Beyond Wardrobe Staples: Clothes I Can’t Throw Out

When it comes to wardrobes, New Yorkers have to deal with two fixed realities.  First, winter and summer require different kinds of clothing.  Second, closets are few and tiny.

The only way to deal is to change out your wardrobe twice a year.  It’s a ritual Lifelongnewyorker learned from her mother and one she’s continued in Alabama.  But it mystifies people who have lived all their lives in the South, where most clothing can be worn across at least three seasons, and spacious closets.

So, despite living in a house with three walk-in closets and in a climate that simply does not require woolen garments, I have held on to my biannual sorting routine.  My mother made sure it was hard-wired.

So, over the course of a couple of weeks, I go through my clothes and shoes and divide them into three piles: Give away, Throw away, and Keep.  Keep is simple: make sure they’re clean, pile them into baskets or bags and bring them to the upstairs closets.  Parting from stuff has never really been hard for me.  Oh, sure, there have been plenty of years that I’ve kept stuff believing that someday it would fit again … But not anymore.  Now I realize that if it hasn’t fit for two or three years, it’s never going to fit.  And if by some miracle — or perhaps because of a wasting disease — I lose 20 pounds, I’ll buy new clothes.

Once all the old season’s stuff is out of the closet and off the shelves, I reverse the process.  I pluck hanging items from upstairs and bring them down; open the cedar chest and pull out the bulkier sweaters; open some storage bins and grab the long-sleeve tee’s; pull out the boots to replace the sandals.

I’m ruthless, too.  Not all the stuff that got kept in the spring will make it into the current rotation.  I’ll do another round of reckoning.  This year, for example, I finally accepted that, after surgeries on both feet,  there are some shoes that I will simply never, ever wear again.  They will never be comfortable, and even wearing them for a couple of hours is more misery than I’ll accept.

No matter how ruthless I am, though, I will never touch what I call the “archival clothes.”  These are the ones that never move from the upstairs, out-of-season closet.  I never expect to wear them again.  But they’re talismans and I have to keep them.

It won’t surprise anyone that my wedding dress is one of these.  Not that I’m saving it for a future descendant — despite having it “preserved” and boxed right after the big event, and wrapped in acid-free tissue, it’s yellowed and stained. Possibly I shouldn’t have stored it in the attic for 25 years.  Likewise, I have the “peignoir set” my Aunt Alice gave me at my bridal shower, despite the fact that I can no longer fit any part of my upper body into it. I use the term “peignoir set” loosely.  Do not think of delicate lace or somthing like a negligee — this was the height of the peasant look: it’s a demure cotton nightgown and matching robe.  But it’s a connection to a favorite aunt who died way too early.

And no one can blame me for saving The Abandonned One’s christening outfit or the navy blue double-breasted Nordstrom suit he wore for his First Communion (I’ve never seen a more dapper 7-year old).

But how do I explain the decision to hold on to the blue velvet dress with the satin sash that I wore for my mother’s 80th birthday party, or the cotton print Gunne Sax dress with ribbon trim and lace-up bodice that I bought in 1978?

Or the tissue-thin t-shirt from the No More Nukes rally I attended in — when? 1980? — on the site that would later become Battery Park City?  It looks like a child’s size.

CostellSo much, of course, is about memory.  One of the sweatshirts I pulled from the bin could still be worn, but I won’t anymore for fear of destroying it.  It was yellowed and stained, so Mr. NYer washed it twice, pretreating the stains, and drying it in the sun to bleach it and restore it to something close to its original white.

It’s a sweatshirt I found in a catalog and ordered for my father back in the mid-’80s.  It features his last name, Irish coat-of-arms and eponymous Australian pub. It was the perfect gift, a nod to two of his favorite things: beer and Australia (he was there during World War II).  And it was practical.  He wore it often.

When he died, my mother gathered their daughters to sort through my father’s clothes for the last time.  We put them into three piles: Give Away, Throw Away, and Keep.  And I have kept the sweatshirt, and have no plans to part with it.


Autumn? In Alabama?

Lifelongnewyorker is confused.  It’s  September 20, school has resumed, people are wearing fall colors.

But it’s 97 degrees at noon.  What season is it, anyway?

According to the weather–and to the calendar–it’s still summer.  But Labor Day is past, and with it went the sense of summer. 

For one thing, it’s getting darker earlier, and we’ve sometimes been emboldened to cut the air conditioning in the evenings and open windows as the nighttime temps dip into the low 70s, or even the high 60s.

