If Saturday afternoons had a certain texture to them, it would be this: thick, rich, sun-warmed. Like honey. It was the kind of Saturday afternoon allocated to siestas and long, aimless walks in the mall. And yet on this particular Saturday afternoon, I booked an appointment to visit the showroom of an online vintage store I discovered on Instagram. In a kind of stupor, my boyfriend and I drove along EDSA, skins pricked by the afternoon heat while we listened to the Bawal Clan on the car stereo.
Our route started from Cubao all the way to Makati, moving deeper and deeper into narrow passageways, past streets named after Spanish women like daughters of the town’s el jefe: Asuncion. Fatima. Lourdes. Carmela—fittingly, the word calle is a feminine noun for road in Spanish—before we turned to Teresa Street. Markers of the city district were gradually replaced by the quotidian stamp of Filipino middle-class suburbia: iron gates and potted plants and galloping children. We were looking for the Florentina building. These days, it’s uncommon to name a building after a person, let alone a Spanish name, unless that person was a multi-billionaire or a historical figure. Florentina. Condominiums now had more grandiose names.
In this part of town, a building named Florentina is a welcomed relic of the past. Back when tenants had close relationships with their brokers who visited often and offered chocolate cake or indoor plants to those they treated like their own children. Maybe Florentina was a wealthy 80-year-old spinster who owned various properties in the surrounding district, but had a special relationship with her namesake building and so was known endearingly among the tenants as Doña Flor. Reasonably, creative millenials living in the city who wanted to move away from their parents chose to settle here. Aging, earth-colored buildings adjacent to city districts named after grandmothers like Florentina usually had relatively cheap rent to all but make up for its dim and uninviting facade. And despite the dingy and gloomy hallways, the units were spacious enough and had windows for sunlight to stream in. For hopeful 20-somethings whose art was their religion and the financial struggle they considered a necessary rite of passage, space and sun was a good bargain for their starting salaries.
The owner of the store texted me to come up to the penthouse unit. Wrought iron doors barred our entrance to the staircase that led to the final floor. After a few moments, a tan Filipina wearing a black slip dress, who I presumed was the owner of the thrift store, was making an art-house production of the sound of her flip flops and the jangle of her keys. Her hair was still dripping wet; she had sunken, deep-set eyes and full lips.
As we made our way up the steps, a sudden, bursting light flashed across our vision. When our eyes adjusted to the assault, we found ourselves on a bare and wind-swept brick terrace. On the left was an ornate glass table with a clean ashtray; behind it a wooden glass door that led to the unit itself. Around six Ionic Greek-like columns stained with grime fortified the edge of the terrace. On the far end was a closed-off area of shelves stacked with kitchen condiments and a sink. An outdoor kitchen, perhaps.
Before she led us to the showroom, we had a cigarette outside. She told me her name was Maria and that this was her full-time job. There was a sulky coolness to her demeanor, briefly punctured by childlike retorts when she would press on about something I shared. We talked about our jobs and side hustles. About pop-ups and music. She modeled for a few local fashion brands and starred in videos for rap artists. She went to fashion school originally to learn how to design clothes but realized she was better at handling the affairs of merchandising.
When I walked through the wooden glass door behind the table, I found four racks of clothes displayed unassumingly in the two corners of the room. A brass-bound wooden chest. A half-body mirror. A gray sheepskin carpet. This was the showroom. I surmised that the whole penthouse was divided into three sections—the left hand side seemed to be their bedroom. A mattress was strewn on the floor and a man, who I later found out was her boyfriend, was playing Xbox.
No formalities or introductions were exchanged. I stepped inside to peruse the clothes in the racks, which were organized by 1) outerwear 2) dresses 3) tops 4) skirts and trousers. The slow cling-cling of one metal hanger colliding with another metal hanger as I indulged in the sheer pleasure of flipping through hangers as mindfully as a picture book and finding one that held my gaze: an electric blue with a delicate lapel collar, a round neck with black-and-white illusionist pattern, an orange knit cardigan. Maria stood by as I went through the garments and occasionally ambled outside to pick up a conversation with my boyfriend.
