10 Jun 2013
That’s my technique, I resurrect myself through clothes. In fact it’s impossible for me to remember what I did, what happened to me, unless I can remember what I was wearing, and every time I discard a sweater or a dress I am discarding a part of my life. I shed identities like a snake, leaving them pale and shriveled behind me, a trail of them, and if I want any memories at all I have to collect, one by one, those cotton and wool fragments, piece them together, achieving at last a patchwork self, no defense anyway against the cold. I concentrate and this particular lost soul rises miasmic from the Crippled Civilians’ Clothing Donation Box in the Loblaws parking lot in downtown Toronto, where I finally ditched that coat.
The coat was long and black. It was good quality–good quality mattered then, and the women’s magazines had articles about basic wardrobes and correct pressing and how to get spots out of camel’s hair– but it was far too big for me, the sleeves came to my knuckles, the hem to the tops of my plastic rain boots, which did not fit either. When I bought it I meant to alter it but never did. Most of my clothes were the same, they were all too big, perhaps I believed that if my clothes were large and shapeless, if they formed a sort of tent around me, I would be less visible. But the reverse was true; I must have been more noticeable than most as I billowed along the street in my black wool shroud, my head swathed in, was it a plaid angora scarf, also good quality; at any rate, my head swathed.
I bought these clothes, when I bought clothes at all–for you must remember that, like you, I was poor, which accounts for at least some of our desperation–in Filene’s Basement, where good quality clothes that failed to sell at the more genteel levels were disposed of at slashed prices. You often had to try them on in the aisles as there were few dressing rooms, and the cellar, for it was a cellar, low-ceilinged, dimly lit, dank with the smell of anxious armpits and harassed feet, was filled on bargain days with struggling women in slips and bras, stuffing themselves into torn and soiled designer originals to the sound of heavy breathing and a hundred sticking zippers. It is customary to laugh at the bargain-hunting women, at their voraciousness, their hysteria but Filene’s Basement was, in its own way, tragic. No one went there who did not aspire to a shape-change, a transformation, a new life; but the things never did quite fit.
-Excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s Hair Jewellery, in Dancing Girls