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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Linnea Rogers

What Do Your Clothes Mean to You?

Some thoughts on shopping, meaning, and Jane Birkin’s wicker basket.


DOES ANYONE HAVE A FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT ANYMORE? While listening to Leonard Cohen’s 1971 song of the same name, I recently found myself dwelling on the innocuous symbol. A piece of clothing that is so often worn that it becomes recognizably yours. In Cohen’s song, the raincoat is paralleled with a lock of hair. These are the only descriptions we receive of the subject of the song; a literal part of their body and a piece of clothing. How integral. Now, we might be known for our style or overarching fashion sense, but are we ever really known for our garments? The difference between Cohen’s 1971 and our 2024 is the result of the over-buying, under-wearing, and unrelenting trend cycle.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a garment is worn only 7-10 times before being discarded. Everyone knows this is incredibly bad for the environment, but I’d argue it’s also bad for your soul. To not feel a connection to the garments you place on your body devalues your bodily awareness. I believe disconnecting from our clothing, through garment waste, could be considered a moral experience — that is actively devaluing the lives we are living.

Recently, I have been especially ill at ease with the struggle between my love for fashion and my hatred for over-consumption. Will these two priorities of mine ever be friends? Can they, even? Being anti-overconsumption and fashion-interested is oxymoronic. Mindful and ethical consumption is fundamentally opposed to the proclivities of the fashion industry. The quite obvious truth is that the most sustainable clothing choice is to not buy and instead wear what you already own. According to The Hot or Cool Institute, we should be adding only five new pieces to our wardrobes per annum to comply with the UN’s global warming limit. (Though I do question this way of phrasing the issue — there could be good, clothes to buy if fashion companies didn’t churn flimsy garbage out at hyper-speed?) Rhi Harper expressed my dilemma perfectly in a tweet from last December: “I think I love style and hate fashion.” 

But what can this look like in praxis? How do we accomplish style without the intervention of fashion? The answer is obvious but cannot be overstated: by actually wearing our clothes. 

In recent attempts to curb this overconsumption and inspire sartorial creativity, there have been a plethora of trends; styling challenges; No-Buy initiatives; and minimalist approaches, like the capsule wardrobe. I’m going to offer a different but kindred approach – to simply connect with your clothes and to invest in clothing that connects with you.

Maybe I’m unnecessarily sentimental — I know I am — but I like things to matter. And I think by building lives with beautiful things, we build valuable, truthful lives. We should fill our closets and homes with carefully selected, meaningful objects to enrich our lives for the better instead of objects that bog us down — or, worse, have no meaning at all.

I must also pause to suggest that this overconsumption is linked with the newer idea that a sense of identity lies in a set of commodities. People think of style as who they are, and to deprive someone of the right to express themselves is seen as oppressive. Across the wide scope of human history, identity used to determine what you wore; now, clothing functions to determine identity.

I hate having clothes without meaning. There is something soulless in the modern style procession: 1) seeing a jacket in an Instagram post 2) following a link to an online shop 3) ordering the jacket for yourself and 4) having it delivered within a week. Where’s the story? Where’s the passion? Can that really even be considered having an interest in style — or has the work been done for you?

Once upon a time, style signaled something. Garments could say something about you, your politics, and your people. An accessory could arise for practical reasons, like punks using safety pins to make garments, since that was an available, concert-ready resource, which eventually became a signifier of the subculture itself. We are eons away from this material integrity of alternate style. Can it really be considered “style” to see someone wearing a specific pair of tights online, going on Amazon, and buying the same pair of tights? So that way one can fulfill the idea of oneself as a person who dresses a certain way. That’s not identity. That’s not style. That’s certainly not community. Nothing about these garments says anything about who you are, where you come from, or what you do — aside from who you want to project and be perceived as. Where’s the story? Where’s the development? It feels vacuous and simply unintelligible.

At the same time, I do believe self-expression is a right, and that one of the pleasures of life is being able to shape oneself. To create an ideal image and realising it is a powerful tool. In matters of sexuality and gender, it can be revolutionary. The emotional power of clothing is truly magical. But it is not a right to accomplish this — especially in an unsustainable, ridiculously sped-up window of time. I just think it should happen very, very slowly, over a lifetime. 

We see these bids for connection with our clothing appear in aesthetic culture. Currently, it’s being channeled through the resurgence of Indie Sleaze, 2014 Tumblr, and Twee. The reappearance of these 2010s fashion eras is an attempt at experiencing — or for some, re-experiencing — the emotional implication of times past by wearing the clothes, or at least signaling to by posting  online, the blithe joy of “the good old days.” Eventually, these renaissances fizzle out and we latch on to something new because the same issue reoccurs; it doesn't bring fulfilment.

Is it not that deep? Maybe. But do we not want to be surrounded by beautiful things? Things we have spent years dreaming of, saving up for, waiting for? To live beautiful lives? To feel fulfilled in our wardrobes? I want to have stories with my clothes. I want them to be lovers and friends. I want to treat them like treasures. 

It should be harder to create the wardrobes we want, and we should embrace difficulty and particularity in curation. I will finish with some show-and-tell, from a treasure chest of clothes that do more than just clothe a body, but are memory-laden and sacred — maybe even in their mundanity.

Jane Birkin’s Wicker Basket

What: A woven fisherman’s basket.

Worn: With everything.

Where: From the Cannes Film Festival to Pro-Choice rallies, and everywhere in between.

