Every Shirt Tells a Story

My favorite T-shirt, even though it does not fit.

My favorite T-shirt, even though it does not fit.

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.

31 thoughts on “Every Shirt Tells a Story

  1. anexactinglife

    I spend a lot of money on clothes even though most of the items are quite plain and functional. I have only recently realized (or perhaps remembered) how important style is to me. As you say, it’s symbolic. Every time I pare down my wardrobe, I never discard from my bin of what I call “souvenir clothing” which represents various occasions, looks and people. Sometimes I don’t feel at ease because my default clothing choices are quite gendered, not because of style but because of fit (can’t wear a man’s shirt unless it’s oversized because of hip ratio, etc.)

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There was a brief period when clothes were much less gendered (mid to late 70’s through the mid 80’s) and I hope someday that comes back in retro fashion. Jo Paoletti has done a lot of research on this and has a new book coming out in February called “Sex and Unisex” -www.pinkisforboys.org is her site. I read her first book “Pink and Blue” and it gave me a lot to think about.

      I wish I had shown some interest in sewing, because I think being able to alter garments would make it easier for me to wear what I like.

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  2. Ess

    I used to keep things for emotional reasons and eventually had boxes and boxes of things I hadn’t looked at for years. Being a student I moved a lot and every time I had to move all these boxes of stuff that I couldn’t remember. For each move the boxes seemed to multiply as we’ll, and eventually I got tired of them. It has taken me almost 10 years but today I don’t keep things for sentimental reasons. I immediately give away clothes that don’t fit or don’t look good at me. I never look back at them and I never have any remorse. I haven’t even kept my wedding clothes. I will never wear them again, they don’t fit me anymore and my memories doesn’t lie in the clothes, but rather in my head.
    The thing is that all the things I used to keep not just reminded me of all the good times, they also automatically reminded me of all the bad and hurtful things.
    By keeping your “mistakes” you are constantly reminding yourself of them and they wear you down. Let them go and let yourself live your life in the present. Let yourself be happy in the body you do have and enjoy the clothes that do fit you. By not keeping that t-shirt you may let go of all the bad memories. You keep the memory of how good looking it could have been, but you won’t be reminded of all your dreams about it that wasn’t fulfilled.
    I wish you only happiness, and hope that you some day can let go of your broken past as I have let go of mine.

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    1. RonaFraser

      I have to agree with Ess… and I’m going to try to take their advice! Just this morning I was looking at some tops hanging up in the basement… hung there to dry… last summer. Left there because they were too tight to wear so I should just put them away because surely NEXT summer I will have lost weight and can wear them. I’ve heard tell that some folks can use this as a motivator… but that never worked on me. I was thinking “I should give them away or at least try them on again… you never know…” but after reading I am thinking I will DEFINITELY do so. The clothes I have that are taking up space waiting for me to lose weight are either making me sad or taunting me — time to let them go.

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      1. Jamie Ray Post author

        I liked Ess’s comments also. My weight has swung over 40 lbs in 10 years, which is about 4 sizes (38 to 32 in jeans) and I still have at least 3 different sizes in my closet including stuff I probably wouldn’t want to wear if I gained some weight back.
        Good luck on letting the small sizes go, and focusing on what you like to wear now.

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    2. Jamie Ray Post author

      Ess,
      I’m glad you found my blog – this seems to be a universal issue. I have periodically purged clothing (usually because I “outgrew” them), but I usually only get rid of the minimum to have enough room to add a few more things. I’ve never systematically gone through and separated the must-keeps from the mistakes. I have a lot of stuff crammed in a small space (NYC apartments don’t give you a lot of storage options).

      I’ve made a lot of changes in my life over the last couple of years and I need to let go of the old stuff that has no relevance other than being part of my past. But I’m an excellent procrastinator and it is hard to get motivated.

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  3. samallen230

    Lovely post 🙂 I keep dresses and girly shirts from my adolescence because it validates the pretty style that I had….occasionally I buy girl shirts even though they’re usually too tight for me and I end up not wearing them. Symbolic of my female, “girly” side/self.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’ve never worn “girly” stuff, even as a kid/teen, and I was very particular that any female stuff not look too “girly” – it’s only been the last couple of years that I could wear pink or orange – and that still sometimes feels like a stretch. It would be nice to feel comfortable just wearing what looks good regardless, but I’m not quite there yet.

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  4. Lesboi

    I got rid of a lot of my old things when we moved the last time. I held onto a lot of it because of memories and with hopes that I’d be able to wear them again. I like what Ess said about the stuff also giving us bad memories and thoughts and that’s motivation to purge more from my closet too. I ended up keeping a few pieces of historical significance from my youth and keep those in a keepsake chest along with some other memories. The rest, I got rid of. This was an interesting post. Thanks for writing it.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m trying to gear up for a purge – between losing weight and semi-retiring I can get rid of a lot. I’ve lived in the same apartment for over twenty years, and I never done a “dump everything out and only keep what you need” and it is time.
      It might be easier if I had more empathy for what I’ve gone through, and for all the uncomfortable body image and clothing moments in my past. I’m working on it, but it isn’t easy.

