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Dead Man’s Clothes

There seems to be a pervasive human distaste towards wearing clothes that were once owned by someone else (even if they’re in perfect shape). This only gets worse if that someone is now dead or— God forbid —they were say, a serial killer. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. Some pre-owned items are even more celebrated than those that are brand-new. Let’s say the item belonged to a beloved celebrity, then everyone treats it with an additional value.

I’m no better than the rest of us. Yesterday, as I walked into a decent Goodwill in search of a groovy 1960s mini-dress, an overwhelming sense of repulsion overcame me. I found myself grabbing items by the tips of my thumb and forefinger, holding them as far from the rest of my body as possible–and I’m a fan of pre-loved clothes! As I fought my way back from the unexpected and overwhelming aversion, I asked myself why this was happening. Nothing smelled bad, so the “danger of being contaminated” by some stranger’s bodily fluids couldn’t possibly be the threat.

That got me thinking, forget tabula rasa–it’s definitely a universal thing that we humans (from a very young age) imbue objects that surround us with meaning and essence. From teddy bears all the way to wedding rings, so many of our possessions are deemed irreplaceable. We bestow meaning to objects we connect with emotionally, and we give people the labels that we perceive them as. Positive contagion, so to speak, is why people pay so much money on eBay for a napkin that Marilyn Monroe once used or why pilgrims travel with the faith that a saint’s shrine and memorabilia will heal them. There is a whole market that sells authenticated parts of the Berlin Wall, and even the supposed cross Jesus died on. But I digress.

It’s about to get a little dark. The opposite of memorabilia is murderabilia–souvenirs from murders, murderers, or other violent crimes. Yes, it’s a thing. Brian Hood had something compelling to say on the matter on his 2014 WIRED talk:

“The belief that it’s an item of clothing that has come into intimate close contact with a killer is sufficient to trigger in most of us a sense of repulsion and repugnance. As if a moral act could be physically manifest and could contaminate a piece of clothing that could potentially influence us. It doesn’t seem to fit any laws of contagion as we currently understand them. And also, the thing was cleaned.”

Even though we live in the age of science, this seems to be a pervasive human belief. It comes with the hardware. Is it possible that our strange aversion to buying used clothes is because deep down we fear we’ll be contaminated by death, or even start to take on personality traits from the previous owner and eventually lose our own? And if this is so, is the opposite true as well? Could we become more fabulous by wearing Marilyn Monroe’s Chanel No. 5?

The time has come for us as a species to become part of the loop generation where everything stays in the loop. It’s a fact: over 30 billion dollars of unused clothes are just hanging in people’s wardrobes. In the art world, pieces are owned by dozens of forebears before being handed down through generations or sold over and over for hundreds of years. The most valuable and beautiful objects have a history and a provenance. So why should we feel differently about fashion?

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Please, help yourself

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by amaliasantamaria

Amalia Santa Maria is an L.A. based writer and filmmaker. Her work explores female narratives, folklore, and the human condition.  When she's not fencing with a quill, you can find her drifting through forests in the form of sentient fog.


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