Leaves are drying up and dropping off trees, with no sign that there will be a change of color (other than the fade-out to yellow/brown).  We went kayaking on the Coosa yesterday, with temperatures near 100, but saw plenty of brown leaves floating along as well. 

Kids have gone back to school, but that happened ages ago.   I wonder if the school buses are air-conditioned?  They must be.

Meanwhile, though, certain changes have been noted in the office.  Fewer women are wearing sandals, and some have checked the calendar and donned pumps.  Fall colors are proliferating, along with fewer shorts and sundresses. 

Lifelongnewyorker really wants to wear those white jeans she purchased on sale during the last week of August, but fears breaking the “no-white-after-Labor Day” rule.  And anyway, it really doesn’t feel right.

Actually, nothing about this season feels right.  In September we should still be enjoying the annuals in the garden, the vine-ripe tomatoes, but ours are long since fried and exhausted.  The days should be glorious, dry and in the 70s, and the nights crisp, but it’s still too hot for me to walk three blocks at lunchtime and register to vote.  It should feel like the first month of school did when I was a student and then a teacher, but it does not.  And I should be thinking about clearing out my summer clothes from the closet, but why?

Instead, our garden long since dessicated, it’s yet too hot to plant either pansies or mums.  I’m wondering if one day I’ll wake up and all the leaves will have dropped.  And when should I start plan to wear suede and corduroy?

The Dynamo Descends

I am packed and ready to roll tomorrow once we jam all this stuff into the car.

That I’d be ready today wasn’t a sure thing yesterday afternoon.  My plan for the last two days was to go through all my clothes on one day and pack ’em up on the next.

By 2 pm I had succeeded only in sorting through my underwear, socks, stockings and gym wear.  Shoes and three seriously overcrowded closets remained.  Meanwhile, Mr. NYer and I had to dash out to pick up the crate the cats will inhabit for their trip south and also stop at our lawyer’s for our mutual exchange of powers of attorney.   I didn’t plan on being back to resume the wardrobe weeding until 4 or later.

In fact, the wardrobe weeding began about 5 and was done by 7 pm.  How did she do it? you ask.  With the help of The Dynamo.

The Dynamo and I met on the first day of high school, the result of alphabetical happenstance. We wound up sitting next to each other in home room and have pretty much stuck by each other’s sides from then on.

We share several things in common, although I’m not sure that’s because we were temperamentally matched from the get-go or we grew on each other over time and developed along similar paths.  She became a legal secretary when I went off to college, but at some point when I was teaching history, she returned to school and got a degree in … history.  A short time later I helped her get a job teaching at the same school I did, and we became colleagues as well as friends.

But the main thing we have always had in common was taste.  We both have what some friends (of mine, at least) have described as “house beautiful” homes.  That’s really not so, but we like aesthetically pleasing surroundings.  More to the point, we like the same  clothes.

You couldn’t tell this during high school, though, because we wore uniforms.  During the school day we wore grey blazers and skirts.  After school we switched to our casual uniform of bell bottoms and peasant blouses.  Over the years we probably looked like models from the same clothing line, from the summer of flimsy halter tops to the winter of maxi-coats. 

The first serious matching purchase after high school (and there were many) was a gorgeous heathery brown great-coat with a 12-foot long leather belt that emerged through slits  from inside the coat to wrap around the front and back to finally be tied in the front in a knot.  The coat had a deep stand-up collar, long cuffed sleeves, and evoked a Russian winter.  It was elegant.  The Dynamo bought it first but didn’t seem to mind when I went out and bought its twin.  She was taller and, in those days especially, very thin, and could carry off that coat better than I, but we both loved it.   

Since the Dynamo worked in Manhattan AND had a brother who was a fashion designer, she seemed to have the jump on stylish duds.  Plus she shopped more than I.  But she always thought of me while she shopped, especially since, despite our different heights and body shapes, we wore the same size.

She and I often shopped together, buying outfits that, if they didnt’ match exactly, looked good side by side.  Often enough they were the same and we’d agree to coördinate appearances so as not to show up at work in the same clothes.  Once, having gotten a hot tip from her brother about a fabulous sale at a store that was going out of business, she simply picked up two of everything and showed up at my door with two sets of wonderful tweedy linen pants for me with two matching jackets.  She had the same ones, and we agreed to call ahead if we were planning to wear them. 

After The Dynamo began teaching at my school, we were both invited to present workshops at a teachers conference in Baltimore.  We drove down together and checked into the hotel, where we were sharing a room.  After dinner, one of us went into the bathroom to get ready for bed and the other one, also dead tired, took a moment to change into her nightgown in the room.  The bathroom door opens and we find ourselves, face to face wearing the same nightgowns. 

