Louise Bourgeois and how old clothes can haunt us

This “wardrobe story” shaped the final chapter of Bourgeois’ long career. Many of his textiles, which also included napkins and linens, were cut up and turned into sculptures and works of art: twisted faces, cloth books, swollen bodies constructed with exposed seams like scars. Others were kept as they were. Items from her youth—black cocktail dresses, pink silk coats, pale blouses—became memories of earlier self, hung freely or stuffed and stitched to suggest a human form. She also conjured her family members, summoning them by the clothes they once wore. Many of the clothes in Cell VII belonged to Bourgeois’ mother, Josephine, who died when Bourgeois was only 22 years old. Josephine was the symbolic spider hovering above her anxious and furious daughter, an emblem of protection and methodical repair.

Katie Guggenheim, assistant curator of The Woven Child, sees Cell VII as a strange assemblage. “These are intimate garments – nightwear – and they are ghostly in the way they float… Like nightmares [or] apparitions,” she says, examining the fine fabrics.

Clothes are often referred to in ghostly terms, which isn’t surprising given how they look. Suspended, they take on a spectral appearance. Like ghosts, they also hold echoes of the dead. Clothes outlive their owners. In their presence, they allude to an irrevocable absence. As academic and author Peter Stallybrass writes in Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning and the Life of Things, an essay on memory and a much-loved blazer, “by viewing clothes as passing fads, we repeat less a half-truth. Bodies come and go, the clothes that received those bodies survive.”

Bourgeois is not the only artist to have been moved by the survival of clothing beyond mortal flesh. Nor is she the only person to have felt both the comfort and the burden of clothes that are too heavy in meaning to do without. In life, our clothes are incredibly personal. They envelop us and keep us warm. They signal our trades, our tastes, the way we want to be seen. In death they become tactile reminders of what once was, made to fit bodies that can no longer fill them.

Mourning rituals

The heavy smell of perfume. Mixed memories of a dress worn on a summer day. The pungent texture of a sweater rubbing against the skin. Both banal and tactile, clothes are extraordinary vessels of memory. This is what gives them their power at death’s door. They retain the most intimate parts of ourselves: our smell, our sweat, evidence of our presence (scratched toes, worn elbows). When an artist chooses to use clothes belonging to someone he loves, he makes this intimacy public.

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