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  • Dr. Mila Burcikova

On Wearing Old Clothes

Time flies. More than a year has now passed since I wrote the concluding paragraphs of my doctoral thesis, that looked at women’s relationships with their everyday clothes through the lens of my designer-maker practice. As I’m looking ahead and looking forward to sharing more of the fascinating stories of the ten women I worked with during my research, this blog looks back at my own story and the brief encounter that started the project. [1]

Seven years ago, I was returning to the UK from my hometown in Slovakia. My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, was seriously ill, and I could not be sure that I will ever get to see him again. A fear that those who have lived away from their families are painfully familiar with, more perhaps during the past few months than ever before.

It was incredibly hard, but I put on a brave face for my mum’s sake. As I was getting ready to leave, I decided to wear my antique French smock shirt, so lovely and soft thanks to the years of wear and washing. I would normally only ever wear it at home, it was on the verge of falling apart, covered in holes and well-worn patches. That day though, it did not seem to matter at all what anyone may think about the holes in my shirt. I found great comfort in facing what I was about to go through feeling the shirt next to my skin. It somehow seemed to embody a soothing mixture of history, softness, and continuity.

It turns out that it was this shirt, full of holes, that started one of the most inspiring personal and professional relationships of my life. As I was waiting for my flight, I noticed a striking-looking woman, probably in her early sixties, sitting a few seats away from me. She was on her phone but must have noticed that I was looking at her because she smiled. I smiled back. On the plane, she came to me, we spoke briefly, mostly about our love of old clothes. We exchanged telephone numbers.

About a month after this first brief airport encounter Tanya* visited me in my Oxfordshire studio. She brought two dresses that she hoped could get a second lease of life. Both were over twenty years old, she said she loved them. In fact, she also liked the ever more prominent holes. For her, the value of the dresses did not depreciate because of the obvious wear and tear. On the contrary, the holes were reminders of all the years she lived through wearing them. The holes were tangible proofs of how much she enjoyed wearing these dresses. Yet, Tanya also felt that wearing clothes full of holes, which she herself did not mind in the least, was perhaps getting a bit less ‘socially acceptable’ at her age. So, she gave me a free hand in repairing or altering both dresses in any way I liked. I absolutely loved this task and later I heard that Tanya has had many compliments on her new-old dresses. I have repaired and altered many more clothes for her and other clients since.

1Tanya's* repaired dress with an inserted front panel

2Tanya’s* repaired dress with side patches overworn seams

All these clothes that I have worked on over the years re-shaped my designer-maker practice in two respects. Firstly, they shifted my focus from solely making new clothes to working with those that already exist. Secondly, the continuous satisfaction and pleasure that these clothes have brought to their owners aroused my curiosity in whether such long-term relationships with clothes could be fostered through design and making.

This is how wearing my old and holy French shirt on one difficult morning in May 2013, brought me to four years of work on my doctoral research. In my thesis, Mundane Fashion: Women, Clothes, and Emotional Durability, I investigated emotional durability of clothing through a combination of experiences shared by ten women and my designer-maker work.

Tanya is now one of my best friends and a long-standing client. As I am writing these words, a basket full of her old clothes is waiting in my studio for repairs or alterations. My thesis, dedicated to my late grandfather, is now available for all those who are interested in drawing satisfaction from what they already have.

3 Hanka*, one of the women I worked with during my doctoral research, shows off a dress that she says she will love wearing for years to come.

4 Emma's* 20 years old skirt that she chose to wear to her wedding.

5 Emma* shows how she 'literally wore this skirt to pieces' – it gradually fell apart as she was dancing at her wedding

6 Louise's* ‘go-to’ skirt that previously belonged to her mother-in-law

7 Louise's* favourite night dress, now full of holes, as she has worn it since her teenage years.

8 Another of Tanya's* dresses, whose long history shows through the colour difference between the inside of the pocket and the rest of the fabric.


[1] This blog contains excerpts from Mila’s PhD thesis Mundane Fashion: Women, Clothes and Emotional Durability. To read the full thesis, including the Appendices with wardrobe narratives of the ten women Mila worked with, follow the link in Mila’s Research Profile.

* Pseudonyms have been used to protect the anonymity of the women who generously shared their wardrobe experiences for Mila’s research.


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