I pull my lilac linen shirt out of the washer and shake it to ease out the wrinkles. Then, I drape it over my arm while I load the rest of the damp clothes into the dryer. I shut the door, set the dryer to permanent press, then head upstairs, linen shirt in hand, to the sound of the dryer falling into its soothing rhythm. In the bathroom, I hang the shirt on a thick plastic hanger, positioning it so the shoulder seams line up with the hanger. I smooth the collar, pressing the pointed tabs, then button it all the way down, smoothing it out with my palms, and do the same with the sleeves, pressing them into a wrinkle-free shape. The damp fabric feels cool and pleasant under my hands. I stand in the bathroom, illuminated by the hall light, and adjust the shirt on the hanger with one final smoothing. It looks ready for a store window display. The fabric, made from a natural material, reminds me of summer.
Linen, smooth and cool to the touch, is at home on the beach, in the sun, on an August evening. Perhaps its association with the lightness, freedom, and ease of summer is why I love it. It looks beautiful once ironed, but the effect doesn’t last. Once worn, it wrinkles immediately, one flaw you must accept when you wear it. It is always accompanied with nonchalance.
I own a pale-pink linen dress of simple design, with a dropped waist and a V-neck, sleeveless, and most importantly, with the coveted pockets. My mother, gone now twenty years, brought it home from the tony Fairfield County thrift store where she volunteered Friday mornings. Friday was the day donations were sorted, giving her first shot at choosing clothes for me, her daughter who shared her taste. Of course I shared her taste. She trained me to be the clotheshorse I became.
In high school, I kept a desk calendar of what I wore to school. My goal: to not repeat an outfit for three weeks. I achieved this goal with my mother’s help, through her sewing skills and her love of shopping. Unsure of myself in so many ways, fashion gave me a place I could present a mask of confidence. It was my idea to track my clothes, but it was her pleasure I was courting with the attention to my daily outfit, a bond I desired to strengthen.
Historically, a clotheshorse was a wooden frame to hang clothes to dry, something I could use today. In the 1800s, the term came to describe both men and women who were passionate about fashion and always dressed in the latest styles. A fashion plate. I was the first girl in my high school to wear a tailored, pearl-gray midi coat with a miniskirt underneath, quite the statement in the early seventies. I also wore custom-made dresses, stitched from Liberty London fabric. My mother displayed her sewing skill by the way she cut the fabric, precisely positioning the blue, italicized logo to run along the back zipper. I dropped my clotheshorse identity in college, but still chose purple suede clogs and caftans as part of my wardrobe. Now, as an adult with a disposable income, I fell in love with linen.
One of the oldest textiles on the planet, linen’s origin dates back to 3500 BC Egypt, where linen was used for shrouds and symbolized light, purity, and wealth. The fabric is made from the interior stem of the flax plant, exposed after retting, or soaking. It is then dried, crushed, and beaten to prepare it to be spun. None of the plant is wasted: the seeds are used to produce linseed oil, flaxseed, soaps, paper, and cattle feed. A member of the Linaceae family, the second part of its Latin name, Linum usitatissimum, means “most useful.” The simple, five-petal flowers grow and glow in shades of blue ranging from pale blue to periwinkle.
I still own that pale-pink linen dress, the one with pockets my mother gave me. It’s my beach dress. I wear it over a wet swimsuit, sometimes with that lilac linen shirt. Layers of linen seem ridiculous in their luxury, yet the fabric is derived from a humble plant grown in fields halfway around the world. I have mended this dress, patching the threadbare spots, and still more frayed spots appear. Yet, I don’t give it up. I will continue to mend it until it falls apart. When it does, I will place it in the drawer with the other objects I can’t give up because they, too, are imbued with meaning.
Layers of my identity are woven into this piece of clothing: daughter, lover of domestic pleasures, mender of objects. Every time I pull the dress from my closet, I remember when my mother handed it to me, ironed and on a hanger. I recall how she ran her fingertips across the fabric, the smile we shared, and how her blue eyes lit up when she said, “and it has pockets.”
I remain my mother’s daughter.