In a recent piece of work I explored the underpinning themes of collecting, and utilised primary research from oral histories to determine whether private collecting is driven by obsession or material gain.
The oral histories of the three women, discussed here, reveal some interesting motives for collecting dress. In particular the study confirms the idea that one is collecting the self, or perhaps the self in our imagination. Almost like children’s play, dressing up to become someone else, these specific collections highlight an imaginary world.
In Sarah’s testimony the designer plays a major role in her collecting motives, driven in part by her occupation working in the fashion industry. This was not the case for Sonia who has a purely aesthetic relationship with the clothing, although they nostalgically remind her of a more romantic time in history where she imagines herself dressed up on a cruise liner.
Alex loves beautiful things and wants to take care of them, assembling an interesting collection of clothes that she will bequeath to her daughter, so that when she dies she will not be forgotten. Valuing beautifully designed textiles as well as artisanal skills tie Alex’s collection together. Alex displays her collection in her house whereas Sarah likes to keep hers secret. Sonia wears some of her clothes, making a statement about how she, in some way lives, the life imbued by past associations.
Jean Baudrillard, French sociologist, writes that with the disappearance of the old religious and ideological beliefs means that objects and possessions ensure the continuity of our lives (2005). He explains that objects are the narcissistic equivalent of the ego and that what we are really collecting is ourselves. Baudrillard refers to the ‘love object’; objects of passion that help us construct a private world (2005: 91). His view is that objects of passion are a focus for our libido and a replacement for intimate relationships, a kind of ‘symbolic castration’ (2005: 106).
This is how Alex, a collector of Edwardian children’s clothes, described her collecting:
I like to collect items that feel romantic or I can imagine create the history of that item, a better history , a nicer past and lovely memories. I suppose I’m buying a history that’s better than the one I have – I’m collecting other peoples’ lives and replacing mine with a fantasy of a romantic past. Faded and worn with love. That’s the fantasy.
Csikszentmihalyi (1993) discusses how objects define the self and give us the opportunity for self-regulation, helping to stabilise our identity. He believes that objects are external props to support the definition of the self. This quote from an Sarah supports this view:
I’ve realised I put an awful lot of time and energy into my clothes or taking care of them, in a way, and I think that that’s… that is a connection, like I say, some part of my psyche to that time. It’s almost like nursing a part of myself, if that sounds funny.
Csikszentmihalyi (1993) theorizes that collections demonstrate three things. First, objects tell us stories about their owner’s power and information about their social status. Second, objects reveal a journey through time; mementos from the past as well as signposts for the future. Third, objects provide concrete evidence of relationships and social networks. This final point is supported by the following quote from Sarah:
I was introduced to the designer Rick Owen, because I was working for a Japanese designer and she referenced him a lot. And actually he was someone new. I then got into buying his clothes. And I… his clothes are much more modern, they’re very timeless, whereas someone like Jean Muir or Rifat Ösbek, they’re of a time…
Susan Stewart (2007), a poet and tutor of the philosophy of literature, discusses how our projection of our body image is how we imagine ourselves to be, and the links to our self-identity. We may be influenced by the ideal body through the media, and therefore in a sense objectify how we are seen by the world. Our clothes are therefore very important as part of this projection and view of our self-image.
The private collectors were asked if they were buying for a fantasy person and this was the response from Sarah:
I think I have definitely bought for different aspects of myself. In the past I’ve bought amazing ball gowns, harking to a glamorous life that I just don’t have. And… costumes – one of the things that I bought once was a ballet tutu – I did actually wear it to a club, which was [laughs] for New Year’s Eve – and it was… it was a costume, it wasn’t an item of… it was pure fantasy and in my mind, when I went to this party – it was for New Year – I dressed as a ballerina and I completely got in character and did the makeup.
Sonia, a fan of Audrey Hepburn, explains that she idolises her as the perfect woman:
Well, I think Audrey Hepburn had an awful lot of class and taste and she had a style…. She was gorgeous as in slim, perfectly formed, you know, flat chest, ballerina-like, when I’m not really any of those things but I still like that style.
The choice of what to collect and the process of ‘shopping’ for goods have been discussed by Belk, who argues that collecting, is not always guilt free. Feelings of greed and overindulgence can inhibit the declaration of newly acquired goods (1995). Belk discusses that collecting can become an addiction, where obsessive behaviour can result in the denial of responsibility and can severely affect personal relationships.1)In a recent series of documentaries on BBC2 Collectaholics a number of collectors admitted to being addicted to add items to their collections – in some cases to the severe detrement to their personal relationships. The programme also sought to provide opportunities for exhibition and display of the goods as well as in some cases financial gain (BBC2, Collectaholics, 2015).
He explains that:
Being able to discriminate is the most essential skill of the connoisseur. Collecting rarer more unavailable items gives the collector a chance to excel; just like a researcher who specialised in a narrower and deeper subject (1995:88).
- Baudrillard, J. (2005) The System of Objects, London: Versu
- Belk, R. (1995) Collecting in a Consumer Society, Oxon: Routledge
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993) “Why we need things”, History of Things, eds. Luber, S. and Kingery, W.D. USA: Smithsonain Institute
- Stewart, S. (2007) On Longing, USA: Duke University Press
|↑1||In a recent series of documentaries on BBC2 Collectaholics a number of collectors admitted to being addicted to add items to their collections – in some cases to the severe detrement to their personal relationships. The programme also sought to provide opportunities for exhibition and display of the goods as well as in some cases financial gain (BBC2, Collectaholics, 2015).|