Pink Days and Blue Days and Wrinkles of Time

Alice Butler, our Writer in Residence, reflects upon the relationship between clothing and memory

Alice will be joined by Professor Carol Mavor, whose writing has informed this text, at the Freud Museum on Tuesday 30 July, 7pm. Mavor will be giving a lecture on ‘Our irresistible tendency to steal things we do not need from the Mother (Earth)’, through the lens of the North Californian art scene in 1968.  Details >>

Alice will also be giving a reading of her own work on Saturday 3 August. Details >>

Clothed connections

From a candyfloss-pink swimming costume, underwired at the breast, ruched and puckered around my body, to a pink hospital gown flecked with daisies, worn by my Belfast-born Nana in a photograph sent to me last week. I was in Copenhagen for a conference on the “Afterlife of the Object”; and at the end of the day on Thursday, my friend and I cycled out to the north of the city to plunge into the windswept sea. The open water had spread itself out for us, sewn all over with whipping white sailing boats, like a second-hand tablecloth (the ones I remember from summer holidays on the west coast of Ireland).

For our Danish dinner: four cans of Tuborg beer, some olives, a packet of crisps, a small tub of hummus, and the most expensive cashew nuts ever seen, according to Dimitris, a young Greek scholar of Classics, who joined us to swim in his underpants. The weather had been bright, unseasonably sticky, but as we groped and kicked our way through the teal-grey sea, smudged charcoal clouds began to move towards us. I emerged from the water to photographic evidence and the news that my Nana, who had suffered a fall and broke her hip just two days before, was out of bed—talking, eating and cracking jokes to the doctor—owning the pink sack that clothed her octogenarian body, thirty years after she retired as the Sister of a ward. Separated by the North Sea, I felt suddenly close to her in that instant: our matching pink garments, touching. The fabric of the photograph pricked me like a needle.

As Roland Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse: “I must resemble whom I love […] I want to be the other, I want the other to be me, as if we were united, enclosed within the same sack of skin, the garment being the smooth envelope of that coalescent substance out of which my amorous Image-repertoire is made.


Sartorial afterlives

I was in Copenhagen to present my work on Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller, two writers associated with New York’s downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, whose ‘close writing’ got deep inside the loves and losses of their lives. Their writing has touched me in an intimate, erotic way, revealing the closeness of text and textile. I’ve worn their words; felt my skin prick again, as photographs have the capacity to do too, writes Barthes in Camera Lucida.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Elizabeth (Johnston) Hall, The Beauty of Newhaven, 1843-1847 (photographed), Photograph, Salt paper print from calotype negative. Given by Sir Theodore Martin, 1868. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This is a book that asks us to think about the affective afterlife of images and objects, as so many of the papers in Copenhagen also did. Indeed, before the lucidity of a talk by Jane Blocker on disorientation and aesthetic experience; before the warmth and wonder of Page duBois and her scratching at ancient blood; before Rune Gade opened his life through images; before talks on beehives and gold; memorial poems; forgotten toy instruments; Korean patchwork wrapping cloths; volcanoes; and Victorian calotypes of Scottish fishwives; Carol Mavor, who as a person and as a writer has inspired me to write love letters to the dead, gave us her writing (a gift), a stitching of fiction and criticism, on the political movements of 1968 and the performance works that characterised the Bay Area scene, near to where she grew up. After her lusciously imaged talk, over a lusciously Nordic lunch of raw fish, potatoes and rye bread, we talked about our respective childhoods and adolescent rebellions; about the clothes our mothers wore. Affective, sartorial afterlives.

Mine, in fragments:

An Irish woollen jumper that rolls down at the neck

Monochrome spots at a wedding

Breton stripes every Saturday

Eyeliner in the pub (half a Guinness)

