Clothes can be a trigger for recalling life's significant events

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Clothing-inspired memoir

“My Mother’s Clothes” by Jeannette Montgomery Barron is a perfect example of the role clothing can play in memory. Barron paid tribute to her mother, who died after a five-year struggle with Alzheimer’s by photographing her mother’s clothes and accessories. The book began as a photo album to help her mother remember things when her mother was still alive, according to Amazon’s website, and ended as a memoir and celebration of her mother’s life.

A gold-sequin tube top and leopard-print harem pants marked a milestone in Vancouver resident Jane Cook's life: New Year's Eve 1979.

"I still remember what I was wearing that night," said Cook, now 53. "I wondered what the 1980s might be like for me. There was a lot of promise. I was saying goodbye to one decade, finishing high school and going to college. The 1980s was the decade I would finish college and go out there and find my way into the world."

Clothes and memories can be closely linked, especially when the clothes are associated with strong emotions, according to experts. Clothes can trigger memories, harken back to social and political influences of the time, and, in some cases, even stand out in memory above other details. Looking at a garment worn to a significant event in someone's life may allow someone, such as Cook, to relive those moments.

So why are clothes both vividly remembered and a powerful memory stimulant?

A memory like Cook's is classified as an emotional memory, said Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles and author of several books on memory, aging and Alzheimer's disease. It also is an episodic memory, a vivid snapshot, which also commonly is associated with strong emotions, said William Meek, lead psychologist at Washington State University Vancouver.

"Emotional memories focus on certain details and not others," Small said. "It could be a first kiss, a child's first step."

What details someone focuses on often depends on what's important to the person.

When 95-year-old Matilda Baran of Vancouver was asked recently to recount the April 24, 1936, premiere of the Kiggins Theatre for an oral history project, her memories of the night were foggy, with the exception of one detail: what she was wearing. The image of her outfit that night was still vivid in her mind: a long, floral-printed chiffon dress with a jacket, she said.

"We thought we were all dressed-up," said Baran, who attended the premiere with her sister.

Baran, a retired hair stylist, may have focused on her outfit during the event because style was important to her, Meek said.

"If a person remembers certain details like clothes, that could mean clothes had a particular importance to that person," Meek said. "If you are someone who cares about how you present yourself to the world, you are more likely to remember what you were wearing. I would not remember what clothes I was wearing, but I'm also not very conscious about clothes."

Meek said he would be more likely to remember occasions related to the first time he tried a new specialty beer.

"I'm something of a beer connoisseur," he said. "If you asked me, 'When did you have that special beer?' I can remember where I had it and who was there."

Maude Ryan, 98, of Orchards is a clothing connoisseur. She even has converted her kitchen pantry at Merrill Gardens senior living into a spare closet. Each garment has a story.

Ryan grew up poor and never had a lot of extra money for clothes. She fed her passion for fashion by repurposing old garments, sewing together remnants and scraps and using her creativity. One of the few things in her closet still in its original form is a navy blue dress she bought in 1961 to wear to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary. Looking at the dress still takes her back to that day.

"My husband was working in Spokane (Maude Ryan was in Vancouver), staying with my brother and sister-in-law," Ryan recounted. "I took the day off from work and bought a new dress, shoes and a hat and went to Spokane. The four of us went to dinner together."

While Ryan's memory of her blue dress is positive, a memory of a garment could be poignant because of a negative emotion the garment sparked, such as embarrassment over not fitting in.

Example: "I loved platform shoes, and I sprained my ankle in a pair of platform shoes, so I remember those," said Susan Tissot, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum.

Memories of first date

Cook, who rang in New Year's 1979 in her gold tube top, soon found out that the 1980s would usher in her future husband, whom she met in 1982. Cook still remembers the outfit she wore on their first date: a gray sweater and gray corduroy pants. The memory of the clothes evoke emotion about those first moments of connection at Who Song & Larry's Cantina, which led to what is now a nearly 30-year marriage. Yet, the clothes also remind Cook of social conditions at the time.

"Women were still breaking into business," Cook said. "Women's business attire was very conservative. I felt like I had to look the part even when I wasn't at work."

Cook headed the advertising sales department at Cox Cable.

"This was the early 80s when women still had to wear a (man's) 'uniform,'" Cook said.

There was the narrow silk scarf tied in a bow around the neck to simulate a man's bow tie, long skirts or pants, a blazer and button-up men's-style dress shirts, she said.

"Women's business attire was the female version of a man's," Cook said.

Another reason clothing may be a powerful memory aid is its familiarity. Revisiting a memory is crucial to preserving memory, said Meek of WSU Vancouver. When someone opens their closet each day to select what to wear, they often see their other garments at the same time, and that could serve to revisit the memories associated with those clothes, Meek said, similar to flipping through a photo album.

"A lot of our memories will start to decay if we don't revisit them, and they become harder to recall," Meek said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.