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.

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