So the Dynamo, who lives in Pennsylvania these days and still teaches, said she’d come on out after school and help sort my clothes.  She arrived around five o’clock, walked in the door and said, “Before we start on the clothes, I need a cup of tea.”

Once fortified we went upstairs and created a whirlwind into which Mr. NYer knew better than to enter.  First the stacks of sweaters and tops from the closet shelves:  The Dynamo, after noting that everything I owned was inside-out, proceeded to turn each item rightside-out and in a seamless motion evaluated its value.  We looked at the heavy sweaters.  “You need one heavy sweater like this for your annual trip to Vermont,” she pronounced.  “You don’t need three.”  I chose one.

Next, she noticed my other predilection:  if I like something I bought it over and over again.  She told me I didn’t need four white button-down shirts, and proceeded to dispatch the ones she thought “too boxy,” and “too old.”

It sounds as if some sort of dictator came to rummage through my closet but that wasn’t the case at all.  Instead we had one of those synergistic moments when we had the same energy, agreed on what worked and what didn’t, and definitely had the same pace.  Warp speed.  Perhaps, more than anything else, we realized it was a rare chance to spend the kind of time together that we used to have more of. 

We laughed our way through the two hours.  We lamented about the styles we endured during our 30s, when even though our figures were the best they’d ever be we kept them under wraps.  Thirty-year olds today get to show off their curves; we hid under architectural shoulder pads, jackets that descended below our hips, and dresses that dropped to just a few inches about our ankles. 

At the end, we’d created huge piles of clothes to give away, a smaller pile of items The Dynamo was taking for herself, and had honed my baggage down considerably.  The evening was not without its humor.  Once we left my main closet for the ones in which I store out-of-season (and often, out-of-decade) clothing, I found myself explaining garments before I withdrew them from the rod.

“I loved this dress,” I apologized in advance, “it’s an April Cornell and the fabric is wonderful, but I really wouldn’t wear it now …”  The dress in question was one of those airy sacks that had its moment.  It had been a lovely summertime dress — when i wore shapeless, loose garments that floated just above the floor.  I’ve seen burkhas that are more daring. 

“I have something just like that,” The Dynamo reported.  “What it’s good for is to throw on over your bathing suit when you have to run to the store for milk.”  OK, then.  I had a reason for keeping it, and I kept it.  Of course I’m going to have a pool in Alabama, and of course I’ll need to run to the store for … milk.

Two closets down; we went upstairs to the attic.   The Dynamo gasped when I pulled out the tweedy linen pants, over twenty-five years old, and not too much the worse for wear.  A lot of wear.  These pants were a  mainstay of my teaching days and then turned into the perfect costume for a number of plays.  I even lent them to a fellow actor who played the lead in 84 Charing Cross Road.  Pleated and baggy, in an Annie Hall kind of way, they perfectly evoked an earlier period. 

We passed the pants back and forth and recalled the day The Dynamo showed up with the bags, telling me, “I’ve bought these for you because they were ridiculously cheap, but if you don’t want them I’ll just keep them and have doubles.”  The Dynamo admitted that she still had one of the jackets.

The very last item I pulled out had us on the floor.  It was a Laura Ashley number I picked up in London in 1983.  Made of a fine cotton print in white, pink and green, it featured a girlish flouncy skirt with delicate lace bands and elastic waist that helped give it fullness. The matching blouse was a fitted number with a Peter Pan collar, also trimmed in the narrow cotton lace.  It was girlish; a garden party sort of outfit.  Peasant meets Pollyanna.  It did not have a 27-year shelf life, but it sure had a lot of sentimental memories.

The Dynamo pointed out that the elastic was shot (she pulled it wide to demonstrate — it stayed that way).  Ever helpful, she said, “You could make a very nice tea cozy out of this.”

“I have one already,” I answered.  I picked up a lot of Laura Ashley that year, including the tea cozy.  Later, Soon-to-be-Abandoned discovered the cozy and loved to wear it on his head.  I still have the tea cozy.

The Dynamo and I both loved Laura Ashley.  When I returned to London in 1985, and the British pound was at an all time low versus the dollar (nearly equal in value), The Dynamo asked me to pick up a blazing red print dress for which she pined.  The dress didn’t really work that well, so she returned it to the Laura Ashley in New York, where they gave her a credit equal to the American price.  In one fell swoop, she doubled her investment — we joked that she arbitraged the dress — and got a comforter instead.

“I still have that comforter,” she said.

Of course.  There are some things you hold on to.