Cloth as a Record Keeper of Memory

But where identity is concerned, this can result in curious sense of unselving (Alexander, 1999)

I have always been curious about the relationship between clothing and family photographs. As fashion changes are typically described in the 20th century with every decade from 1900’s to 1990’s reflecting a specific style and attitude, I wanted to know if those styles and attitudes were prevalent everywhere. Perhaps, the curiosity for cloth around me heightened when I moved from New Delhi to New York to pursue my master’s degree in 2016.

I would look at my mother drape saris everyday. I was no longer in touch with playing the “guessing game” where I asked, what was the origin of the sari? where did the embroidery come from? did the motifs on the border convey religious meanings? To me, monochromatic ikat weaves portrayed seriousness, almost faded dabu prints (mud resist with wooden block) were reserved for warmer days, and sometimes, the whole seven yards of twenty five year old “pure” silk cloth was resurrected for “special” occasions.

My interest in cloth manifested in many shapes and forms as a resource intern at the Textile Arts Center. Nostalgia and homesickness contributed to going back to traces of childhood memories of cloth using family photographs, and I couldn’t help wonder why and how I dressed in a similar or a different way from my “matrilineal influences.”

“Family Photograph.” New Delhi, 1994.

I analyze family portraits, especially those which have a strong textile relationship in any manner (style, aesthetics, purpose and most importantly story) and the meanings of known and unknown memories which are conveyed by cloth through these photographs. I use the terms known and unknown to assert that interpretation of episodic memories can have a mixture of “knowing” or not “knowing” or rather “remembering the narrative in a different way.”

“Maternal Grandmother.” 1961, Karnataka, India

My maternal grandmother and mother grew up in the southern part of India, Karnataka in the 1930’s and 1970’s (respectively) at a time where colonial and post-colonial influences formed a dominant part of culture. Questions related to femininity, appearance and beliefs were rooted in social identity but they were also driven by the sudden flux in cultural identity. The problem wasn’t that of constructing a national identity but was that of constructing a national identity which was a reaction to an existing paradigm (Chalfen, 2008).

Anthropologist, Richard Chalfen, who explores how photography is produced within domestic settings calls the staging of photography by families as “communication events”. He posits that human subjects partake in certain choices which frame the aesthetics of a photograph. On the one hand, he highlights the performance of memory but on the other hand, he states that family photographs become a deliberate “reconstruction of reality.” (Chaflan, 2008)

“Photograph, 1993.” New Delhi, India

In the photograph, I assume that the photo has been clicked by my father in the veranda of my home in New Delhi. I assume that I have been dressed by my mother. However, it turns out that the photograph had been clicked by my grandmother and was dressed by my grandmother in Karnataka during my short trips to southern India during the summer. Almost all the recollection of my photographs have been associated with my father due to his interest in owning cameras. The necklace, bindi, the floral motifs on my velvet dress place the cloth and clothing at an intersection of past and present.

An investigation of family portraits reveals several aspects of personal, material, episodic and semantic memories. The linear passage of time through ordinary dress practices build narratives of memory but also highlight subtle indicators of cultural identity creation. Anthropologist, Emma Tarlo, analyses Dalton’s work (1872) to emphasize that “many have failed to acknowledge: that even within the constraints of a given tradition, whether ancient or modern, there is room for individuals to negotiate and to act.” (Tarlo, 1996) Memory work of dress practices supports the process of renegotiating national identities through existing paradigm and therefore, can form part of future research.

“Memory, engaging with the past in the present, informs our understanding of who we are; it can provide us with feelings of belonging” writes anthropologist, Heike Jenss (Jenss, 2015). If memory informs our identity, how does our identity inform our memory? This is the question that I would like to ask in my series of research pieces where cloth, process and photographs are analysed as “record keepers” of memory. I urge the textile community to participate in the language we know and the language we remember to understand our dress and making practices.


Alexander, Meena. The Shock of Arrival. New York: South End Press, 1999.

Chalfen, Richard. Snapshot Versions of Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. Accessed December 14, 2017.

Jenss, Heike. Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture. London and New York (Bloomsbury Academic) 2015.

Kambadur, Vaishnavi. Patchwork of Personal Memories: Interpreting Transnational Fashion Practices through Matrilineal Family Portraits. Unpublished manuscript,(Fashioning Time and Memory) The New School. 2017.

Kuhn, Annette. “Photography and Cultural Memory” in Visual Studies 22, no. 3, 2007.

Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: University Of

Chicago Press, 1996.

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