Louise Bourgeois and how old clothes can haunt us

This “history of the wardrobe” shaped the closing chapter of Bourgeois’ long career. Many of her textiles, which also included household napkins and linens, were cut up and turned into sculptures and artworks: contorted faces, cloth books, lumpen 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 mementoes of previous selves, hanging freely or stuffed and sewn closed to suggest a human form. She conjured family members too, invoking them by the clothes they had once worn. Many of the garments in Cell VII belonged to Bourgeois’ mother Jósephine, who died when Bourgeois was only 22. Jósephine was the symbolic spider who hovered over her anxious, furious daughter, an emblem of protection and methodical repair.

Katie Guggenheim, assistant curator of The Woven Child, sees Cell VII as an eerie assemblage. “They’re intimate clothes – night clothes – and they’re ghostly in the way they float… Like nightmares [or] apparitions,” she says, surveying the thin fabrics.

Clothes are often referred to in ghostly terms, which is unsurprising given their appearance. Suspended, they take on a spectral guise. Like ghosts, they also hold echoes of the dead. Garments outlive their owners. In their presence, they allude to an irrevocable absence. As the 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, “in thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than a half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes that have 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 who has felt both the solace and burden of garments too heavy with meaning to easily dispense with. In life, our clothes are incredibly personal. They enfold us and keep us warm. They signal our jobs, our tastes, the ways 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 rites

The heavy scent of perfume. A half-stirred memory of a dress worn on a summer’s day. The prickling texture of a jumper, rubbing against skin. At once mundane and tactile, clothes are extraordinary vessels of memory. This is what gives them their power at the point of death. They retain the most intimate parts of ourselves: our smell, our sweat, evidence of our presence (scuffed toes, worn down elbows). When an artist chooses to use clothes belonging to someone they loved, they make that intimacy public.