Before she was the namesake of the Hermès Birkin bag, Jane famously carried a wicker basket, sometimes referred to as “the other Birkin bag.” When she met Jean Louis Dumas on a flight in 1984, the meeting canonised itself into fashion mythology — the wicker basket spilled its contents, starting their conversation. Birkin bought the fishermen’s basket in Portugal, and even after the creation of the Hermès Birkin, she continued to favor it (though the lid looks to have disappeared at some point).

Sturdy, roomy, light, and lidded, Jane Birkin carried the basket through seasons and years. Half of Birkin’s most iconic, Pinterest-ed-to-death images feature the woven bag in hand with floor-skimming, heavy black coats; summery miniskirts; silky party dresses; heels; and her daughter on her hip. From a Pro-Choice rally in 1972 to the Cannes Film Festival in 1974, the loyal companionship of the wicker basket is emblematic of the salt-of-the-earth quality that has made Birkin’s image and style so enduring and apt for endless reference.

Eddie Vedder’s Corduroy Jacket

What: A cropped brown corduroy shirt.

Worn: Unbuttoned over t-shirts or long sleeves, with cargo shorts or trousers.

Where: Gigs, informal photoshoots, and festivals.

“Does it get more ‘90s grunge than Eddie Vedder and a corduroy jacket?” begs the caption under the picture of Eddie Vedder I return to. Vedder bought the shirt from a thrift store, and it became a core part of Pearl Jam’s visual identity. Hemost famously wore it in the band’s 1992 MTV Unplugged recording. It’s also a really nice jacket. The slight crop at the waist and slimmer fit streamline the baggier components of Vedder’s outfits.

In 1994, after seeing a similar shirt being sold for a much higher sum, he went home and wrote the song “Corduroy” where he wails (as Eddie Vedder only ever wails), “They can buy / but can’t put on my clothes.”In a 2002 interview with The A.V. Club, Vedder said “[the] song was based on a remake of the brown corduroy jacket that I wore. I think I got mine for 12 bucks, and it was being sold for like $650.”

Hoping to procure one yourself? One Pearl Jam subredditor suggests “[getting] a time machine back to 1981.”

Stevie Nicks' Top Hat

What: A 1920s black top hat.

Worn: With Stevie’s classic witchy-bohemian garb.

Where: Concerts, photoshoots, and the “Go Your Own Way” Music Video.

There are two T’s that have accompanied Stevie Nicks through Fleetwood Mac’s journey: a tambourine and, over her thick bangs; a top hat.

Nicks has donned an array of top hats, with increasing amounts of flair: feathers, satin ribbons, rosettes, trailing veils, and silver talismans. She still owns her original 1920s top hat, which she bought in Buffalo, New York. Talking with V Magazine in 2009 about some of her most memorable looks, she explained, “We were on tour and on one of our days off Christine and I went antique shopping. I found that hat in some random little shop. I still have it. It’s at home in a box. I keep everything. There were a few classic pieces that got lost or stolen along the way, but everything else I saved.” 

It’s truly admirable to have the guts to wear any hat, especially a top hat. And Nicks pulls it off, taking her visual identity to the heights of iconic silhouette. During the 2014 Fleetwood Mac Reunion Tour, the hat would be brought out for the encore, like a celebrity guest. “[The] hat has its own roadie, its own box and its own cage. It’s always protected,” she shared with Rolling Stone in 2014.

“Once again, it’s me and a top hat… the little top hat that could.” Truly.

Elvira’s Dagger Belt

What: A waist-hugging leather belt held together with a bejeweled dagger.

Worn: Always.

Where: Everywhere.

Speaking of iconic silhouettes, has anyone ever perfected and realised their look as well as Elvira? The Mistress of Darkness’ look is both maximalist and simple. A towering bouffant of jet-black hair; the plunging neckline of a figure-hugging bat-winged dress with a daring slit; sheer black stockings; and black pumps. (To specify “black” is redundant, here.) In the middle of this iconic uniform sits a leather belt held together by a bejeweled dagger.

Elvira’s look is a perfect lesson in accessory. The belt, amplified cleavage, dramatic makeup, and stiletto nails add the perfect campy details to an otherwise quite minimalist look.

Cassandra Peterson, the woman behind Elvira, revealed in a 2020 interview with Vogue that the original belt was from Macy’s and sheathed with a leather pin. Robert Redding, who helped design Elvira’s look, eventually “designed a drawing of a dagger and then went out and had it cast in metal and added jewels to it.” The belt is made of A-1 pleating and remains a component of the performer’s costume, which she has been wearing since the 1980s.

Bonus Item: Joan Didion’s Packing List

What: A packing list.

Worn: While traveling.

A slight diversion away from sole garments, Joan Didion’s packing list exists for a practical reason, but also illustrates the idea of stripping one’s wardrobes down to the necessities. My own, most recent, packing list — for Easter weekend — features broad phrases like “Monday outfit” and “Outfit for going home in,” but Didion’s list features specific amounts of specific items — an early rendition of the capsule wardrobe.

In The White Album, Didion notes the anonymity afforded by the outfits: “Notice the deliberative anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings. I could pass on either side of the culture.” It offers a different consideration of clothing, not as identity but as camouflage. Similar to Elvira, this “uniform” allowed Didion to do a job — and to do so efficiently.

Didion further suggests, “The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do.” It makes me wonder what a wardrobe enabling one to dress without thinking — not for lack of creativity but due to careful consideration in its curation — would look like. May we all take notes on how to dress from Joan. 🌀


Olivia Linnea Rogers is a Norwegian-British writer, fringe enthusiast, film watcher, and poet, if you're lucky. Based in London. She can obviously be found online on Instagram (@olivialinnearogers) and Twitter (@olivialinrogers).


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