Pia Peterson

Clothes and Ghosts


I work for a vintage store in an old-swank New England town. It’s in an odd part of town, near a homeless shelter, a coffee shop, three barbers, and a bar that opens at 8 a.m. In the morning I grab a coffee, some tapes from the floor of my car, and unlock the door to spend the day surrounded by Patsy Cline and old clothes. It’s a pretty low-maintenance gig for someone just moving back to the town where she grew up, and by the time I’ve done all the morning chores the coffee is still swimming-warm and the tape is on side A.

The store is one large room and it's cluttered, chaotic—far too full of old clothes, fur coats, crinoline, and impossibly small hats. I’ve seen people walk in not knowing what visual overload they’re getting themselves into, and when the full Hangar 51 of the place dawns on them they excuse themselves and leave. Others are game. They dive right in, they shuffle through baskets, they slam things around on hangers. This kind of chaos is what they came for; it’s far more rewarding to find a diamond when you’re in the rough. Just as I can’t look at a cloudless night sky without unintentionally focusing in on a single star here or there, some people look at vintage clothing and objects the same way. Our eyes and our minds are searching for something without being told to. In an environment where you’re surrounded by the copious past, the intensity of the search becomes more acute and can be carried out for hours. What exactly is it that people are looking for when they sift through old clothes? What do they think they’ll find?

In a lot of ways this is a dream job for childhood-me, but now I’m an open-minded skeptic about the usefulness of vintage and other relics. I get it—some of us are aesthetes—we love old shit and believe that things were made better, more beautiful, and longer-lasting sixty years ago than they are today. There’s a whole school of thought that quality went out the window when companies started to make modern improvements in the old-fashioned garment industry, the ol’ “we liked it better when it sucked” mentality. But that’s not really what drives people into the dark corners of antique stores, church basements, old attics in Fall River, and hours of internet searching to find vintage clothing. It says more about who we are, individually and generationally, than most other things.

We are all smarter than our clothes, yet we still fall prey to them and the long-gone makers behind them. When people step into a vintage store, they usually have an idea in mind. Dress, snakeskin boots, smoking jacket. It’s less the item itself that matters and more what they will impart to it when they find it. Your imagination runs away with what could be, who you could be, what your life could be like if you owned this thing right here. What most folks aren’t prepared to find comes after discovering the piece itself, the little part inside them that it awakens and identifies with it, the immanence of nostalgia.

I, for instance, can’t look at a man I love (or any handsome man whom I can imagine loving, really) in cowboy boots without hearing Frank Zappa’s “Stinkfoot, darlin’” in my head. The points seem unconnected and yet the path clearly exists. That sentimental feeling is a part of what vintage hunters are after—the reason you feel so satisfied with and connected to what you find. It’s not an easily identifiable feeling, not nail-down-able at the time. The hunt itself becomes an addiction, as you’re chasing a feeling. There’s an almost primal thrill in it somewhere; it has a ‘you be the hunter, I’ll be the gatherer’ quality that attracts people to more than the leather, the linen, the lace.

People do this every day in a vintage store, searching for meaning where there is none and impregnating each object with their own made-up memories. But, as a vintage buyer/reseller/romantic human person, I do the same thing. What do I hope to get out of it? The connections to lost parts of me (hello, the overalls of nineties revival) and lost parts of my family are completely severed and irrevocable. I’ve grown up, they’re gone. Does imagining them rekindled in a piece of clothing bring them back?

I have three or four of my dad’s old t-shirts that I wear in heavy rotation around my apartment. One of them has a drawing of twelve stick figures swinging, drawn by a child in what looks like but is definitely not dried blood. I’m pretty sure it’s from my first summer camp, and it’s ugly and weird as well as faded and worn into near-oblivion. It can sound a little Psycho, but as anyone who has had to deal with boxes upon boxes of a dead relative’s stuff can attest, it just happens that some of these things end up becoming a part of your life after theirs. Most of the time, I don’t really think about it. But when I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I remember. It’s like saying, “I am my father’s daughter” to everyone who sees me that day.

Sometimes it’s not the exact item of clothing that strikes that chord, it’s a faint reminder, a real or implanted memory that an item of clothing conjures up. These are items of clothing that haunt us. There’s a great scene somewhere in a movie about a guy who follows women in red coats around in the streets because they remind him of his dead wife. He hated her red coat during her lifetime, but now that she’s gone he catches himself being drawn to it. I can’t help but be drawn into the romance behind this idea. In that way, every old photo, every old advertisement is still relevant to us. We want to relate to and be the people in these photos, and since they are appealing to us visually that is how we respond, by adopting that image into how others see us and we present ourselves to the world (and then taking a photo of it and reposting in on Pinterest ad infinitum.)

In thrift and vintage, you have the ability to control what you project even more than you would normally, because each piece is so unique. We’re all aware of the clean, rich kids doing their darndest to look dirty and poor, but it goes further than that. You can change your story with the long skirts of Mormon girls in Arizona, cholita heels, “Future Farmers of America” jackets, one old Chanel blazer here or nightgown there that add something to our equation, that deepen it and can warp others’ perceptions of us. Alternately, we judge the people we see and the people we are drawn to and sleep with by what they wear, and we deserve to be proven wrong and disappointed, because they use all the same tricks. Should a romantic feeling about old clothes translate to a romantic feeling about the person inside the clothes? Why do we read so much into the check of a shirt?

Is that a part of why I, like everyone else, dig through those damned bins? Feeling that I should know better, care less, spend my time learning languages rather than ironing woven nostalgia won’t change the reason why I like going to work in the morning. For the younger generation, most of us don’t love where we are now personally or professionally, and borrowing from past generations helps us to create and live inside a world of our own design. I’ll line my life with sentimentality, please, an extra coffee stain on that shirt won’t hurt it and I’ll love it all the more.

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