Why I Started Wearing My Grandmother’s Clothes

'A love of clothes was a language we shared.'

reusing old clothes ideas

by Natalie Hammond |

Trying on an outfit for a wedding last summer, I found myself rooting through my mum’s cupboard. I was looking for a jacket that would go over my dress – a long pink slip from Asceno – and toying with the idea of a beaded pashmina, when suddenly we had a brainwave. Tucked away in my mum’s second closet was a row of my grandmother’s embroidered blouses – the top half of a nyonya kebaya, a traditional outfit from Southeast Asia – one of which was stitched with blossoms in a shade of pink that matched perfectly.

This discovery got me thinking about all of the treasures my grandmother has left behind that are just sitting there, waiting for a new owner to wear them and love them as much as their last. I’ve always scoured charity shops and vintage markets – the clothes are so characterful and it feels like you’re buying a story as well as a dress or jacket – but digging through your own wardrobe or, in this case, my grandmother’s, is even more sentimental and, of course, sustainable.

reusing old clothes ideas
My grandmother wearing her nyonya kebaya

My grandmother was Singaporean - and lived there all her life. My mum inherited her padded silk jackets (gold on the outside, red on the inside), her cheongsams (a high-collared dress with a form-fitting silhouette), her jewellery and, most precious of all, her collection of beaded shoes, which she painstakingly sewed on a wooden frame before taking them to a trusted cobbler to be made into pumps or mules. Thanks to rapidly expanding feet as a teenager, I only got to wear them a few times before landing at a prohibitively large size 8. But I’ve always mixed her jewellery with my own, from a jade pendant necklace to a chunky diamond ring that looks impressively modern considering that she probably had it made more than 30 years ago.

I don’t know what my grandmother, who passed away in 2018, would say about me wearing her padded jacket with bare legs and a puffball miniskirt from Christopher Kane. Or her cheongsam with high-waisted jeans and trainers. Perhaps, ‘Aiyoh!’ an expression that can convey a multitude of emotions, but largely horror and dismay. But I have a feeling that, as someone who handmade a lot of my mum’s clothes as a teenager – and scrupulously looked after everything she owned no matter its monetary value – she would approve.

'I’ve always admired her approach to getting dressed, a task she undertook with great precision.'

For me, wearing her clothes has an appeal that’s about so much more than simply being resourceful. Although I do think she would applaud that. She repaired everything; even the silky co-ords that she wore as house clothes (and passed down to me) have tell-tale stitches on the waistband’s clasp, to hold it in place after decades of wear. I’ve always admired her approach to getting dressed, a task she undertook with great precision. Even as a 90-year-old going to church, she would pick out an outfit, carefully apply lipstick and accessorise with her pearl earrings or her diamond cross. But more than that, a love of clothes was a language we shared. I don’t speak Hokkien, my grandmother’s dialect, and she spoke just a small amount of English, so we couldn’t converse freely, something that made me feel incredibly guilty every time we visited over the summer and still fills me with regret now.

But what we lost in communicating, we tried to make up for in shopping. My grandmother loved visiting the malls on Orchard Road, Singapore’s version of Oxford Street, and could always find something sharp at Zara. If she didn’t come with us, she loved poring over what we brought home and would always ask, ‘How much? Aiyoh!’ before looking at our hands and telling us, with my mum as translator, that having gaps between your fingers was a sign that you’re a spendthrift. (We didn’t dare point out that hers had the biggest gap of all.)

reusing old clothes ideas
Natalie wearing her grandmother's embroidered jacket ©Trish Ward

My ah ma – the term for ‘grandmother’ in Hokkien – also had an eye like a hawk, especially when it came to our jewellery. A running joke between the women in my family used to be, don’t wear anything around her that you aren’t willing to part with.

Wearing her clothes now, and wishing that they still smelt of her, has made me feel closer to my heritage and encouraged me to find out more about what she was like from my mum. Ah ma was so glamorous in the ’50s, Mum told me, that when she and my grandfather would visit his village, people would think she was a movie star because of the silk scarf knotted underneath her chin, her bug-eyed sunglasses and her modern, Western clothes. That doesn’t surprise me one bit. The old photographs we have show a woman who oozed old-world glamour, with immaculately coiffed hair and pearlescent cheongsams like Li Li-hua, a famous actress in Hong Kong.

'Just like cooking the food we used to eat together, it’s a way to honour her memory and keep her with me.'

So for special occasions this summer, instead of panic-buying something that will serve its purpose but ultimately fade from my affections with time, I’ll try and wear something of my ah ma’s, maybe her apple green cheongsam. Just like cooking the food we used to eat together, it’s a way to honour her memory and keep her with me. I don’t know what she would have thought of me pairing her padded gold jacket with cargo pants, but if she could see me wearing her clothes, she would have smiled and said, in the indulgent manner of most grandmothers who have lost all objectivity, ‘súi’: ‘beautiful’

Photographer: Trish Ward, Photographer's assistant: Ellie Hemsley

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