Thanks for the memories

Our love for certain clothes can be traced to childhood

When I was three, perhaps pushing four, a terrible thing happened to me. Before this, I'd always thought people died only if some accident befell them; I had no notion that death got us all in the end. My elder sister corrected my innocence, in the skilful manner of one intent on making her younger sibling cry. And I cried pitifully.

My mother came in and asked what was wrong and gently lifted me on to her knee. I remember her rubbing my back as I explained what I had learned and she tried to salve some of the hurt. She was wearing a jade green skirt suit that buttoned at the back, with three-quarter-length sleeves on the jacket. I have loved three-quarter-length sleeves ever since.

When I was growing up, my mother wore short-sleeved cashmere twinsets in all sorts of jolly colours (she still does wear the sweater part of this combination). I remember turquoise being a particular favourite, which must be why I still think that a turquoise round-neck and cardigan is a winning combination, despite other colours being far more flattering. And if I see a houndstooth coat with big buttons, well, that's a memory so bitter-sweet it's best kept locked up.

Our taste in clothes - largely what we like, rather than what we don't - is based on the autobiographical. I think there is no finer suit than those made in a certain period in the 1960s; a great example is the one worn by Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love: narrow lapels, one-button single-breasted, very slim-legged trouser. I can't think the suit has ever looked more perfect. This is because my father's suits were all from that period (he had them made so they lasted, and he wore them well into my young adulthood). You may prefer the suit when it was double-breasted; perhaps you were a boy or girl in the 1940s, or you grew up in the 1980s, when suits were bulkier and more authoritative.

A lot of this explains why we have a primal reaction to certain things. And why we often wear things that have no place in "fashion", but still feel good when wearing them or looking at them.

When I was seven I had a form teacher called Miss Evans. She would let us comb her hair as she read to us, just before home time; it was a wonderful part of our afternoon. She would wear cowl-necked angora sweaters. Though I would never wear such a thing, every time I see a soft, fluffy, large-necked jumper, I want to twist my head into it and purr, like a cat, with the sheer contentment such a garment evokes.

Clothes can be a wonderful link to a whole library of memories, if you just zone out and look at them in a slightly different way.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer