Fashion and Personal Histories: Recollecting Five Stages of My Life

Sensibilitie blog on fashion and personal histories

Overview: Why Fashion and Personal Histories?

This is our first post on "Fashion and Personal Histories."  We hope this subject will become more interesting to everyone as we invite more people to write about this topic. Ultimately, each post on this topic is a narrative about her stories, a la "his-tories".

First of all, in my view history as a historical record and story of human experience is always in a form of pluralities since human subjectivity and emotions are always multi-dimensional and contingent to time, space, place, and other things in between these conceptual realms. So, histories as a pluralized concept is considered here.

I first thought of this topic as a blog topic months ago when I worked on the brand vision of our products. At one point, I began to think about the relationship between fashion, or clothing at large, and our lives through many stages.

I personally desire to write on this topic because I see it as an opportunity to reconnect with my past and think about my present state of being that is connected with and resulted from my past. What is more intriguing to me is how we could grasp a dimension of our histories through the clothing we wear and had worn. So, this topic is a channel to unlock the gate of my memories. I hope it will inspire you to start unlock some parts of your memories as you look into what pieces of clothing had played what role in your life. And when you do, we will love to publish on our site your own account of "Fashion & Personal Histories." (You can find a guideline for this topic on our Store News here.)

I will start with the present piece and work back in chronological time.

Unlocking Memories Through Textile

Unlocking memories through textileShown in the above picture is a long kimono jacket I made under the full guidance of my mom over this past summer when I visited my parents in northern California. This is the first piece of clothing that I made from scratch. That is, I did everything from the beginning to the end product. (I am already bragging you see?)

With a coupon from Joanne, my mom accompanied me to pick out fabric and lace trim in the store. We wandered through the store for more than two hours and decided on this fabric that has interesting textures, pattern, and color combination. The fabric is made of cotton and linen that is soft and breathable, perfect for summer wear. What I love about the texture is the funky, rising edges- like fabric trims- on the pattern, making this fabric a 3-D one. The print has a unique tribal element in it that offers an unconventional, geometric composition with a lot of character. The medium shade of coral color in this fabric presents a warm tone and optimistic mood. That is the sentiment I looked for at that moment I supposed.

long rusty kimono jacket

Despite my mom's reluctance, I insisted on picking out a sewing pattern to guide me through this rite of passage in learning to sew. I started cutting the piece with the help of the sewing pattern as soon as we returned home and I set up my mom's serger machine. Very soon, I realized that the sewing pattern was in deed not as needed as long as I have my mom, a professional tailor with me. So the cutting process was all smooth and easy.

Sensibilitie long kimono jacket

It took me just a few minutes to serge an overlock with 4 needles on the cut-out pieces. I then moved on to sewing the rest together with my mom's industrial sewing machine. To my surprise, this learning session was extended to a week as I became more curious to learn sewing other types of clothing. At the end of the week, with my mom's instruction, I managed to sew a full lace pencil skirt, a skirt with an overlay, and a skirt with a banded waistline, 1 kimono jacket, and 4 pairs of pajama pants.

At the end of the week, I realized it was far from just a time of learning how to sew. I had precious time spent with my mom who is gifted at story-telling and recollecting memories from the far past. I had a chance to listen to many stories about the immediate and extended families, some I knew little of and some I had never knew about.

Shop Sensibilities coral lace trim kimono jacket

Just like the texture, pattern, and colors of this modernized/Westernized kimono jacket, the time I had with my mom is warm in feeling, interesting in content, and comforting in quality. The stories that I learned from her enriched my understanding about family histories and the experience that my families and relatives had living in different social and cultural environments. With this precious memories in mind, this long self-sewn kimono will be cherished in much different ways--ways that are closer to the hearts than textile and design.

The Shirt that Got Buried In the Age of Handwritten Letters

Sensibilitie vintage gingham shirt

Shown in this picture above is a shirt that was worn once more than two decades ago on that one day when my world became completely different for the rest of my life.

I wonder, how many times does a piece of clothing get worn to be a significant part of one's memories? For me, this shirt is a more memorable piece of clothing than my own wedding gown which I had stored away in a professional preservation kit.

Yet this shirt had been carelessly folded away for nearly three decades. I took it out to photograph for this writing and my mind flashed through those scenes of separation between families and friends, and emotions of sadness, fears, and anxieties.

I, along with my four older sisters, wore this same shirt on that day when we left our birth country, Vietnam and immigrated to America. Like wearing uniforms, the five of us girls were swamped by fears of unknown about our future in a strange land. I was told that my aunt helped out sewing these shirts for us so my mom who has sewn all of her children's clothing could focus on the move crossing national borders.

Sensibilitie fashion blog gingham shirt

Perhaps that was the exact intention- the choice of clothing given to us on that life-changing day. My dad who had always been very protective of his daughters must find relief in seeing us wearing this uniform-like outfit standing around him, so at one glance, he could easily keep track of our presence wherever we were. 

In a completely stylistic fashion, this shirt was paired with a jeans made in the same grey corduroy fabric that was the accent features on the pockets of this gingham-like shirt. Along with the unique color combination of yellow and grey, which must be a trendy color combo in the 80s, and the three-dimensional texture of the cotton fabric-- this shirt is quite chic and hip at its time.