She told me that if I saw anything I liked, I could enter the bedroom and try them on. When I snuck into the room with clothes in hand, I noticed two things—that it was bare and well-lit and in a moment of acute self-consciousness agonized that it was equal parts exhilarating and draining to be setting clothes aside on the floor, considering the intimacy of such an encounter, as in a curious experience of not only witnessing a showroom, but a person’s private space.
It was almost inappropriate to be stripping to my underwear. It resembled walking into the dark ice-cold cinema mid-film or reading an abrupt introduction to a short story. Here I was witnessing the story of these two lovers on their usual Saturday afternoon as I discriminated against one piece of clothing from another. Yet the more important coupling here was between me and the clothing. These facts released a kind of kinetic flush on the surface of my skin that led me to think: These clothes had lives. Or more appropriately, they were lived in. Conjuring an album of faces and bodies.
I went to the Underground Gallery in Makati Cinema Square for an exhibit by Isha Naguiat. The gallery was a small, 20 square-meter studio space at the top floor of a 40-year-old retail mall leased by money changers, gun clubs, and crystal shops. The artist constructed different pieces of clothing that hung in the air like fresh laundry on a hill, albeit plastered on organza frames: a baby dress, a baptismal gown, pink lingerie. A particular construction that caught my eye was of two t-shirts made of white organza bound at the bottom like conjoined twins, aptly named Gemini. The fabrics accreted into a shimmer, where the studio lights hit them.
Their forms were quivering between emergence or submersion.
In Platonic practice, Western philosophical tradition neglected the corporeal, the material, and the sensual in favor of the abstraction and prioritization of the mental, rational, and spiritual. Given these lapses in philosophy, how then is our clothing related to our experience of self and the world?
Let us consider the clothed body, as opposed to the naked body. Being clothed, Descartes presumed, is the mark of a distinctively human form of consciousness, of being a “person.”Naguiat’s garments implied the presence of a persistent selfhood in changing dimensions, as in the selection of garments constructed that implied a timeline in a course of a life. Joanne Entwistle, a sociologist and author of the book The Fashioned Body, said that dress constitutes a “marginal space” and ambiguously marks the boundary between the body and social world.
Moreover, there exists an intimate relationship between the human body and the fabric that adorns us. In his book Discourse on Inequality, the Genevan philosopher Rousseau delved into this complexity through the terms amour de soi and amour propre, the former being the mode of self-love associated with instincts for self-preservation (clothing to adapt to our environment); the latter being self-esteem or vanity (clothing to please ourselves for being seen by others).
I looked at the garments and felt the intimacy of the organza fabric on my skin. Or perhaps the fabric as my skin—subject to corporeal alterations and degenerations. An epidermis that one sheds depending on the exigencies of the present and the vacillations of my own identity.
Floating, these fabrics as skin bear with lightness the strain of constantly shifting selves.
I begin to wonder: Aren’t pre-owned clothes the discarded veneer of their past owners? They are given away once they judge that these clothes no longer fit the amour de soi and amour propre of their lives. These clothes (made of cotton, wool, polyester, velvet, etc.) become empty vessels that are buried in landfills, recycled and torn to become part of another whole, or remain virginal. When I was in the dressing room of that penthouse unit, one word ran in my head at that moment: untraceable, a word commonly or uncommonly used—depending on your line of work—to refer to history and the lack thereof. As consumers of pre-loved clothes, we are complicit in the erasure of these histories and contrive a new one better-fitting of ourselves.
These garments take on a symbolic role. If I bought this blazer, maybe people will take me more seriously. Even oppressive to some who discover that they have to move one, two, three sizes up. But preloved garments sold in a thrift shop are evidence of the other side of this process. Sometimes it is transcendence: If I sell these clothes, I will make room in my closet for new ones that more accurately represent the “me” now. Or maybe they are in new stages of their lives, in a different country caught in a different climate; in a different headspace caught in a different body. Sometimes the reasons are financial, a student raising money for her tuition or a cash-poor millennial just wanting to earn an extra buck to sustain her soy-latte lifestyle.
