North American Review 279.6
America West Feburary 1998
Whenever my mother visits she feels compelled to comment on the state of my clothes. "That shirt is a disgrace" or "those shorts have seen better days" or "why don't you get some decent things? God knows you can afford it."
The truth is she's right. I tend to develop relationships with clothes that extend far beyond their aesthetic life, and often beyond their useful life as well — a condition somewhat analogous to pet owners who cannot bear to part with their ancient animals and tend to overlook their obvious physical deterioration.
Even when I'm forced to admit that things are looking a tad shabby, my first instinct is to preserve rather than replace. The tailor can reline the midnight blue serge suit purchased in 1977, or sew up the cotton beach shirt worn to a gossamer thinness. Surely those shoes can be resoled. My attachments are sufficiently deep that I miss clothes I used to have. I still remember a blue green Harris Tweed jacket that was in a suitcase stolen from a car eighteen years ago, and a burgundy cashmere sweater that shows up in a Christmas photograph of me as a teenager.
Part of my problem in letting go of old clothes is that I don't really enjoy shopping for new clothes because I don't always choose clothes that work out. For me, choosing new clothes is like the first phase of a romance. There's excitement tempered by anxiety and the real potential for failure. Some of the failures involve gross errors of judgment that can only be explained by the passion of the moment. Consigned to the nether depths of my hall closet is a very expensive mid calf length double breasted brown suede overcoat with a fur collar and lining. When I first saw this coat, I imagined myself sweeping across snow drifts in it to the bittersweet strains of the Dr. Zivago theme. Too formal for the country, too hot and massive for the city even in winter — it's a beautiful coat and I still love it but we really should have broken up some time ago given the premium on closet space in my New York apartment. Other failures are less dramatic, and tend to reflect the fact that some clothing like some women will cozy up to you over time — feel right, hang right, look right — and some will not, regardless of your initial attraction. So I'm somewhat wary of new clothes until they work themselves fully into my life, and this increases my reluctance to part with old clothes that have proven their comfort and utility and ability to live on intimate terms with me.
Another equally compelling reason I hang on to clothes is my sense of clothes-as-history. Women usually express this in terms of the clothing associated with specific events ("I remember the green dress I wore to that concert"). With men, it is expressed more often in terms of process and continuity ("I wore that jacket all through college"). From this perspective, the patina of wear on a garment is a record of its service to a life lived, right down to the tiny stains and tears that can never be completely restored. Fashions like "stressed" leather jackets and "stone washed" jeans are successful because most men don't want to look like rookies, no matter what their age or experience or how new their clothing really is. And some old clothes, of course, unequivocally demonstrate life experience. Don't almost all men keep high school and college letter sweaters, military uniforms, first (non-rented) tuxedos, and other clothing symbolizing significant rites of passage in their lives?
I know men caught up in the contemporary ethos of power dressing for instant success who have no more trouble discarding yesterday's clothes than they do yesterdays' trendy acquaintance or hot restaurant. But I'm suspicious of our increasingly transient and disposable culture, as I am of men in fashionable new clothing who lack a sense of history. If a man has never had an old coat that was just right for knocking around in although his mother or wife or girl friend or some combination of them kept telling him to get rid of it for several years running when any sensible person could examine the coat and see that it was in perfectly good shape in addition to being very comfortable — if, as I say, a man hasn't had this experience, then he faces an uphill battle to gain my complete confidence and trust.
My mother I can forgive. Her reaction to my clothes is probably DNA based, bred to the bone in mothers, beyond her control. And she's right, of course — she's right. This scarf is getting badly frayed at the edges and I'll have to get a new one soon. Then I think I'll take this one to the country.
It still keeps me warm. And it will be happy out there with lots of good company in the closet, lots of old friends.