Upon arrival to the States, this shirt was buried away, tucked under the very bottom of my drawer until now.  Almost like an unwanted thing, I never even wanted to look at it again. Perhaps, its presence is attached to a certain undesired memory that would be better buried. And in that same period of time, for the first few years, we wrote many handwritten letters back to our birth country and to my grandma with whom we had the dearest emotional attachment growing up.

But like folding those handwritten letters sent home back in those years, like the crease that we made in folding those letters and folding that shirt away, time and memory of bonding put a hard crease on our daily lives. Gradually, the letters became less frequent and stopped altogether. Just like the fold-away shirt being buried at the bottom of the drawer, we must choose to leave things behind as we struggled to find a new identity for ourselves in this strange land. 

The Great Wall of Identity Crisis

Sensibilitie vintage great wall tee shirt

This shirt shown above takes us back to the time of my college years. Toward the end of my undergraduate program, Ling and I decided to tour China, so I worked 36 hours a week while having a full time schedule in school in order to raise enough funds for the summer trip. Finally, upon graduation, we made a seven-weeks trip to China. It was my first time visiting this country that is the country of my ancestors. This is a typical tourist tee we bought in Beijing after climbing the Great Wall of China.

In retrospection, this t-shirt represents my attempt and desire for root-searching. Up to that point, China was merely a remote place and idea in my mind. Even though I speak several Chinese languages, I had no opportunity to learn much about the country's culture, history, and people. During the trip, I had plenty of experience of cultural shocks and identity awakening. I realized for the first time, I am Chinese Vietnamese American, and I am not who I am without any one of the three components.

This story of root-searching should come to a happy ending in a fairy tale story. But on the contrary, unlike this soft, comfortable and highly stretchy t-shirt, upon this awakening comes the long battle of coming to terms with being marginal to all three of the components of my personal identity. And this Great Wall of China is actually a wall that separates me from the cultural heritage that I yearned for, and that, there are other walls that disconnect me from the world back in my birth country, Vietnam, and the greater mainstream society of America.

Shop Sensibilities Fashion Blog on Memories

Then I realized, the crisis-- the identity crisis has just begun. And up until now, there is no real resolution to this crisis but a matter of crisis management. That is, I have to learn to live as a person with split identity, fragmented histories, and fragile sense of belonging.

The Long Path to Self-Awakening

Sensibilitie Fashion and Personal Histories blog

This is a beautiful traditional blouse that I begged my mom to pass on to me many years ago. It is made of delicate chiffon fabric with unique floral prints scattered in the front, side, and back of the top. The side-button closure and China collar are iconic features of traditional Chinese style that is most commonly seen in a Chinese Cheongsam dress (in Cantonese) or a Qipao dress (in Mandarin). This is one of the blouses she wore during our five-months process of immigrating into the United States, passing over Thailand and the Philippines.

chiffon traditional Chinese blouse

My desire to own this blouse perhaps signifies my need to get further in touch with my ancestral heritage, that is, the Chinese culture. Since my trip to China, I began to be more aware of my split and mixed identity that contains racial, ethnic, social, and cultural components. As an American citizen, I am an all-American in the dominant parts of my life. But in the deeper structure of my living and lifestyle, there are plenty of Vietnamese and Chinese elements taking key roles in shaping my ethics and philosophy, personal memories, and cultural practices.

For the first time in my life, material object as represented by this blouse has symbolically taken a role in shaping my identity. What is more, in my perception this blouse is no longer a piece of cloth that serves the basic need of covering up the body. It has taken an important role in my subconscious being in ways that it bridges me to my cultural heritage and giving me meanings to a mixed identity. For the next decade and more since I owned this blouse, I have started on a journey searching for my true identity, which includes my being as a whole and not one that is merely defined by racial, ethnic, social, national, and cultural identification-markers.

 The Frills of My Life

Sensibilitie Frill Lace Top

Frill. noun. : a strip of cloth that is gathered into folds on one edge and attached to something (such as clothing or curtains) as a decoration. : something that is added but is not necessary.

This lace top above is the one I worn on the day when my parents met with my husband's mother for the first time four years ago. That was an important meeting which established the pending relationship of two families to become one joined by a marriage. Like the material of this top that is rich and luxurious in texture, delicate in material, romantic in style, but is high maintenance in reality, relationship and love share the same nature.

Lace frill buttoned blouse

My meeting and eventual marriage with my husband led me to a new life of romantic attachment, gender awakening, and family establishment. More importantly, like my commitment to take care of this lace top that I especially like, love that is the most precious thing in human relationship helps me become a better human being with virtues of responsibility, tolerance, and forgiveness.

Having a highly mixed identity myself, my marriage with a Japanese person adds yet another dimension to my multicultural experience. Yet I have learned that at the end of all efforts and struggles to find a meaningful relationship and marriage, love is the answer to all. Whether it may be taken as a cliché, I have learned that like how one must give tentative care to a piece of beautiful glass art, love must be constantly nurtured for its longevity. And unlike the frills on this top, love is not for decoration. Love in all human kinds is an absolute necessity to maintain our civilization. Sadly it is something we have dwelt more on a subjective level and have much more room to achieve it on the all inter-subjective realms across humanities. After all, fashion and clothing and many other things in our lives serve more basic needs than the need for us to nurture life, preserve humanities, and improve our world at large.


Post written by: Hong
Date Completed: November 29th, 2015.


Hong M

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