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Wearing the past

Illustration by Julia Ogden (

When does a piece of clothing become a costume? In a sense, clothing is always a costume, because every garment we wear projects an image of who we are. But often the word “costume” describes clothing from another time or culture, which makes it something of a transformer—you wear the item or outfit and you become aligned with another person who wore it, in a time or place that’s not yours. And with this transformation—at least in the case of Kira, the protagonist of my novel The Wild Impossibility—comes a sense of self-discovery, a highly charged sense of reconnection with the past. As a teenager she used to wear a black hat with a short veil that had belonged to her grandmother Maddalena.

“When Kira wore it, she felt sophisticated and mysterious, and from then on she spent her allowance and babysitting money at thrift stores, excavating history. She felt like she found herself in those old things, even though they were someone else’s history—a cropped black jacket à la Audrey Hepburn, rhinestone brooches, long ropes of cheap, colorful beads.”

Some of the items that Kira treasures in the novel are real—the jacket, brooches, and beads (along with a pale pink beaded cardigan) were passed down to me from my mother. Some of them I no longer have, but the memories of them remain, as does the feeling of connection I had with my mother whenever I wore them. Some I still have but no longer wear, yet every time I see them I remember one particular detail about my mother, along with the similarities between us. For me they are, as Kira thinks when she holds a sweater of her mother’s, laced with a few gray hairs, the “essence of mother.”


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