What is it about make-up that sticks in our memories: like crusty mascara, dried-out from the night before, leaving black-feathered marks (which looks like writing) on a crumpled pillow? In Kate Zambreno’s fragmentary work of mourning, Book of Mutter (2017), which the author has written and rewritten during “the intervening years” (over a decade) since her mother’s death from cancer, it is the continued presence of a “row of Clinique lipsticks in silver cases,” which for a moment returns her mother to her. They’re not quite red, but “brownish rose,” faded perhaps, “all eroded with her lips’ long absence.” The elements have eaten at this relic, washed the original shape of her away: a haunting disappearance. Zambreno collects the traces of her mother’s things in this book, time-shifting access points that become strange containers of memory, from a glamorous lipstick; to half-used pots of Vaseline; to Polaroids from before her parents got married—her mother “lovely in bell-bottomed blue jeans and a red top.” From her “manic collectomania” (Emily Apter’s term) to familial kleptomania: Kate secretly takes one of her mother’s garments without asking—a “black skirt with three fading gold buttons down the side.” She sneaks it home as a souvenir, which is “French for to remember,” Zambreno points out—fastening memory and kleptomania together in expansive definition.

Echoing the fragments of Barthes’s Mourning Diary, which was written alongside Camera Lucida in a period of intense grief following his mother’s death, Zambreno writes through her muttering grief, an “attempt to repair [herself], stitching back former selves, sentences,” by touching the stitched objects left behind.

Barthes is one of Zambreno’s written companions who worked with the reparative force of cloth (Louise Bourgeois is another; she will return). The scene of Camera Lucida in which Barthes is stupefied when he witnesses his photographed mother “dressed up—hat with a feather, gloves, delicate linen at wrists and throat,” re-emerges in Zambreno’s archival mode of writing when she is sent a photograph of her mother’s sixth-grade class photo. Zambreno asks: “Is this tall black-and-white blur of coke-bottle glasses in the back row really my mother?” Both Barthes and Zambreno attempt to “find” their mothers (“fugitively alas”) through ransacking photographs and burrowing deep inside the garments within them.


Olfactory grief

But sometimes it’s the smell that catches you. Choking grief. An involuntary memory of a loved one: bottled in worn-out creases.

This is what happened to the scholar Peter Stallybrass when he wore the “shiny black cotton and polyester weave suit jacket” that once belonged to his friend and collaborator, Allon White, and which was given to him after White’s death from leukaemia in 1986. Stallybrass decides to wear it on the occasion of a lecture he gave on and about his friend, giving way to an olfactory merging: “If I wore the jacket, Allon wore me. He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains of the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits. Above all he was there in the smell.” This is the strange contact clothes can make, after death and in spite of physical absence, as Barthes describes: “clothing is perishable, it makes a second grave for the loved being.” It binds past and present bodies together through loose threads and wrinkles of time.


Scouring wrinkles


Ellen Sampson, Afterlives of Clothes, 2019, Cyanotype, Digital negative. Courtesy of the artist.

Ellen Sampson, Afterlives of Clothes, 2019.

Ellen Sampson, Afterlives Of Clothes, 2019, Cyanotype, Digital negative. Courtesy of the artist.









The artist Ellen Sampson traced these wrinkles when sifting through the Costume Institute collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She made a series of cyanotypes, titled Afterlives of Clothes (2019), featuring the buffed edge of a button-down nightshirt; disembodied gloves bleached by the sun and thinned out by wear; knee-high socks that look like gloves without fingers; diseased fabrics, spotted like the skin of a toddler with chicken pox, and hand-stitched labels declaring “NOT FOR LOAN”: an order that Sampson disobeys with the archival act of photographing, in a distinctly Victorian style. First developed by the English scientist, John Herschel, in 1842, as a means of reproducing diagrams as blueprints, the cyanotype creates a silhouetted image by placing an object on a reactive surface and developing it in UV light.

Sampson scours the archive with her cyanotypes, but does not wipe it clean. Rather, as she quickly searches the archive for signs of wear, another sense of scouring; she ‘cares’ for these objects, lets their wrinkles speak, light up, as the verb ‘to scour’ also comes from the Late Latin excurare, which literally means ‘take good care of’. Cast adrift from their original owners, these bodiless objects are threaded through with past lives, pock-marked by memories, lit up by Sampson’s lens. The haptic image of three sets of gloves, stained blue, summon three ghostly sets of hands, reminding us of that these objects once grabbed and touched and groped and embraced, in relational terms, as they are now being felt again once more, carefully, within the tactile, affective space of the blue archive. In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, blue things become triggers of memory, like the “blue tarp on a roof across the way” that flaps in the wind as the author and her lover fucked in the Chelsea Hotel. Who knows what Sampson’s gloves got up to, the bodies they might’ve touched?