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  5. middleagebutch

    This resonated with me. I have a few articles of clothing that I wear on a regular basis — mostly jeans, T-shirts and long-sleeve thermal shirts. I have a huge T-shirt collection — shirts that I just can’t seem to toss even though they are too small or dated. Each reminds me of an occasion or time period in my life. I have a growing tie collection that I love. I love shopping for men’s clothes, probably because my mother always banned me from the boys’ section in department stores. I love the transformative idea of buying/wearing men’s clothing. Not all fits me well, but I always hold out hope that the right piece of clothing will match with how I feel inside and transform me into that person — strong, handsome, dapper.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is interesting that you love shopping for men’s clothes – I am still a little shy about it and don’t feel completely entitled to shop in the men’s department. I am most comfortable in stores that have unisex try-on rooms (e.g. Gap) and least comfortable when it is just men’s and there is only a men’s dressing room. Strong, handsome, and dapper is elusive, but when it happens it feels fabulous.

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      1. middleagebutch

        I do most of my shopping in stores with both men’s and women’s dressing rooms. Usually, I’ll bring my purchases home and try them on there. We are close to a number of stores, so it is not inconvenient to return what doesn’t fit. Or, if I must try them on right away, I bring the men’s clothes to the women’s dressing room. It always feels like I’m doing something wrong, but I stick it out and do my business quickly and quietly.

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  6. Evelyne W.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It’s interesting how you make such an ordinary thing suddenly so deep. This post made me think about my own clothes and why I actually have them immediately. Well written!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Glad you found my blog and like the post. Clothes carry and communicate a lot of meaning, particularly if you are gender non-conforming or have to wear a particular wardrobe (e.g Orthodox Jewish). I spend more time than I should thinking about clothing and weight, but they are major issues for me in thinking about gender and identity.

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  7. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    If the clothes we have could talk. . . well, mine at least. I have a small pile of clothes I keep hidden from my gal pal. I do that so she doesn’t throw them away. I mean, I have to keep my ’85 Chicago Bears Super Bowl Champion t-shirt. I quit wearing it a few years ago when she noticed the holes. I tucked it safely away with my Uncle’s plaid shirt that I never wear. It’s my only item of his I have; he passed away several years ago. Most of my comfy house clothes are from my university days. They are good to go as long as they don’t get too holey. 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I also have a few preserved shirts that go back to the 80’s but I can’t wear them outside anymore – I prefer to think of them as holy. It is sad to have to stop wearing old favorites.
      I couldn’t find the link, but I had read an article that I think said that if you ask most women what is their favorite article of clothing they will show you something they bought within the last three months, but most men will show you something old and worn. I’m definitely in the old and worn camp.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I hope so. I’m getting itchy waiting – I don’t want this to turn into yet another countdown blog to top surgery or a top surgery scar picture of the week, but I can see how that happens. It becomes an obsession.

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      1. The Final Rinse

        I think that maybe you should decide that you aren’t going to write about the net effect of your top surgery until maybe a year afterwards. That way, you avoid the weekly, daily, hourly, minutely update syndrome, and you aren’t writing about it until you have had your own time to think about the effects.

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      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        What came to mind is the Jewish custom of not putting a headstone on a grave for a year (unveiling ceremony). I don’t think I’m going to grieve for them, but I think your advice is good to let the effect settle in.

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  8. krisalex333

    I’m one of those with the holy clothes as well. Every now and then, B tries to get me to let go, but till now I have won the battle. I gave away a tie my dad used to wear (he passed on in 1969) and have regretted it to this day. Sigh,

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If they don’t feel like a burden to you (and you have room to keep them) then keep them. My problem is with the stuff I don’t wear and probably never will wear, and that I am cramming stuff into my drawers and closets.

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  9. PlainT

    “I bought them because they had some mysterious masculine appeal.” Now looking back I realize I did this even when I was presenting femme and straight. Those jeans that sagged in the right way, that t-shirt that was color-blocked to make my shoulders look wider, those pajama pants that I only wore to bed and hoped nobody would notice the opening at the fly giving away that they’re “men’s”. I didn’t dare wear this stuff out, but I coveted it.

    I’ve also kept things that I didn’t want to return; it’s weird, I feel like buying it was so stressful that returning it feels unfathomably distressing. I donated a bunch of brand new stuff a few months ago; I hope that even if I couldn’t bring myself to return it at least it could find its way into some better hands.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Shopping is an odd thing. I know when I think too much about shopping I should stop and see what it is that I am really avoiding facing, and to let myself obsess about something else (my blog, reading, cooking).
      That said, I try to do some of my shopping on-line with stores that have very relaxed return policies (Zappos is the best and they carry a lot of clothing) and preferably free return shipping. I can sometimes manage to drag my butt to the UPS Store and drop off a pre-paid label return package. I’ve never managed to return anything to Macy’s – I’m not good in person.

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  10. Pingback: My closet | Tea with Ess

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