My oldest piece of clothing is a heather blue wool sweater vest. It is over fifty years old and belonged to my Dad. I can’t wear it. My freshman year in college I washed it and threw it in the dryer. I didn’t know any better.
I can’t throw the vest away. I can’t fix it. It shares space in my closet with other articles of clothing that are symbolic. There is a beautiful striped men’s T-shirt from J. Crew that is about 20 years old. It never fit. I ordered it pre-internet, from a catalog, over the phone. I’ve hardly worn it. For many years it was too small, too tight across the bust and hips, and too long. Even when I tucked it in, it didn’t fit right or look right. I held onto it because I wanted to wear it.
I lost weight and now the T-shirt is too big and too long. It will always be the wrong cut. Twenty years ago guys wore their T-shirts baggy and tucked in. It was designed for someone who is six feet tall. Yet I can’t imagine throwing it away. It represents a hope I used to have. That a piece of clothing had the power to change my life, to transform me from a self-conscious butch lesbian into a handsome teen age boy.
I’ve coveted many pieces of men’s clothing. I never bought one that made a difference in my life. Most have disappointed me. When I was thirteen, I bought a genuine football uniform jersey (in maroon with gold shoulder stripes) at Paragon Sports. I didn’t try it on nor did I realize it was supposed to be worn with shoulder pads. I kept it anyway, in the bottom of my T-shirt drawer.
I have clothes that I don’t wear and probably never will wear. I bought them because they had some mysterious masculine appeal. I liked how the shirt or sweater looked on paper, but not how it looked on me. It made me angry that I couldn’t wear it because I was too heavy, or too curvy, or too short, or too female.
I’m not good at returning things, even when I know I should send them back. I keep them and then feel remorse for wasting my money and being unrealistic. Part of me is always in denial, always holding out hope.
I have my favorite shirts. Shirts I’ve worn until they were riddled with holes, sweaters worn through at elbows and neck. There are a few shirts I love, that I wear all the time. I do not have enough of them.
Clothes are a form of non-verbal communication. They can be a tantrum or a mantra. My clothes tell the story of my discomfort with my birth sex, my gender non-conformance, and my confusion in handling it.
Every shirt and sweater I own has a back story, a desire waiting for fulfillment. A moment of anticipation and a moment of disillusionment. A moment when I remember that a shirt is only a shirt and that transformation requires more than a wish and a credit card.
Notes: Emily Spivack’s Worn Stories project is a collection of memoirs about clothing. There is a photograph of each piece, and each piece has a story. Her book was just published by Princeton Architectural Press and is available through her website. I found out about it from this interview on NPR.