http://www.helenbarff.co.uk

Belongings give a sense of belonging. Clothes are spaces we inhabit. They encase us, wrap around us, give or transform our physical edges. They help define our identity – our sense of self. When we move from elsewhere we pack our clothes, they give a continuity of self in a new space. Clothes contain memories and also contain us – in that way we inhabit our memories.

I am currently exploring connections between autobiographical memory and clothing, working with neuro and cultural psychologists. This research began with informal chats with Dr. Catherine Loveday (neuropsychologist at Westminster University). These chats gained momentum and Catherine’s PhD and undergraduate students have conducted studies to explore its scientific interest and significance as part of memory formation and identity.

My recent work has involved casting the inside space of clothing. Sometimes incorporating sticks or other props whose lengths refer to the dimensions of my body.

Image: Big Stick (hip), 2015, jesmonite and found sticks, 124 x 50 x 10 cm

I am interested in how clothing contains both physical ‘body memories’ as well as ‘autobiographical narratives’. As memories are often recalled verbally, I am keen to see how verbal narratives can be integrated into my very tactile work.

I recorded a series of ‘wardrobe interviews’, where I ask volunteers to choose and discuss 4 items of clothing that have a particular memory of place, time or person. Participants include friends, colleagues and those who have experience of ‘displaced memories’ – where they might be disconnected from the memory, for example through age, mental health or emigration from their home.

 

Image: Folded, work in progress. 2017, jesmonite (cast of the inside of a child’s trousers)

 


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Worthing has lots of charity shops. I love charity shops (so much more than shops selling new clothes). They are museums; each anonymous item has stories and memories within its worn fabric. I am interested in how the contents of these shops reflect the seaside town as a depository of memories, and the stories this opens up. As charity and vintage shops became more commonplace, donations to museums have decreased.

During workshops I asked people to write a memory of clothing on a postcard. I then went round charity shops trying to find clothing that matched their description. Obviously it’s virtually impossible to find an exact match, but I liked that impossibility of it – seems appropriate to memory, which can become distant, mediated or sort of lost in translation.

I then cast each piece of clothing I found on a rope. I’ve used rope before in my work as it can draw attention to the weight of materials. In this case it loosely resembles a washing line. The casting process involves stitching up the clothing, filling it with jesmonite (material similar to plaster but with resin component) or concrete, then peeling the fabric off. The colour and pattern comes from the clothing. The rope, about 7 metres long, with 11 casts will sit on the floor, across the gallery floor. Not having enough space to photograph it all in one go, I took photos in sections:

‘Untitled (eleven)’, detail, 2019, Jesmonite, rope, concrete, 675 x 60 x 18 cm


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Jackie was bought up in Worthing, the daughter of a pub landlord. She joined the Womens Land Army in Ferring. She cycled to work, her main duty was digging vegetables, until she did her back in lifting a box of potatoes. Then she worked on the buses in Worthing for the remainder of war. I asked if she continued gardening or growing vegetables after the war. She said no as she lived in a flat once she was married and they didn’t have a garden.

Womens Land Army Uniform – Worthing Museum Collection

I came across a book by Vita Sackville-West about the Land Army. In it she romantically promotes the noble work of the Land Girls, at the same time sympathizes with a seemingly prevalent snobby attitude towards the Land Girls and their appearances. She reminds the readers they were not part of the military, so not expected to adhere to their standards, but wishes they could see how ridiculous they look with example their hats on crocked, which seems extremely harsh!

I bought a pair of WLA breeches on ebay. I am not convinced they are genuine. The fabric feels slightly synthetic, less course, than the pair the museum has. I asked the ebay seller, she said she doesn’t know about their history. She herself had bought them from ebay to wear Goodwood Festival, but they were too big so she never wore them. I might put them in the exhibition as handling item, people could try them on!

I think about Jackie and the photo in the Vita Sackville West’s book of heaps of potatoes. At the same time I collected some stones from Worthing beach. I started to draw stones and potatoes on postcards, making connections between the two. Both dug up from under the earth, a geological link to place, a similar size and weight, a size that fits neatly into the hand. Year’s ago I was told that there is a German word (Handgröße)that refers to something that fits satisfactorily in the hand.

