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Can fashion help with grief?

When someone you love dies, how do their clothes help you mourn?

When a loved one dies, the clothes they leave behind become interwoven with memories.  Emotional baggage could ring particularly true for your deceased grandmother’s handbag, which now carries more significance than it does stuff. And, although grief isn’t a particularly fashionable topic, its connection with fashion is both strong and exhaustive. It spans from burial clothing and black mourning wear to the use of a deceased’s clothes in grief counseling. When someone you love dies, how does their fashion play into your mourning?

To answer that question, we will first look beyond fashion. People see their possessions, from trenchcoats to iPhones, as extensions of themselves. Cognitive data backs that up, even if the anxiety that ensues post-forgetting your phone proves enough. Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist and the founder of Fashion is Psychology, confirms that this connection prevails post-mortem. “We place this increased value on their goods after people die. So for those left behind, the item becomes symbolic for that person. We cherish it and it can help us connect to what we lost.” Since grief itself is a somatic experience, meaning that it affects your body and mind, therapists are also interested in the role of personal objects in grief. Can an old T-shirt unify the bereaved body and mind? In her paper, Helping the Body Grieve, therapist Dyana Reisen explains that mourners store many of their memories in their bodies, often doing so subconsciously. This is known as body memory. Reisen explores how these memories and emotions can be raised by sensory experience – things like smelling a deceased’s lotion, tasting a familiar spaghetti, or touching their flannel shirt.

“It was like wearing my grief on my body. It forced me to confront it.” – Shakaila Forbes-Bell

Back to fashion: unlike objects such as technology or furniture, clothes aren’t static. They transform your body; keeping you warm when your bare torso can’t; or giving you imaginative Olympic swimmer-style shoulders through a shoulder-padded jacket. In return, your body also transforms your clothes. You sweat in their fabric and stretch their hems. That interaction between fashion and the body of its wearer makes it a more significant inheritance than, say, a blender. Especially if that body is reduced to dust. After losing his best friend Allon, literary professor Peter Stallybrass mentions that when wearing Allon’s favourite jacket, he found his friend in the jacket’s stains, wrinkly elbows and smelly armpits. Even if the wardrobe you inherit is left in pristine condition, like the one Forbes-Bell inherited from her sister, wearing the clothes yourself rekindles memories too. “I think it’s easy, when you’re grieving, to push the memories away,” says Forbes-Bell. “The other day I wore my sister’s jacket, which was a bit too snug for me. It made me wonder what she would say, which brought her memory back into the present instead of keeping it locked up.” In a way, that’s what Reisen was hinting at too with her research into body memory. It isn’t only about remembering the past, it is a connection from the present to the past. A range of fashion pieces can tap into that body memory. On re-purposing the dress she wore to her sister’s funeral as a work outfit, Forbes-Bell explained: “It was like wearing my grief on my body. It forced me to confront it.”

Fashion is commonly used as a tool for self-expression, albeit consciously or subconsciously. So chances are that the clothes you inherit, remind you more of the deceased’s personality than of their physique. You might remember your dad by him routinely going to work in tailored suits and colourful tartan shirts like he was one of the senior partners in Mad Men instead of a blue-collar worker. When you wear those shirts now, it is like you’re wearing that piece of his personality. As if woven into the fabric is his voice saying: “There is no such thing as being overdressed.” Fashion’s symbolic power also means that even without inheriting any actual clothes,  adopting a deceased’s style can be prudent too. It is for Landon Peoples, who lost his mom when he was still a kid. Now a successful fashion journalist, he developed a love for fashion that had to come from her. “She loved holidays and dressing up for them. Halloween was her favourite holiday, she made all our costumes and involved my sister and me in making them. I grew up around sequins and glitter.” Pausing briefly, he adds: “Halloween is my favourite holiday too.”

Pop culture leads us to believe that grief is like a series of steps you complete or something to be processed by ultimately “letting go” of the deceased. It isn’t. Real grief is much harder to define.

Yet, for Peoples, flamboyantly thematic fashion isn’t just symbolic of his mom, it is symbolic of a relationship they shared. He recalls making costumes together, in a house overgrown with beads, glitter, and old issues of Vogue. “Being a boy, I was never taught that my interest in clothes was a bad thing, she encouraged me. She let me be the witch from the Wizard of Oz for Halloween, I got to wear a dress,” he laughs. Fashion has a flair for bringing people together. And, when cleaning out a deceased’s wardrobe with shaky hands and blurry eyes, the fashion pieces you keep tend to be the ones illustrative of your relationship: the episodes of Project Runway you watched together, the heels you played dress-up in as a child or the dresses you routinely “borrowed” from your sister’s wardrobe. That last memory belongs to Forbes-Bell. Although the wardrobe she inherited from her sister is as sizeable as it is fashionable, her favourite piece is a red maternity dress. “I used to borrow it and it became a joke. Not even her maternity clothes were safe from me. When I wear it now, I just remember that joke we shared.”

Fashion is a new path into old memories, a new shape of an old relationship.

Pop culture leads us to believe that grief is like a series of steps you complete or something to be processed by ultimately “letting go” of the deceased. It isn’t. Real grief is much harder to define. The moment someone you love dies, their memories are intrinsically linked to the grief of their loss. So many psychologists and therapists, Reisen being one of them, argue that mourners should continue and reinvent their relationship with the deceased. And that is where the inheritance of fashion comes in. It can make you discover that your mom left you with the same festive and flamboyant approach to dressing that she adopted many years ago, like with Peoples.“Clothing is where I first started to recognise our likeness. It’s like a click, thinking that she’d love this, or it’ll pop into my head that she wore something similar. It’s truly a feeling.” Indeed, these experiences and emotions often fall under body memory. Reisen calls it your lived past. Fashion, from the touch of a familiar flannel shirt to that sudden nostalgia you feel when slipping into a dress you know they would have appreciated, is a new path into old memories, a new shape of an old relationship. This can involve other people too. “Wearing my sister’s clothes, I tell my niece that these pieces will be hers someday, to make them move on,” says Forbes-Bell. In a way, inherited fashion is like mourning itself. Your memories and grief are knitted together like the yarns of a woollen jumper. You wear it on your body until it becomes a part of you. And, although the deceased can never rise from the grave to reclaim their jumper, it will always be a part of them too. You’ll always be connected by that woollen jumper you share.