by Vani Viswanathan
“Red hair… and a hand-me-down robe… you must be a Weasley.” Draco Malfoy’s infamous lines in the first instalment of Harry Potter sent a rush of sympathy through me for Ron. I wasn’t really in the same position as him, but I did remember – as the younger of two daughters – being subject to several hand-me-downs, one of which was a white frock with red polka dots.
There are pictures of me as a toddler posing with my sister who was wearing this frock, and then, a few years later, of my sister and me in Pondicherry, this time with me in the same frock. Amma remembers where she got the dress from, and I agree with her when she says the dress didn’t look any older when I wore it than the times my sister wore it. I agree that they don’t make clothes that last this long anymore. Or maybe it’s that we don’t see value in keeping them for this long, sharing them with a loved one?
Growing up, Amma used to tell us of her teenage and college years in a joint family. With many female cousins of similar ages, sharing was the game of the day. They’d share petticoats, she would say, with her cousin rolling up the petticoat around the waist because she was shorter than my mother. Sarees would get passed around, and it wouldn’t be until marriage that they would truly get clothes all for themselves. Part of this extensive sharing was due to limited resources, but I suspect that wasn’t all – they would have gladly continued to do so even if they were all wealthy enough to have a wardrobe of their own. I suppose there’s something to women living together that makes us easily shift between one’s clothes to another’s.
I didn’t have such compulsions growing up, although I think there was a certain charm to sharing clothes on random occasions with cousins. I have photos in my cousins’ clothes – one where a cousin stands grumpily next to me as I’m wearing her beautiful, pastel-y blue frock; another where I’m wearing my cousin’s one-shouldered ‘toga’ dress and we’re both grinning ear-to-ear in utmost happiness. As the older one among a set of cousins, I suppose some of my clothes went down the chain, especially those that I wasn’t too fond of but my cousin couldn’t understand why.
As I went on to college and later post-graduation, there was a sense of camaraderie that got built among a bunch of us girls, with clothes passing around rather freely. Clothes that elicited a “This is cute!” were always offered up to the other, and those that one wanted to get rid of but the other felt were perfectly fine were always lapped up. I’ve been the beneficiary of tunics, sarees, shorts and tops from blessed friends. It’s a beautiful feeling to know there was never a sense of shame or discomfort when sharing clothes – it felt so natural that when your friend liked something there was nothing to do but share it with them.
With some sort of wistfulness, I realise that I have very less scope to share clothes with friends now. Most friends with whom I built up that level of intimacy live in other cities, or we’ve all grown such that we don’t fit into each other’s clothes anymore. And I suppose friendships built in professional circles straddle a delicate line where you don’t know if you’re in the clothes-sharing zone yet.
Even so, the occasional dress that doesn’t fit one finds its way to the other; a top that holds some memories is mailed out to the other who shares those memories. Rare are these occasions, but when they come about, they fill one with a mild sense of joy and belonging – a hark back to your joint past, a quiet call to the future where you’ll both continue to matter to each other, even if you don’t talk frequently or meet after years.
Maybe that’s why Amma’s sisters and cousins have no qualms landing up at the other’s place and borrowing clothes, perhaps just like I don’t bother packing a lot of clothes when I visit my sister, taking for granted that I can borrow this and that from her. I smile when my niece asks “Why are you wearing Amma’s clothes?” Maybe I had similar questions when I saw my aunts in my mother’s sarees…or maybe I didn’t, having been subject to sharing or hand-me-downs as a child.
I suppose more than anything, sharing clothes reflects familiarity and closeness that I think is incredibly hard to get as you grow older, move out of home, out of college hostels and start renting your own place or get married. I doubt my nieces and nephews will share much with each other, at least not until they reach teenage and discover this is a way of strengthening forged bonds. Having clothes of our own is something we take for granted, so much so that the concept of hand-me-downs is frowned upon in our privileged circles.
But somehow I know it’ll never really die. Sharing, passing something down to a loved one is such an intrinsic part of showing you care. I imagine a day when I see my nieces and nephews share clothes wholeheartedly (or grudgingly, if they’re still young) with each other while my sister/cousin and I beam wise and benign smiles and recollect stories of our times in each other’s clothes.