Potato and Stone drawings on postcards


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Professor Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) has researched how the ‘reminiscence bump’ occurs in memories of clothing. The reminiscence bump refers to the high frequency of significant memories people recall from a particular period of their life. Usually this is from teenage to early adulthood, when independence is gained and identities are forming. In her research, that involved asking people to choose 10 items of clothing with a significant or important memory, Catherine found a significant memory bump for clothing in this period.

This reminiscence bump for the elderly group we are working with in Worthing begins with WW2 when they were late teens or young adults. So we began by focusing on this period.

At a local care home we met Brenda, Marian, Jean and Jackie all in their 90s who were in the Womens Auxiliary Air Force, the Auxiliary Territorial Services and the Womens Land Army. They have extensive, detailed memories of that time.

We took handling items from the museum, including clothing and objects from WW2 to show them. It was amazing to hear the stories provoked by handling a gas mask, ration book or uniform.

Marion was in the WAAF. With a few exceptions women weren’t allowed to pilot planes. But Marion drove ambulances to aircraft that had come down, navigating through the dark. She wasn’t allowed near the crash site as she might see something too upsetting for a woman. Marion went on to bring up 7 children and at age of 97 still writes poetry.

Brenda and Jean both turn 97 this year and were both bought up in the Brighton area. Brenda signed up to the WAAF and was based in barracks in Oxfordshire during the war. She met her husband there who was also in the RAF and remained in the RAF after the war. Jean was in the ATS and was in London working in Grovesnor Square. Brenda and Jean didn’t know each other till they met recently at the residential care home they now live in.

Undeveloped cyanotypes on postcards using photocopied WW2 aeroplanes from Flypast magazine donated by Brenda.

Postcard series II – Planes

 

On being handed a gasmask from the museum collection both Brenda and Jean recall how they used them as handbags to carry their lipstick. When in uniform you weren’t allowed to carry a bag, so they had to make do. Meeting up with soldiers, nights out dancing seems to feature for all the ladies. They all speak of a new found independence that they war gave them. As Jean told me, if it wasn’t for the war she doesn’t think she would have ever left home.

WAAF uniform, Worthing Museum collection

 


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Separated from the seaside pier, amusements and pebbles by a high street of shops is Worthing Museum and it’s vast collection of clothes. For me the appeal of this collection isn’t its high fashion couture, but the array of everyday items from the 17thcentury to present.

Upstairs hidden from public view is a large room full to the ceiling with rows of boxes. Inside these boxes are thousands of lives lived through garments, hats, shoes, stockings, uniforms, underwear, wedding dresses, smocks etc etc.

Unpacking the boxes is exciting. All the objects are carefully preserved, with anonymous memories or stories in the worn fabric, repaired stitching, stains or sweat marks.

What memories do these items of clothing hold, what stories are being passed onto us through these objects when little is known about their owners and previous lives?

A term that keeps recurring in this research is ‘displaced memory’ which I have understood this to mean some kind of greater than normal separation from a memory. This might be through geographical distance, old age or being institutionalized.

But I also come across a slightly different Victorian definition of the term outlined in a Journal by Athena Vrettos, 2007 published by Indiana Press. Displaced memory in Victorian Fiction and Psychology:

In late Victorian literature and psychology, memories were frequently thought to transgress mental boundaries, drifting from one mind to another or assuming a spectral existence. Objects with powerful – and often traumatic – associations acted as an especially potent conduit by which memories could pass between people who were distant in time and space.

 “.. But what exactly does it mean for an object to be ‘saturated’ with human memories? What kinds of traces might ‘thoughts and glances’ actually leave on the material world? To what extent do we possess our own memories? And can memories be transferred between, or exist outside of, individual minds? In the late nineteenth century, questions such of these were frequently taken up in representations of displaced memory”

This definition of displaced memory seems particularly appropriate. These boxes, filed and indexed, in Worthing Museum are full of worn items completely saturated with human memories.

18th century smock, Worthing Museum Collection

 


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In May 2018 I received an Arts Council grant to develop my on going research in to autobiographical memory and clothing in partnership with Worthing Museum and the writer Suzanne Joinson. Since then we have been exploring Worthing Museum’s extensive clothing collection and hearing personal stories of elderly residents at a local care home through a series of workshops. We are interested in how these memories of clothes connect to location, the local landscape, to land, air and sea. The result will be a podcast and an exhibition at the Museum lauching in February 2019.

The subsequent entries will document this research.


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