Janet (j4) wrote,

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Wash and go

I spent a large part of today hand-washing clothes. It occurred to me as I was "slaving away over the sink" that I don't associate hand-washing my clothes with housework or homeliness; I associate it with independence, with building a sense of self.

I spent my teenage years furiously reinventing myself -- sometimes several times a day -- with the aid of an increasingly eclectic wardrobe. Silk blouses, ruffled shirts, velvet skirts, PVC waistcoats, stripy tights, tie-dye, embroidered and mirror-adorned Indian patchwork, ties, bow-ties, cravats, lace gloves, blue stockings, woollen tank-tops, crocheted jumpers ... I was a sartorial chameleon. Quentin Crisp said "Fashion is for people who don't know who they are", and this quotation (heard accidentally in a TV programme that I wasn't intending to watch) was one that I hoarded in my heart while my fashion-conscious peers mocked me for my dress (non)sense.

Now, anybody who's been responsible for washing their own clothes will already be wincing at the thought of all those velvets, silks, etc., etc. Because practically the only thing that all these clothes had in common was that they all needed hand-washing. And while my parents mostly didn't disapprove of what I wore (though they frequently rolled their eyes, and sometimes laughed) there was no way my mother was going to aid and abet my ludicrous taste in clothes by doing this extra work for me, particularly since she thought it was high time I started doing my own laundry anyway.

In those days, there was more time. There were days, weeks to be idled away, and I could easily find the time every now and then to spend a few hours hand-washing the clothes that were becoming symbols of my identities. And in a way those were pleasant hours; I'd have a cassette playing on the ghetto-blaster in the kitchen as I worked, and if nobody was listening I'd sing along with whatever I was listening to ... maybe even air-guitar along a bit here and there to Nirvana or Jimi Hendrix, or air-fiddle to the Levellers, dripping soap-suds over the floor. My hands would get cold and damp all the way through, and if I was trying to make things colour-fast they'd end up smelling of vinegar as well.

In the winter I'd walk down to the cellar and hang my clothes on the maiden (I started learning to call it a 'clothes-horse' at university, when people laughed or looked blank at the word 'maiden'), and it was always warm in the cellar because that's where the old, poorly-insulated oil boiler was. In the summer I'd take my washing outside, wandering out barefoot in the sunshine with armfuls of washing to peg up on the line. In my mind I can still see rainbow rows of silk shirts and tie-dye skirts fluttering in the breeze. I can see my teenaged self, in ripped jeans and a tie-dye vest-top (I didn't have to hide my arms in those days), squinting into the sun with a mouthful of pegs.

It seems such a petty consumerist victory now to be able to say that they were my clothes, bought with my money. But at the time, it mattered. I felt as though I was growing into myself, becoming independent, and developing new identities as a tree develops new buds in spring. I was coming out of a cocoon, and I was determined that my new wings should be as gaudy as possible.

* * *

I have too many clothes to fit them all in my wardrobes and drawers. Too many clothes to even remember what I own, and going through the lower strata of the laundry pile is like sifting through the clothes stall at a church jumble sale.

All the clothes I washed today were black. A jazz CD played on the sleek mini-system, and I didn't even attempt to sing along.

The clothes-horses stand in front of the radiator, and it no longer seems particularly impressive to buy clothes with my own money.

But I still have silk shirts in all the colours of the rainbow. And I still have a cassette of the Levellers at Glastonbury 1992 (taped from Radio 1 when Radio 1 was still good, and when Glastonbury was still a utopian vision of all the things I'd be able to do when I was grown-up and didn't have to ask my parents' permission). And when nobody's listening, I still sing along.

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