- There is beauty in the accruement of the discarded.
I don’t want to romanticize the idea of finding lost things. But just like the law of conservation of matter, matter is neither created nor destroyed. Things that are thrown away still exist, even as they are forgotten. They exist and assume new forms and bear their exact characteristics. It is nature saying that things are worth a second life. Even a third, fourth, fifth and so on.
- There is a domestic and tragically human tenor to the word pre-loved. Even more so as they seem to only apply to objects—the arbitrariness of its etymology. We don’t describe someone as a pre-loved woman, a pre-loved man. Perhaps, we already perform within those assumptions. A redundant signifier. Or maybe there are other ways to describe us and in the plane of material things (as in our possessions and not our bodies), their personification is a way of providing evidence to our attachment.
Jenny Odell’s The Bureau of Suspended Objects (B.S.O.), an ongoing archival exhibit, aims to photographically archive as many discarded or about-to-be discarded objects. “It stems from the assumption that we are estranged even from those objects closest to us, or that their inner workings and past lives are too often experienced as opaque and inaccessible.” As such, Odell said, they “research how to ‘read’ and understand an object on its own terms—to understand why and how it came into being in an attempt to document the objects’ origins, materials, use, and previous/possible lives.”
- Understanding the changing symbolic role(s) of dress is understanding the accumulation and dispersal of emotional weight. I gave away all the hand-me-down clothes from my sister when I turned 20. They were bursting from a mold-infested paperboard carton. Sisterly sentimentality was part of the wholesale losses made when the once-impressionable adolescent develops her own way of thinking and judgments about the world. Maybe we were different people to begin with and there was already a different version of myself waiting further in the future: A hollow mannequin of incongruous attributes existing before its time and to be filled in by a substance that only holds a modicum of the past self.
- Fondness peters out to estrangement. And so its own recursive cycle begins.
There is an image of a millennial young woman: She is a master at the art of thrifting, educated in navigating online resale sites, seamlessly conducting try-on hauls, and perfecting the angle of her wide smile when she gets her hands on what is universally known as a “precious find,” the diamond in the rough, the needle in the haystack, the Dior in a mountain of the nameless and unbranded. She is the director and producer of lookbooks and adept in the arrangement of her own mise-en-scène. The audience is usually enamored, maybe envious. And if they—also young millennial women—feel a deep association, will in turn become her faithful and highly affectionate followers. This is the dream material: To be seen, through the 1920 x 1080 scope of a rectangular lens. Project this image of a free-wheelin’ millennial woman high on the inexpensive luxuries of her own life, whose wants and desires are relatable to every woman, but whose providence is exclusive only to the few. She may be characterized as totally self-involved but a shamelessly real, peerlessly fashionable, and charming young woman.
- Did this young woman exist? Aren’t we all just victims of appearances? An amalgamation of carefully considered items of purchase; parted lips and wet face, hair slicked back. Rosy, active, skin blue-ish in polaroid prints, barely there. Upper-class, languorous, half-obscured by the light, and absent of any conspicuous work.
- Emily Weiss, the founder of Glossier, said that “what’s very motivating to us is this idea of every single woman being an influencer.” Maybe this is what it is: a simulacrum.
- In a visual art project entitled Primer, Jenny Odell collects moments extracted from YouTube makeup tutorials, in which the person applies "eye primer" or eyeshadow. Initially she went in search of those moments where the eye is held open—a kind of vulgar, low-res invitation to one's soul—but became more fixated on the closeups of the delicate, filmy skin of the eyelid. “Here, its fragility is visibly palpated by the (often manicured) finger: a moment where the softness of the human is translated by the softness of digital video,” Odell said.
