“Handle with care” was scribbled in black sharpie on the lid of the box. As I opened it, an explosion of dust reached my eyes, causing them to sting and water. The smell of blood enveloped my nostrils. Dead ants and beetles made their home within the rust-stained tissue paper covering the box’s contents. I had no idea what was inside this package. After taking the lid off, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It hadn’t been touched in years, and the first person to go through it was myself, a twenty-two year-old art and fashion history student. 

Last year [pre-pandemic], I had the privilege of exploring a friend’s historical dress and textile collection. The job required the careful re-organization of hundreds of boxes filled with old garments that were kept in a basement for a number of years. Apparently, no one wanted to deal with the boxes before, but as there was water leakage in the basement, the collection needed to be dealt with as soon as possible. I was told it was a boring and dirty task. When I opened that first box, I understood why. 

I stuffed headphones into my ears and put my music on shuffle. ‘Here we go,’ I thought as I folded back the tissue paper. With gloved hands I lifted a white surgeon’s apron from the Second World War. The apron looked as though it had been tie-dyed with different shades of red. But this wasn’t dye. The pungent metallic smell of the fabric told me it was blood – blood from an actual person; from someone who risked their life fighting for their country, from someone who witnessed intense suffering and horrors that I will never fully comprehend. 

This moment transported me to a time consumed by mutiny and violence; the apron looked and felt as if the blood was spilt yesterday. I couldn’t help but wonder – who wore this apron and where were they from? How many lives were saved in this apron? How many lives were lost in the presence of this apron? I felt a strong desire to know who wore this piece of clothing. Were they still alive? I wanted to meet them and express my gratitude for their service, and to listen to what they experienced during those dark, brutal years. I searched the small record book that came with the collection for any information at all. To my dismay, there was none. Perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss.

This occasion was not “glamorous,” or what one tends to think of when thinking about textile and fashion collections. It did not involve sporting custom Louboutins to a movie premiere, or wearing a couture dress down the runway at Paris Fashion Week. This moment made me realize that fashion is much more than red carpet gowns, beautiful models, or glossy magazines. I realized that “fashion” is history and part of life. Clothes cover and comfort us, shield us from the elements, and are worn by a variety of people fighting for love, hope, and a better way of life. This apron took me to a time that was impossible to physically experience, and it made me think about the world and its people. We should respect and celebrate dress from around the world, and for purposes other than glamour and intrigue. Over time, cultures and communities have used clothing as a way to celebrate important events, communicate status, and express both unity and individuality.

“Fashion” plays a role in telling the story of human existence, from the blanket that kept us warm as babies, the sweater that dried our tears during our first heartbreaks, to the kerchief that wiped our runny noses in old age. It’s the apron that was worn both when lives were lost and saved in the war. Without this apron, some of us may not be walking this earth today, and because of that, clothing is a reminder of the power of love, respect, and appreciation.

Every garment, just like every person, has a story. This apron made me realize how lucky we are to be living and telling the world’s stories for future generations to learn from, and to hopefully go through these same realizations that I did. 

“Fashion” is only the beginning.

Header Image Source: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/68820700546289317/


Author: Julia Ranney, MUSE’s Lifestyle Editor

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