When I was 12, I went to my seventh-grade dance. It marked the bittersweet end of my elementary school career and the exhilarating beginning of high school. I wore a red and white sleeveless, floor-length gingham dress with elastic gathers across my chest. As my father flitted around the living room snapping Polaroids and my mother cooed loudly about my adorableness, I gritted my teeth. I hated the dress. It was too young for me, I complained when I first put it on; I looked like a walking picnic table. I was sure my peers would be wearing elegant, jewel-toned gowns that showed off their budding figures.
A few years ago, I came upon a photograph of me in the dress and was instantly transported back to that evening. I could feel, as if I were there again, the excitement of leaving one stage behind and entering another, mixed together with the mortification I felt over my outfit and the belief that this one awful dress would define who I was for all eternity.
Clothes are magical. They cover up our nakedness while revealing our individuality. They can make us feel more or less attractive than we are, more or less mature or youthful, and in or out of step with society, culture, the world. They connect us in ways both obvious and ineffable to the big and small events, endeavors and stages of our life. They are powerful conduits for our memories, anchors to a past we might otherwise lose to the march of time and busyness. But how do they do this?
Catherine Loveday, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Westminster in London, used brain scans to test memories associated with different objects and found that clothing elicited the strongest memory reactions, along with music. There is no single or simple explanation for why certain outfits or articles of clothing get locked into our brain and help us anchor certain events in our memory, but one prevailing thought is that so-called "episodic memories" — memories that are like vivid, detailed snapshots in our mind — are typically associated with strong emotions, so that where we were, what we were doing and what we were wearing all become part of the snapshot.
When Chattanooga therapist Kitty Garrett goes to do inner child work with clients, a therapeutic technique that involves getting the client in touch with unresolved feelings or events from childhood, she often will ask the client to recall what they might have been wearing at the time.
"It seems to deepen the experience as soon as I ask it," she says. "Nine times out of ten, that question shifts the client from a purely intellectual place to felt experience. Like music, clothing styles change with the decades, and therefore clothes are easily associated with certain periods in our lives."
We invited a few locals to tell us about a signature life moment after which they realized that what they were wearing would be indelibly imprinted in their brain, the event and the outfit inextricably woven together. Here, in their own words, are their stories.
Paul Luikart: The Sacred T-shirt of the First Born
When I was a kid, my uncle Dave owned a sub sandwich shop in Cleveland, Ohio, called Grum's. I have a navy blue shirt with "Grum's" in big, white, stylized letters.
Ten years ago, when my wife went into labor with our firstborn, it was this T-shirt and a pair of jeans I threw on right before we jumped into the car and zoomed to the hospital. In the delivery room, I was doing my husbandly best to help my wife give birth. People and information were coming at us in a blitz, and I remember none of it except this:
One of the attending doctors looked at me and said, "Grum's! I love that place."
"Oh yeah?" I said. "My uncle owns it."
"Cool," she said. "I'm from Cleveland."
"Cool," I said. And then we all went back to the business of bringing my firstborn, Imogen Elva, into the world.
There are pictures of me, exhausted and stunned, holding my brand-new daughter, she wrapped up in the hospital blanket with a little pink cap and me in my Grum's T-shirt.
I still have it, though I don't wear it anymore, and likely never will again. It's too special for that.
If we had a family museum, that's where it would hang. It transcended ordinariness that day and it's sacred now.
Edie Redish: It All Started with a Coat
I have emotional attachments to clothes I wore on first dates, last dates, weddings and funerals. I specifically remember my Chesterfield maxi coat.
I had been seeing maxi coats in Teen magazine (this was 1968-1969) and had to have one. When we went to do our yearly back-to-school shopping at the Henry I. Seigel discount store near my hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee, they had one!
My mother was adamantly against it. I begged and she finally relented, but she hid it in the back of the car because she said my dad would never approve. (My family usually just shook their heads with my fashion statements.)
I loved the coat! I strutted through football games, basketball games and all other events. I had so much confidence when I was wearing it.
Clothes have always brought me joy. When I was the owner of the Stella Ardella clothing store in Chattanooga, I loved finding favorite clothes for my clients. When I went to the high-end clothing markets in New York and Atlanta, I would specifically choose garments for my customers. A gorgeous Aubrey Hepburn dress was perfect for an upcoming event; a casual long sweater for another client's lifestyle; a Target accessory might be perfect with another garment.
