The Clothes That Made the Woman

When she thrifted one woman's entire wardrobe.

I didn’t know too much about her—only her name and that she died recently, at the age of 87. I also knew that while she was alive, she resided in the same white, postwar Manhattan building in which Nelson Rockefeller had broken through to create a vast triplex.

Here’s what I don’t know about “Estelle.” Was she married? Divorced? Widowed? Were there children and, if so, how many? Who were her friends, what did she like to do? Had she had a career or job, and if so, doing what? Not all the buildings on Fifth Avenue allowed Jews; when had she moved into this one? But those questions are likely to remain unanswered.

All I had were her clothes—six black industrial-sized garbage bags tightly packed and sitting, like an improbable bunch of Buddhas, on my living room rug.
I’ve had a side hustle in the second-hand and vintage shmatte trade for years, buying and selling mostly to support the acquisition of my own treasured finds, and so I was used to getting large quantities of clothing, though never on quite such a grand scale. I’d always found the backstory appealing, and would try to construct a life based on the evidence in front of me. But when confronted with so much stuff, my vantage point had shifted, and I wasn’t gazing from afar, speculating or conjecturing. I was knee-deep in it, sift- ing through the contents of a life laid bare.

By going through her clothes, I was exposing both the reality of Estelle’s life and the aspirations that fueled it, for if clothing isn’t the concrete embodiment of our hopes, our wishes, our dreams, I don’t know what is.

I’ll start with the first bag, which made me squeal when I opened it. Inside were her gowns, which included a gold puffed sleeved number, another of lilac and silver lace, and a third, probably Mary McFadden though lacking a label, that was a shimmering cascade of emerald green silk pleats topped by jewel-encrusted sleeves. There was also a pink metallic leather vest, a black sequined top with a design of peacock feathers across the front and its matching black sequined skirt. These over-the-top ensembles had a joyful, festive air, and let me envision Estelle as belle-of-the-ball, swanning about town, attending weddings, anniversary parties, bar and bat mitzvahs galore. There she was, clinking her glass, dancing the hora, laughing with friends, filling her plate from the Viennese table, kvelling to see a beloved grandchild standing before the bima or under the chuppah.

Another bag held two pairs of black leather pants (edgy!) as well as a leather skirt, and a suede one for good measure. Pumps. White leather gloves with tiny embroidered flowers. There was a bag of just hats—so many of them, red, black, lilac, gray, in wool or straw. Then there were the suits, both pant and skirt, day dresses, summer cottons, trousers, shorts, and blazers galore. Add to this sweaters and a variety of blouses as well as an armful of scarves in silk, cotton and wool, and an impressive collection of showy pins, many still adorning the lapels she had chosen. The designers ranged from 1980’s high-end—Armani, Louis Feraud Jaeger, Gianfranco Ferre—to the normcore basics from the likes of Ann Taylor, the Gap, and Banana Republic.

I began to notice that many of the garments were badly soiled, mostly with what seemed like food, and this troubled me. Someone as well-dressed as Estelle would care about her clothes. Would she have worn or put away so many of them in that condition? Did she fail to notice or, even if she did, was she no longer able to make sure they were cleaned or washed? And if it were the latter, why was no one else seeing to this? A relative, an aide? But maybe it had all become too much—for her, for the someone that cared for her. I knew what it was like to be responsible for an aging family member, and had learned that sometimes dirty clothes are just collateral damage in a war that is never going to be won anyway.

Another bag held underwear, bras, pantyhose and socks, all virtually worth- less on the secondhand market but the idea of throwing all this out didn’t sit well. So I was able to donate much of it to a textile center that fused the garments together before breaking them down entirely and reweaving them into insulation used in building construction.

And then there was The Bra Recycler, an organization that would take Estelle’s bras—there were 27 of them—and dis- tribute them to women fleeing domestic violence as well as to girls who, without the protection of a bra, were too self-conscious to go to school or engage in sports. Still another bag contained nightgowns, most in very bad shape—tattered or shredded, with drooping hems and missing buttons and it pained me to think of Estelle spending her nights in such rags. Did they agitate her dreams? Sully them? I know they would have had that effect on me. Some of the lingerie still had value, like the slips and nighties from Dior, Natori, Valentino, and most especially 1960’s era Pucci, the latter all raucous prints in paint-box colors. The Pucci slip and tunic were in a size much smaller than the twelves and fourteens that typified her clothing, so they must have been saved from another phase in her life.

Who had she been back then? The fact that she held on to those vestiges of the past suggest that she wasn’t entirely ready to let it go.

It took the better part of a week to sort and organize all this material and there is still more to be done in terms of laundering, dry cleaning and mending. What’s of value I will eventually sell and what remains I will donate. In one way or another, most of these old garments will move on into new lives. Sorting through her voluminous wardrobe made me think of my own, which could easily rival hers in terms of quantity. Who will perform this task for me, and what will she (for I’m thinking it will be a she) make of what I’ve chosen, collected and curated? Clothes can serve so many functions. They can be armor and protection. Or a disguise. They can also be a siren call: Look at me. Pay attention. Clothes, although external, form the basis of an identity: who we are, who we wish to be.

Estelle’s voice, as it was heard through her wardrobe, is silent now; her time on earth has come to its end. But after my total immersion into her sartorial world, I feel I have come to know, and even to cherish her. I’ve kept a few pieces for myself—that metallic leather vest, for one thing, and a Givenchy silk scarf, a bold geometry of hot pink, black and dark green, so that a tangible clue to her ineffable essence will remain with me.
May her garments be for a blessing.

Kitty Zeldis’s ninth novel, The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights, is out from HarperCollins in December.

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