I love how Sampson’s cyanotypes tell stories without endings, unfinished or unraveling. The stitches are loose: inviting our touch, our writing. In a discussion of cyanotypes in Blue Mythologies, Carol Mavor, following Barthes, turns blue into an intransitive verb. “To blue is to colour intransitively,” she writes, “openly, perhaps, utopically. To blue is to write with the light of the cyanotype.”


Pink is memory

Sampson’s blue archive makes me think of how clothes are passed down (sometimes even stolen), from owner to owner, with love and care. Amongst the love objects I have received from my Nana is a black silk scarf with lurid pink and yellow flowers blooming all over it. She bought it from Jaeger (was proud it was from Jaeger) for my uncle’s wedding in Singapore in December 1989. It came with a matching dress, high necked and with small tucks on the shoulder seam, an elegant puffed sleeve. (E is for elegant and for Eveline; P is for puffed and for Phyllis—her first name and middle name, which her parents switched around, she thinks, from Day One.) Slipped onto her hard-skinned feet that humid day—the same toe nails (though they were healthier back then) I have painted magenta, cerise, coral, salmon, and nude, in the intervening years since—were 9-inch heels, patent pink.

Current gender norms dictate that pink is the opposite of blue, conjuring soft and feminine undertones versus the masculinity and melancholy of blue. But just as Nelson finds love and hope in blue, as well as violence (“blue is paradoxical; it is self-contradictory, yet true,” writes Mavor), I’m gathering the multiple threads of pink. Like blue, pink is also a container of memory and time.

Phyllis chose a less garish tone of the colour to frame the quilt she made for me for my thirteenth birthday. I remember how, when we were visiting Belfast as children, the dark mahogany dining table, which always gained a plastic tablecloth at teatime, became her atelier. (Louise Bourgeois’s grandmother also had her own atelier in Aubusson, France, where she made and repaired tapestries.) The table for eating so often vibrated with her Janome sewing machine, as she wound and stitched and reversed, collecting fabric leftovers into larger blankets that became something whole. I was desperate for it to be my turn to receive one. When it finally arrived, this delectable quilt of cake-like segments, marked my entry into adolescence, shaping my love of sewing and writing, and second-hand clothes—lost and found—much like the polka-dot cotton sundresses, busy floral skirts and silk satin slips that clutter the (black-and-white) photographs of another adolescent, Francesca Woodman. About Woodman’s sartorial camera of memory, another way of making a quilt, Mavor writes: “Woodman’s photographs feature dresses that feel like history, like portraits. […] I believe there must be stories of acquisition hidden in Woodman’s prints.”

In my pink-framed patchwork are fabrics stolen from our shared lives: squares of 1970s orange and brown floral, blue-and-white gingham, salmon seersucker, my great grandmother’s crochet tablecloth, black-and-white polka-dot: the scraps of domestic life, or dresses and skirts worn by the many female members of my Irish family. I sometimes still sleep underneath it; connecting me with them. As my skin gets close to their material fragments, I can feel myself touching the bodies of the past, the people that are ‘close’ to me, through these loved pieces, cut and re-sewn with reparative desire.

As Louise Bourgeois, another love of pink, has commented, “for me, clothes are always someone else’s.” Ownership gets blurred in the quilt, as it does in the kleptomaniac act.

Sarah Edwards, Dress by Molly Goddard, Photograph part of the exhibition ‘Dress Portrait: Molly Goddard and Sarah Edwards’, CHELSEA Space, 2019. Courtesy of Sarah Edwards.

The fashion designer, Molly Goddard, also connects to her mother through the transparent folds of a baby pink dress, cut from a fabric as delicate as tracing paper. There is no lining to speak of in this sartorial still life, as one of Goddard’s dresses comes alive as a ruched, stitched, and frilled, wearable, and writable, sculpture, photographed by Goddard’s mother, the artist and set designer, Sarah Edwards. This light pink cumulus cloud appears to bubble and float in the air, as it balances upon a hat stand, which rests on a hat stand hidden behind the papery. Written upon it are creases and wrinkles (in other words: memories), curved lines and bubbles, which puff the skirt of the dress outwards, as if the invisible body within it is flying, or falling. Is this the dress of Goddard’s childhood? Or the dress of her dreams? I scour her creases for stories hidden amongst its folds.