You have to wear clothes you feel confident in and love how you look and feel. During the pandemic, I purged leggings and tops, dresses and jeans from dates or people that the clothes reminded me of. Those days are gone, and I am ready for another chapter.
Clothes do not determine feelings, but the associations we have with them stick.
Amy Helmick: A Supposedly Beloved Outfit I Never Wore Again
I have two vivid clothing memories. In the first, I was somewhere around 4 years old. I had a romper outfit that was primarily red with large white polka dots, that I loved. I was wearing it one day coming home from my Aunt Lou's house, which was just behind my parents' house. On this particular day, I came upon a dead cat and kitten in the woods. The cat was rigid and swollen in the summer heat, quite a distressing sight.
I ran home but wouldn't tell anyone why I was upset. (This may be the first time I've ever told this story!) The big mystery to my mother was why I suddenly and absolutely refused to ever again wear the romper I had previously loved so much.
My second clothing memory is from high school. I went to a religious boarding school from 10th through 12th grade. There was a ceremony the night before graduation, for which formal attire was needed.
My mom mailed me a beige dress with a sheer overlay. I don't know how she picked it out or knew it would fit; as I recall, it just arrived unexpectedly without our ever speaking about it.
The dress was not in style then (kind of old lady-ish to my eye) and I didn't really like it, but I wore it because that is what I was given.
Looking back, it seems such a loving thing my mom did. Money was tight for my parents, and she probably saw it as a nice way to surprise me, which it was. I wish I had seen it that way at the time, rather than being upset that I had no input into the choice of outfit.
I do not have either of these clothing pieces now. Thinking about the red polka dot outfit, I am fascinated at how 4-year-old me connected the clothing to the trauma and it became a sort of placeholder for the unspeakable. As far as the beige dress goes, I'm saddened that I failed to see it for the loving gift it was and didn't appreciate my mother's efforts at the time.
Ollie Johnston: 'Boy Jeans' and the Tyranny of the Feminine
Growing up as a Navy brat, I switched schools often, including at the beginning of middle school. I'll never forget how nervous I was to be the "new kid," but I was confident in my ability to make friends.
A few days before school started, my mom and I went shopping for a new outfit for my first day. I decided on a red, white and blue checkered button-down top, a pair of jeans and Nike sneakers. I thought I looked distinguished yet approachable, like my grandfather who, whenever he'd have an "about town" day, would wear a casual button-down or polo and a pair of "slacks." I also thought I looked cool and cultured. I knew the kids at my new school were going to be intrigued and want to be my friend.
Much to my surprise, they were neither.
A small blonde girl walked up to my locker just after first period and told me she liked my "boy's jeans," then laughed and walked away. After lunch, I was barred from entering the girls' bathroom by two other girls who said I didn't look like a girl so I wasn't allowed in.
I remember feeling so angry and dejected. I didn't want to go back to school, not the next day and not ever.
I spent the next few years of my life trying to look like the other girls. When I started dressing feminine, I was suddenly popular. I even got a boyfriend, though I didn't even like boys!
Unsurprisingly, I was miserable with my newfound identity. I no longer felt comfortable in my clothes.
I do not have those feminine clothes anymore. Sometimes I think about all those years I spent wearing clothes I felt uncomfortable in. It makes me sad for that kid, but I also know I did what I had to in order to survive.
Jeffrey Dean: Clothes Make the Mood
I remember what I was wearing the night of my senior voice recital: a flashy blue suit with suspenders and a white shirt. I still have that suit, though it doesn't fit the same now.
I also have an ugly purple-splotched cardigan that I bought at a vintage store. I wore it every day after my sister passed. It was my comfort through that dark time, and I still wear it when I need strength. Sometimes I get comments about the funky patterns. I don't always elaborate on the significance of what it means for me, I usually make a joke about how I know it's ugly, and I wear it proudly.
I once had someone tell me you style an outfit from the bottom up; starting with the shoes helps define how the rest of the outfit should be assembled.
I strategically wear clothes to my advantage, with the understanding that your outfit can affect your mindset. On days I don't feel confident, I dress in an outfit that makes me feel confident. On days when I feel unmotivated, I dress up, and that forces me into a productive mindset. On rainy days, I wear bright yellow to create my own sunshine.