October 22, 2013

Of Ghost Clothes and Photographs

Portrait of a Dress (2013)

"Do clothes have ghosts, or do ghosts have clothes? There's no evidence one way or the other, as you might expect: but there are stories, some of which survive long after their telling."

-Ghost Dresses, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes, Justine Picardie (2006).

I have talked about what clothes represent and signify to me here and as time goes by, my interest in notion of clothes being personal narratives and how they function as markers of different cultures, eras, and societies has further deepened. Of late, I have been on the hunt for compelling fashion writing and so I was pleased to discover Justine Picardie's memoir, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. A collection of poetic, beautifully written essays about how fashion (in form of specific items of clothing, literature, and fashion designers) has shaped the author's life, there was one particular essay which particularly intrigued me, Ghost Dresses and whose opening lines I have quoted above. 

It struck me that one of the reasons why I so enjoy looking at vintage photographs of people is to study the clothing/fashions that they are wearing. A few years ago, Scott Schulman had a feature on his blog, The Sartorialist in which he posted and mused about photographs he had found in a box at Chelsea Flea Market; he subsequently invited readers to submit vintage images of their family and friends - and these contributions were portraits in every sense of the word, the clothes bestowing clues about the subjects' quirks, preferences - and indeed, visually encapsulating very much of who they were exactly at that moment. Another incredible resource which I love returning to is Anusha Yadav's Indian Memory Project, which is dedicated to documenting Indian subcontinent's visual and oral history via family archives; as you browse through the images and read the accompanying stories, you will often observe contributors making references to the clothing the subject wears as much as a means of identifying the era in which they were photographed as well as how it enriches the understanding of the subjects and their stories. 

Group portrait of Rajasthani women and children, c.1920 (courtesy Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces II)

Lady at Toilette, c.1910 (courtesy: Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces I)

The Indian online photography magazine, Tasveer recently published its series, Subjects and Spaces, which dealt with the representation of women in Indian photography between 1850-1950. These two pictures are amongst the many which reflect the conjunction of photography in colonial and newly independent India and the role and presentation of Indian women in that time period. Whether its individual or group portraits, the exhibition gives fascinating insight as to what it meant to be photographed for the women and alternately, how it was to photograph them; whether it is noting the minutiae of the background details or how they posed and with whom or the garments, the underlying subtexts of the photographs are laden with stories.

Dancing, c.1872
I would like to share a story, which is an intersection of vintage photography, fashion, and ghost clothes. Three years ago, I bought a vintage photograph of two (presumably) aristocratic Rajasthani women from a Jodhpur antique store. I browsed through stacks of photographs before finally deciding upon a hand-tinted one of two smiling women posing next to a decorative pillar; they were dressed in lengha-choli, their heads covered. Clearly not just content with introducing color into the women's monochrome lives, the artist also limned their jewelry with glitter, blurring the line between painting and image. I remember thinking that the combination of the image being hand-tinted and vintage meant that the women looked as if they had been photographed underwater. 

I had the photograph framed and packed it in a nest of scraps of old cloth and newspaper and carted it off to Oman; after spending quite some time deciding where to place the photograph in my room, alternating between my desk or my dressing table, I eventually propped it above the rectangular mirror. Whenever I was writing at my desk, I would absently glance at the photograph and eventually, I thought of building a long novella or short novel around these anonymous women: who were they: mother and daughter, posing for a special occasion? Where were they posing and had they worn their special-occasion outfits? How did they feel about posing for a photograph? Had they been in purdah? If so, were they happy to be seen and not invisible, for once? I visualised the photograph being part of the book-jacket, reminiscing in the afterword about it being the visual and direct inspiration for the book.

As weeks passed, I could not pinpoint as to why I started to feel uneasy whenever I looked at the photograph; in turn, I felt that the smiles on the women's faces were less pronounced, conveying a discernible lack of cheer. Even though I valiantly attempted to construct a story around them, it was as if the women in the photograph resisted being written into the narrative.

I eventually decided that I could no longer have the photograph in my room; it was as if neither the women nor I were at peace and we should part ways. I could not bring myself to summarily dispose it in the trash so I decided to consign them to the sea instead. When I went to the beach, I gently placed them in the lap of the sea and prayed for their well-being. Why I did so, I do not know: both the prayers or the act of donating them to the ocean. All I knew that was I stood there and watched them float away in the sea until they gradually disappeared out of my sight.

Do clothes have ghosts, or ghosts have clothes? Some questions will be unanswered...


  1. was waiting for this one....so nicely written..as I was going through these pictures again...i realized that the longer I stare at them...the more scary they appear to be... i think its something about the eyes....

    1. Once again, so glad that you enjoyed reading it! After seeing the Tasveer photos, the vintage photograph had been on my mind for a while and I was wondering how to write about it - and the inspiration came in the form of the book.

      The eyes are the windows to the souls, as they say - the eyes were what I found most disconcerting about the photograph too! There is still something alive about them!


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