This column appeared in ... ohh ... 2001, I think. But its broad details continue to be true!
Yesterday I gave away four bags full of used clothes. The friend who took them from me is someone to whom I regularly give away clothes because she lives in a large housing complex and can distribute kurtas and tee shirts by the armload. This time, when she brought the clothes home, her teenage son asked, “But why does Manjula have so many to give away?”
This is a very good question! But it’s an easy one for me to answer. The reason I have so many clothes to give away is that I’m not happy with the clothes I have. So I wear most garments once or twice after which they are stashed away in my cupboard never to see the light of day again until I decide that once again I need to empty the shelves of dead clothes. That’s how I think of them: dead, even though most of them are entirely alive, full of colour, well-stitched, washed and pressed. I can’t even decide what kills them off for me, but once something has ceased to catch my eye when I open my cupboard, I can almost never make myself put it on again.
I have never been a stylish dresser. I can remember, even as a child, absolutely detesting, with a kind of mute unreasonable hate, some of the clothes I had. It was as if the particular dress was a person whom I absolutely did not want to meet. Being forced to wear such a dress, since it wasn’t entirely my choice, was like being in the intimate embrace of some unbelievably nasty person. Clothes have a strange, life-like quality, what with their arms and necks and recognizable shape. It is easy to think of them, hanging quietly in closets, awaiting their weekly or monthly outing, with their hems neatly tucked and their buttons politely closed as if they were conscious beings, though inanimate.
The clothes I approved of were like friends, whose embrace I welcomed. The clothes I disliked like were like enemies, who seemed to smother me as they slithered into place, their zippers waiting to pinch a fold of skin or their hooks to get caught in my hair. The whole day would be ruined for me, then, while I waited impatiently till I could get home and tear the offending dress off.
I loved wearing uniforms. It was such a straightforward, thoughtful idea, not to have to bother with choosing something new each day! Switching from school to college was filled with terrors precisely because it meant having to find something different to wear EVERY DAY!!! It seemed such an impossible challenge. The other people in college seemed to revel in the effort of going to tailors and having “outfits’ made up for themselves. I felt helplessly unskilled at any of it. I wore the most outlandish items, hoping to cover up for my lack of taste in that way.
I detested going to tailors because I always felt they were smirking as they wielded their measuring tapes. I have always been fat and the calling out of measurements at a tailor’s shop was a painful embarrassment. I would imagine what the tailor would say once I had left the shop, how he and his assistants might refer to their customers by their vital statistics: “Where’s that caftan for 48-52-61?” they might say, “and that pantsuit for 34-24-36?” Because it was of course inevitable that the friends with whom I would go shopping for cloth and to visit tailors were themselves divinely shapely, the kind of customers for whom tailors assistants spend their whole lives lying in wait, just to have the privilege of estimating the precise angle of the darts on their blouses.
I far preferred buying readymade clothes, even though I always had to settle for loose, flowing items so that I didn’t have to spend hours popping in and out of tiny, fanless changing rooms, with the doors that never shut securely and the shop-assistants pretending not to ogle. In all the years since I have been buying clothes for myself there was only one shop that I REALLY loved. It was on Wodehouse Road in Bombay, in the early seventies. It was called the Happiness Boutique and it sold clothes with personality and wit.
I never gave away the clothes I found there. I wore them until they disintegrated. Alas, the owners soon sold the business and closed the shop. Ever since then, though I am extremely grateful for Fabindia and Anokhi, without which I’d be driven to wearing bedsheets, Roman-toga style, I have not felt at ease in the clothes I have. Salwars and kurtas, however attractive, feel like strangers when I wear them. Even the ones I like never grow to be close friends. Wearing them I feel myself becoming a stranger to myself. So I give them away hoping that they will find good homes, while I am free to find new clothes.