Sentimental Fabrics – Eternally Yours, and the stories that clothes can tell

The clothes we wear most likely mean a lot to us. We see a similar sentiment attached to other material possessions, such as teddy bears we owned when we were younger, or even now. What is it about teddies and other soft material that encourage such attachments. Can we attach story and memories to clothing the same way we do with stuffed animals and blankets?

Clothing holds voracious sentimentality: they speak to our character, our heritage, our identity and various forms of expression. Lots of clothing can have stories and memories attached to them. This article seeks to explore what material can mean to us, through the sentimentality of teddies.

Repurposing our tattered possessions has become a ubiquitous skill to be sought after in our current fashion culture as we aim to protect the environment and recycle, as well as other forms of preservation and sustainability. There are various ways in which we can teach ourselves to revive the possessions we hold dear. Free community events take that practice further. Exploring collective vulnerability with group activities giving insight to crucial skills in fashion and textiles is a favourable progress being made in the industry. Through these efforts we bring down the veil and invite everyone into the fashion world which allows for a tighter embrace for our clothing and other material possessions. Here’s hoping it continues! Not only does learning how to repurpose and repair our beloved items allow us to postpone or completely disintegrate the end life of our items, but additionally, past, present and future versions of ourselves are all in tandem and represented through the repair and care. 

In the summer, Somerset House hosted an exhibition called Eternally Yours exploring the tenderness of material, and the repair, care and healing through material and objects. 

The event took place from the 16th of June to the 25th of September. Significant textile features of the exhibition included displays of Celia Pym’s repair of a damaged hand-knitted jumper made by Annemor Sundbø, shoes by Aya Haida depicting the stories of survival of Syrian immigrants, the Beasley Brothers’ Repair Shop developed by Carl Clerkin, free mending consultations led by TOAST (the partners of the exhibition), a Nairobian workshop-led practise called Studio Propolis, and various other artists and workshops.

Our team discussed our own attachments to soft toys and teddies amongst ourselves, after the exhibition. Hearing personal experiences with teddies can be quite revealing; our own attachment to teddies are congruous to who we know each other to be. Some of us naturally come across quite soft and gentle, and so it’s not too surprising to know a few of us still have teddies! Though, sometimes, it could be completely surprising that someone you know during adulthood once owned, or still owns, a teddy bear. An inanimate friend to cuddle at night. It’s arguably a shock when this is someone that comes from a large family. In my case, for example, I’m surprised I could even fit my teddy in the bed when I had to share with my sister and brother for most of my childhood. The items and material we attach ourselves tell us a great deal about who we are as people as it unearths an element of vulnerability, the softest sides to someone. Additionally, it brings us closer to each other in that we have a common source of nostalgia between ourselves and this vulnerability is shared before we ever thought to share it verbally with our peers. 

The conversation that we had about teddies provoked me to break this concept down to its bare essentials – human connection to material, and what that means. If such intimacy is connoted by the presence of a teddy bear in our bedrooms, is this concept extensive to all sorts of material, such as clothes? Already, the idea that we have clothes that mean something to us is ordinary. Even in adulthood, we may have clothes from past partners where their smell lingers, and we may seek comfort in the same way one would a teddy bear. What makes us care about these specific materials is the memories and the ideas we attach to them, and this leads us to care for and repair this clothing, so that the value lingers eternally.

Stuffed animals, especially teddies, are cuddly objects we can project safety onto a person before they even realise this is taking place. Donald Winnicott is a psychologist that explored the phenomenon of soft objects that children usually develop strong attachments to. He coined the term “transitional object” to refer to these blankets, stuffed animals and other pieces of material. In the thesis, Winnicott explores the psychology of this attachment and how this attachment permits the development of symbolisation, memory, ego, creativity, constancy, and empathy. The object is made into a subject, a receptor of the value that the child brings to it, thus becoming valuable. The process in which the child bonds with the material: what it is used for; what it represents; is key to understanding our own attachments to material. Specifically with clothing, we have our own stories regarding clothes that make us want to keep or pass them down to people we care about, which shows how important clothing then becomes as a developmental, or even healing, tool. 

Going back to teddies, the perception of innocence that soft toys evoke is played upon in the media. Reality shows such as Love Island exploit this to make their female participants more desirable to the males in the show and the general audience by attaching this vague element of innocence to them, which arguably amplifies their sex appeal. Tasha Ghouri from this year’s Love Island was interpreted by most viewers as introverted but confident, and the teddy bear she had reinforces that image. Mainstream media fashions a tenuous thread with the frequent linking of innocence and sex, perhaps an intentional allusion to the Madonna-whore complex that is pervasive in media representations of women. The biggest detriment to allowing this concept to pervade our minds is how it permits controversial representations like the recent Balenciaga scandal to take place. The assumed purpose of teddies have been marred by images like this, but it is quickly redeemed by the essential purpose of teddies – to provide comfort – hence people speak out against problematic representations to preserve the innocence and sentimentality of teddy bears. Teddies seem to be an important cornerstone for society in this way.

Material is an integral facet of many of our identities. It represents our values, our tastes, our ideology and sometimes even our histories. We wear clothes to express ourselves just as we do with other prized possessions. Teddy bears do well to encapsulate all of these elements all within their fuzzy and cute exteriors, and though their interiors tend to be filled with fluff, it is clear that our hearts are within them, too. 

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