Tender loving wear: the beauty of hand-me-downs
Most of our clothes, once bought, are of very little importance to us, but this is not the case with precious items handed down by loved ones
Sarah Greene wears a coat handed down to her by her grandmother. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Emma Manley with her mother’s shoes and bag. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Ella de Guzman outside her shop Siopaella in Temple Bar. Photograph: David Sleator
Aisling Finnegan wearing a jacket her grandmother passed down to her mother and then to her. Photograph: Alan Betson
I have owned a large number of scarves. At a guess and say I’ve owned a few dozen, but the exact number could be closer to 100. But there is one that stands out. I could draw it from memory. I would recognise it, blindfolded, by touch, or even by smell.
It belonged – she would say “belongs” – to my mother, and some of my earliest childhood memories are of her wearing it, in the winter, with a camel-coloured coat. It would be the first thing I saw as I came out through the school gates to find her, waiting to bring me home. I would see it in the supermarket, in the distance, as I returned from my quest to find the Frosties. I would watch it on the line from my bedroom window, fraying slightly more with every billow.
Now it is (kind of) mine. I wear it as often as I can, sometimes when I shouldn’t. In my first ever byline photograph, it obscures any neck I ever had and gives me an eerie, floating-head appearance. On Facebook, I’m wearing it at house parties, at festivals and on the street in the snow – though it is not particularly warm, I find it helps keep out the cold.
I am not alone in my attachment to this one item; ask anyone, and they will each have at least one piece of clothing, handed down through one or more generations, to which they cling like a child’s blankie. What is it about these heirlooms that makes them so special?
Ella de Guzman is an expert in hand-me-downs; she co-owns Siopaella, a consignment shop in Temple Bar that resells other people’s cast-offs, giving a portion of the profits back to the seller. Buying new items, says de Guzman, was never attractive to her – something she blames on her upbringing.
“My parents were quite poor growing up and, being from the Philippines, it was in their nature to make stuff rather than buying it in the store,” says de Guzman. “If I saw something in a magazine, my mom would be like, ‘okay, I’ll make that’. I was the coolest kid in town – in Penticton, a small town in British Columbia, in Canada – so it was very hard to get high-fashion stuff.”
Today, de Guzman’s wardrobe is 100 per cent made up of secondhand items, with several that she has appropriated from her parents’ wardrobes.
“I’ve stolen a couple of things from my mom,” she says. “My Seiko silver watch is my mom’s, a little vintage watch I took. I’ve taken Levis from my dad, a denim jacket from my dad and this 1970s butterfly-collar wedding shirt that I still have – it’s insane. I also have my mom’s wedding dress. Everyone has their mom’s wedding dress, right?”
In Siopaella’s Temple Lane location, de Guzman’s grandmother’s sewing stool takes pride of place in front of the shop counter.
“It’s probably the most boring thing you’ve ever seen, but for some reason, people keep asking if they can buy it,” she says. “There’s nothing special about it, except to me.”
Aisling Finnegan, a model, has a variety of items handed down from her mother, grandmother and aunts. “Growing up, it was kind of a mixture – we got some new stuff, but we had a lot of hand-me-down,” she says.
“My older sister Róisín’s stuff was all given to me, for example, and my Communion dress was given to me by a family friend. We still have that actually; it’s a gorgeous dress, and so different to everything else at the time.”
Finnegan says wearing items that used to belong to her mother and grandmother isn’t quite the same as wearing vintage – which she does on a regular basis – because of the emotional attachment. “I think of the emotional side of it and I do have a lot of respect for old pieces – I only really wear them on special occasions.”
When we meet, Finnegan is wearing a jacket that once belonged to her mother and, before that, her grandmother. “My granny bought it for her wedding – she didn’t wear a wedding dress on her wedding day. So it’s around 65 years old. It was given to my mam then and she wore it – just the jacket, because it was originally a suit – with a poloneck in the 1980s. Then she gave it to me about five years ago. It’s a really fitted, really well made jacket.”
For Emma Manley, a fashion designer from Castleknock, handed-down heirlooms make up a big part of her wardrobe. She is, she says, a reluctant consumer, and buys only “four or five things a year”.
“I’m not into fast fashion at all,” says Manley. “I’ll buy basic jeans and things like that, but everything else is passed down – and I would never throw out an item of clothing. It would go to charity, or to children I used to babysit, or to younger cousins. I think items are made to be passed on.”
Of things she has been given, what stands out? “I have a pair of Swiss Bally shoes that were – or, I suppose, are – my mum’s. She hasn’t handed them over officially, but I’m allowed borrow them. She got the shoes to match a bag that she got from my dad as an engagement present. They’re super-small, though – so I wouldn’t be wearing them if I had to walk a lot. They’re more of a standing shoe.”
Manley counts herself lucky that she and her mother have a similar style – and that her older sisters, Louise and Sarah, aren’t all that interested in hoarding their mother’s cast-offs.
“I find myself rooting around in her wardrobe for things – everything that gets passed down goes to me.”
Sarah Greene is in marketing, and says that she didn’t discover the treasure trove of hand-me-downs to be, well, handed down, until she was 18 or 19 and rooting through her granny’s attic.
“I found this coat that my granny had bought in Richard Alan, just after the second World War,” she says. “There had been restrictions on the length of clothes because of material rations, and the New Look [Dior’s new designs, which radically altered the silhouette of women’s coats, dresses and skirts] had just come out, so it was totally different to anything they’d worn before.”
When Greene turned 21, her granny gave her the coat as a birthday gift. “I love it. She says she spent all of her savings on it.” Does granny dearest ever have giver’s remorse? “She loves seeing me in it – she wants me to wear it all the time, even in summer, and it’s quite a heavy, winter coat,” says Greene.
It’s not the only hand-me-down in Greene’s arsenal; and several of the items that Greene now counts as her own come with an interesting back story.
“I have a lovely little silk scarf that my granddad bought my granny in Paris,” she says. “And this Mary Gregory jacket my mum wore on her honeymoon, that she got in the Design Centre in Powerscourt.”
She estimates that 70 per cent of her clothing is vintage. But it’s also vital to have that 30 per cent that’s new. “You can’t just wear vintage stuff or you look a bit crazy,” she says.
It’s a sentiment Finnegan shares. Though she considers herself a “big vintage shopper”, she likes to mix vintage items with bits that have been handed down and new items.
“I obviously also go for the high street – H&M, Penneys and places like that where you can get cheap things to mix with a vintage piece.”
For Manley, her heirlooms serve more than one purpose; not only does she get to incorporate them into her wardrobe, she uses them as inspiration.
“Every season I start out with a rail of items I’ve picked from past Manley collections – pieces that did particularly well and pieces I loved and want to develop – and into that mix I throw vintage pieces, old toiles, bits and bobs from my mum and things that have been handed down. That would be my starting point.”
“Everything I buy has a story, too,” says de Guzman. “I never get anything straight from the racks, so I either have to work for it, or I get it from a certain garage sale. I get a thrill out of finding that Chanel bag for super-cheap.”
In a sense, de Guzman is creating stories to go with the items that she will, one day, pass on. She just won’t have spent all of her savings to get them.