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My Clothes Are Depressing Me

Although my life is going fairly well, a few days ago I found myself starting to feel down for some unknown reason. The next day it happened again. And I started to realize it’s because I was wearing an old ugly shirt.

When I changed my shirt I felt better, and had a more productive day.

This set me to thinking about the whole complex set of feelings people have about what we wear. We all feel better when we look good, however we define what looking good means to us.

Most people have some clothes that make us feel special; others that we wear to work; everyday clothes for bumming around the house, and stuff in the back of the closet we should have thrown out years ago.

Somehow I’ve allowed the back of the closet to dominate my whole wardrobe. It’s not that I don’t have lots of nice things, but I’m hanging onto way too much junk for no good reason.

When that starts to affect my everyday functioning, it’s time for a change.

See if any of this applies to you. Our tastes in clothing are idiosyncratic, very personal, yet they’re also affected by what other people wear, what’s in style; “fashion” is very complicated, always changing, and styles change a lot faster than our minds do.

One reason I now find myself with a bunch of ugly shirts I don’t like goes back to a decision I made when I was 14. I liked clothes then, but I also made a decision that “fashion” would never rule my life, because it makes a person materialistic, as well as subject to the whims of other people.

When you’re 14 you want to be your own person, not your parents’, not even your friends’. I didn’t want to be subject to someone else’s desire to sell me something, especially if I didn’t need it.

There I was, walking in front of the county courthouse, deciding I would not be materialistic or motivated by money. After all, fashion-mongers are as greedy for you to buy a pair of shoes as McDonald’s is to sell you a Bic Mac.

I now think of that teenage decision as a kind of declaration of voluntary poverty. I would be a social worker, a servant of others, a Christian even; poverty, chastity, obedience and all that. (The only one I’ve ever managed was the poverty part.)

I’m still happy all these decades later for the anti-materialist, pro-service, willful poverty aspect of my decision, but I also recognize that my 14-year-old mind saw the world in black and white, either-or, rich or poor.

It was the 1960s, I was headed straight for hippiedom, and maybe it’s taken me all this time to re-evaluate.

I guess most people my age have long since sold out and joined the Corporation; I never did and never will (who would have me?), but I’m not sure this makes me morally superior. Hairshirts fell out of fashion centuries ago.

But there I was a few days ago, wearing these ugly togs and thinking, “Get rid of it!”

My rule has always been, when it falls apart, trash it. But don’t be spending money if it hasn’t fallen apart. The money I saved could and did go to the poor, to GLBT rights, to progressive causes, which are a lot more important than my old shirt.

However, all these decades later I now find myself with a closetful of junk and a need to shop! How did I get here?

Sometimes it’s because I tend to hoard things with memories attached; I still have and still wear two sweaters my mother bought me that year, a navy blue V-neck and a yellow mohair. They still fit, though the elbows betray their age. (Does anyone alive still know what mohair is?) I loved those sweaters, which I had to grow into at that age, turning up the cuffs; I loved them for themselves, as nice things to wear that kept me warm, and I loved that she bought them for me, a complete surprise. We never had much growing up, but there I was with two nice sweaters. So I’ve kept them this whole time and never outgrew them. She couldn’t have picked better sweaters; in her later years we used to trade the blue one back and forth. She’d visit me in Ohio where I was living and I’d lend her my navy blue, which she’d wear home to Indiana, and a year later I’d be at her house and say, “Hey, where’s my sweater?”

Both the blue and yellow are “Mom” things, and I don’t care if you can’t even picture a yellow mohair sweater.

There have been many other presents over the years; people have always felt a need to buy clothes for me, perhaps because they knew I wouldn’t buy them myself, or because they knew at Christmastime, For Josh, Buy Warm. They were absolutely right in that department, I’ve got 25-year-old longjohns I climb into every winter. I get cold easily, not enough bodyfat just like my Mom, and winter clothes were always thoughtful gifts, even if they were sometimes ugly.

I have T-shirts from every Gay rights gathering I ever went to. They’re museum pieces, without a museum; Marches on Washington, Gay Games 1990, Pride Days in Cincinnati and Columbus, plus two years ago in New York. I’ve got sweats and tees from when the Reds won the World Series in 1990 and lots of old Purdue stuff. How can I send those memories to the landfill?

I have the golf shirt I was wearing when Dick married Linda outdoors on the hilltop in Colorado; it has holes in it now, so it’s hanging in my basement. I can’t give that one up without trashing the Bro I’ve always loved.