It reminds me of another light pink dress suspended mid-flight. Constructed in cotton and cut above the knee with loose pockets, this dream dress hangs from a ten-foot tall floating steel carousel. Louise Bourgeois (artist and tapestry heir) made the sculpture, titled Pink Days and Blue Days, in 1997, having abandoned painting for sculpture more than half a century earlier, convinced that she could express “deeper things in three dimensions.” Together with the pink sundress, other articles hang from the wardrobe-cum-sculpture (that also resembles a branching (family) tree): spools of thread, a perfume flask, a doll’s torso, a cat-headed figurine, baby-sized undergarments and a pink silk raincoat embroidered with the nicknames the artist was given as a young girl: “Louise, Lis, Lison, Lisette, Louison, Louisette.”

These garments from Bourgeois’s childhood, strung up and stolen, show how clothing can function as a site of memory and repair, as the artist cuts adrift garments from her past that are stitched through with attachment and trauma, to later reframe them in sculptures: “an exorcism.” As the artist has stated: “To have really gone through an exorcism, in order to liberate myself from the past, I have to reconstruct it, ponder about it, make a statue of it and get rid of it through making sculpture. I’m able to forget about it afterward. I have paid my debt to the past and I’m liberated.” Zambreno reproduces this statement in Book of Mutter, as Bourgeois becomes a character in the author’s grieving text, another Maman, whose own work Cell (Choisy)—a model of her childhood home in Choisy-le-Roi—drives the modular structure and the reparative impulses of Zambreno’s fragmentary book.


Reparative stitches

To steal, cut, fragment, and incorporate, clothing within her sculptures is another instance of Bourgeois’s sculpture that performs the depressive position invoked in Kleinian psychoanalysis. As Mignon Nixon has so powerfully explicated, Bourgeois’s art intersected with and expanded upon, Klein’s theory of object relations. Analysing children at play, Klein argued that, “the subject first relates to its environment as a field of objects (called part-objects) to be fused or fragmented, possessed or destroyed, by means of phantasies of introjection, projection, and splitting.” (I quote from Nixon here.) The infant can oscillate from the paranoid-schizoid position that is marked by anger and anxiety, to the depressive position, whereby the baby begins to bring together conflicted feelings of love and hate, triggering an impulse to “repair” and restore one’s objects, which can continue to reoccur later in life. This gives forth to reparation: a process that engenders love, hope, nourishment, and creativity.

Pink Days and Blue Days spins with reparative forces. It appears as a spinning carousel, a time-travelling machine, which re-stitches past memories (including the bad days (the blue ones) when her competing parents used bribes of clothing to earn her affection) into something new and vital. Stolen from her past, those pink sacks hang suspended in an unfinished gesture. They invite fresh stories; hopeful acts of return and recollection. Memories re-sewn: the thread never tied off.

To pink? An intransitive verb?

For a brief moment, isolated from my family in Copenhagen, I was worried that Phyllis might not make it. But the pink sack told a different story. She’s now back at home, in her usual pink cardigans, if not her patent heels. As strange containers of presence and absence, clothes have the capacity to connect us across time, across death; to repair fragile stories of the past and the present, to create scenes of attachment and love—stitch by reparative stitch.


My blood is pink.

Alice will be joined by Professor Carol Mavor, whose writing has informed this text, at the Freud Museum on Tuesday 30 July, 7pm. Mavor will be giving a lecture on ‘Our irresistible tendency to steal things we do not need from the Mother (Earth)’, through the lens of the North Californian art scene in 1968.  Details >>

Alice will also be giving a reading of her own work on Saturday 3 August. Details >>

Works collected, re-stitched

Apter, Emily. Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Jonathan Cape, 1979.

———. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981.

Mavor, Carol. Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2009.

Nixon, Mignon. Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2005.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Worn Worlds: Clothing, Mourning and the Life of Things.” In Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg, 27-44. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Zambreno, Kate. Book of Mutter. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2017.

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