There is a certain brand of vlogger, an inexact and outdated title, for what I think is a most often feverish and artistic endeavor. Indulge me: they are more like visual essays. Those that I adore are often sincere and literary in a way that hints at greater concepts of ontology and brims with aching interiority. My favorite of which is a try-on haul that flows like a cinematic piece. She is hanging her clothes in a North London backyard. There is a softness to it, a silken exterior. The camera bursting with sunlight. A close-up of her eyelids, ears, cheeks, lower back. Who else can depict the ritual of fitting thrifted clothes the way they do? Mood-boarding narratives for clothes that at first glance would have only their castoff status, retail pariahs, as their unifying feature.
- Dressing up is the adoption of the habit of covert day-dreaming.
Perhaps this is my dream. Not to be a Youtube star per se, but to behave in such a way that my projects, interests, and pursuits are worthy of an audience. In this dream I see her as a jumble of sense impressions, often in the color and shape of clothes.
- Aspects of myself (who I am, who I am not, who I may be becoming) continue to be negotiated and renegotiated through the visual, embodied representation of dress. Often, I am surprised by how some ideas, possibilities, ambivalences and anxieties with which I may find difficult to grapple, much less resolve, in a verbal or conscious manner are articulated by what I wear on a normal day or by the decision to add color to my appearance for a specific occasion. I am buoyed by my piece of satin lavender skirt to announce the “I” that is myself, the “I” that exists in the world.
- It is a peculiar kind of nostalgia—yearning for a life lived by garments once owned. But it lends a kind of perpetuity to things. Even as they sit in between the shapeless, gray fog of the past and the warm late-afternoon alfresco of what lies ahead.
I have been in the city for seven years now. The jeepney smoke and sewer smell rising from manholes intersperse with the third-wave coffee aroma wafting to the streets. A gradual overhaul of my wardrobe came as I earned a degree and got my first job as a writer.
Now at 23, I have turned to the repose of neutral palettes and silk bias cut midi skirts. In fact, before the start of quarantine, I wore slip skirts three to four times a week. I have one in pearl, topaz, onyx, sage, almost like they were my own collection of gems bringing with them their own energies. It brings me surprising moments of comfort when I sit and cross my legs; a softness in between my chafing thighs or feel a cold breeze hike up my calves on brisk days during my walks in Rufino Street in Makati.
I know now that there is a certain grace to be found in the not-scrambling, the dressing appropriately, preparedly, so your body and in turn, moments inhabited, are not fractured by inappropriate sweating or meek apologies. I like that I can take my blazers off on work days that turn into spontaneous nights of drinking with coworkers. The convenience of slip skirts having an understated sensuality fit for long hours in the office when paired with a colorblock sweater or trading cocktails with a friend I’ve reconnected with at a speak-eazy when worn with a lace cami top. A collarbone revealing itself. Elbows grazing against each other.
The Monday after I left the showroom, I visited the alterations shop nearby my office to get the only purchase I made tailored to my body (for certain concessions are made by a garment with a previous life). The waistband of my Anne Klein wool trousers, in the shade of sesame, now greet the recesses of my hips with a cadence, while the length of them brush my toes with soft kisses.
The accumulation and dispersion of garments in my closet memorialize shifts in thinking, moments of comfort and belongingness, the whirl of the city and the lightheadedness of weekends that turn abruptly into weekdays, the magic hour of dusk revealing its patchwork of spilling traffic and pastel-haired yuppies and very-much-alive 40-year-old retail malls, a whole palette of taste that took me years to acquire—the way my body and mind searched and, at times, formed vivid definition.
Zea Asis is a 23-year old Filipino writer based in Manila where she works as a content creator for an Australian design startup. Her recently released chapbook Strange Intimacies: Essays on Dressing Up and Consumption is a collection of essays and illustrations that displays her first attempt in producing a sensitive and meditative report on her relationship to clothes and capitalism. She is contemplating purchasing a second hand sewing machine to start learning how to upcycle pre-loved clothes. Her works have been published in multiple online publications like Crybaby zine and The Nearness Project. She is currently a staff writer for Sunstroke Magazine. You are more than welcome to send her your reflections and/or opinions on Strange Intimacies through Instagram (@zeamarfori) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.