroidered coats bought on a trip to the Winter Olympics or skirts made from a lace wedding train. Family heirlooms are a tangible connection to the past. My mum has kept a single button from her late mother’s ‘goat coat’ (a rather smelly anorak worn to feed the reeking billygoat on the smallholding where they once lived) because it symbolizes a significant time and place in her childhood. That button has become a link to her mother in that particular moment. Similarly, an athletics vest worn by my late paternal grandfather at Stanford was kept as a memento of his aspirations and achievements. These objects act a little like grappling hooks, with the long rope of history and heritage trailing behind them.
Unknown stories manifest themselves in items whose origin remains mysterious. Here indulgence is speculative. A name in the flyleaf of a poetry collection or an old snapshot with anonymous subjects gives a small sliver of insight. Both inspire fictitious possibilities. A narrative can be created for the girl who inked her initials or the group of friends shielding their eyes from the sun in the photo. Similarly, one can conjure the ghostly figure that once inhabited a vintage skirt or pair of Fifties' heels. It is a process of fabrication.
Why do we do this? Mainly to anchor ourselves, to inhabit our surroundings and give our own daily stories meaning. It is a means of both mooring and securing. The majority of us build a cocoon of the material and solid. Whether bought or received, designed for adornment or practical use, the ‘stuff’ we own both defines us and gives us access to other lives beyond ours.
Even items bought new are brushed by others’ fingers. Everything has a creator – whether it’s the craftsperson who made a cupboard or a poorly paid worker piecing together sections of a cheap t-shirt. For of course, sometimes the chronicles are unpleasant, such as a ‘blood diamond’ - so named having been mined in a warzone, with the sale being used to fund violence and corruption. These stories, the relation to suffering, the slave labour or the carbon footprint produced, are the ones less regularly told.
The photos were taken by my dad while on a walk with family and friends (all pictured in the last shot!) I'm wearing an original sixties hand-knitted dress from eBay, Joules wellies, a second hand polo neck and faux fur coat & a vintage hat.