However, the problem with accepting any gift that comes along, and thinking you have to keep it because NN gave it to you, is that their idea of pretty is usually my idea of crappy. Late husband Jack’s Uncle Kenny always used to buy me the cheapest possible polyester shirts from Wal-Mart, invariably brown. I’d wear them, but I always felt like s—, which is also brown. I hate the colors sold to men in fall and winter. I want bright colors when it’s cold out, not olive and brown. Kenny once did give me a bright red fake flannel that I loved, but it was cheap and fell apart quickly. I’ve never found any shirt in the same bright red these past 20 years. Autumn is depressing enough; why would I want to look like autumn?

This morning I looked for a long-sleeved shirt, and picked out an old one I hate, knowing I’d be writing this post and throwing this shirt away when I go to bed tonight. This shirt also was a gift that doesn’t fit into any of the above emotional categories; I barely knew the guy. But he did succeed in providing me a piece of cloth to keep alive his memory these decades later; he was so strange, that whole episode with him was weird. Let’s call him Mr. Trick.

(Okay, I ain’t proud of it, but remember what I said about mastering poverty, chastity and obedience.)

He already had a lover, and another friend who was a member of the household, but he somehow fixated on me and insisted on giving me the shirt I’m wearing right now, that I picked out this morning so I could write this post.

There was also a cheap ring involved, which for some reason I accepted and wore for five days, even though I was with Jack and told him about it. Then Mr. Trick showed up at our store and asked for his ring back, said he’d made a big mistake, so I took it off and gave it back. He walked out and I’ve never seen him since.

I guess I got some egotistical charge out of the whole thing, that a stranger would be enthralled with me. Then he came to his senses, went back to his boyfriend, and here I am wearing the most god-awful shirt you’ve ever seen.

Why have I kept this? It’s going in the trash tonight.

I do have a tendency to hoard things, but I have never for one minute liked this shirt; why hang onto it, except for that childish decision I made so long ago outside the courthouse?

Ya know, a shirt’s a shirt, or somethin’.

It’s a Western shirt, as in Country and Western music. It’s black with cheap but extensive white embroidery from the neck to the top of the chest. The buttons are snaps, which I rather liked in my younger years; it used to be fun to pull apart my shirt in one dramatic move when I was ready to move on some guy and get naked. In the clone days we’d all heard of the Marlboro Man.

But the Midwest, where I’m from, isn’t cowboy country; until I was 45 I hated country music. I still wouldn’t give you 10ยข for George Jones or Patsy Cline. I hate the twang – though I’ve since come to love Reba McIntyre, the Oklahoma girl and Broadway star. I didn’t grow up with this music or this look. Why do I own this shirt?

The Midwest raises hundreds of thousands of cattle, but we never needed cowboys to drive the herd hundreds of miles to the next waterhole, because unlike the West, we’ve got water everywhere you look. So that whole cowboy thing is not, never has been, my culture.

But here I sit, typing out the story of how one young Gay guy went nuts one night, and I let him. Told him the truth but wore his ring till he came back to fetch it.

I’ve never seen a person go crazy in love like that before; that’s why I kept his shirt. If he’d asked for it back I’d have gladly handed it over.

Then again, maybe I kept his shirt so I could one day tell you this story. Writers are whores, I freely admit it. Hand me a story and it will get published eventually.

Still, the joke’s on me. I’ve got Geoffrey Beane, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and others hanging on my shirt rack, all of whom I wear in a fairly strict rotation. (Designer clothes are worth the extra money, not because of the name, pricetag or snob appeal, if you can see and feel the difference in quality, fabric and workmanship.)

So far none of my label shirts have led to a story anything like Mr. Trick’s. It was nice, at a time when Jack had no sexual interest in me, to be wanted by a decent guy who lost his head for a little while, though I was relieved when he ended it.

Meanwhile it’s really stupid for me to keep old stuff I hate because someone I truly loved gave me some offhand thing decades ago; Bro and wife once gave me some hand-me-downs he didn’t want, which I didn’t like at the time but kept anyway. Why?

Well, you know why. When you don’t have the loved one near you, a used shirt will do.

Gay shirts, Purdue shirts from old glory days; sweaters my mother surprised me with in my freshman year in high school. Those may be worth saving, because they don’t depress me. But anything that does has got to go.

I still wear a bright red Columbia University sweatshirt I bought in the winter of 1984 in graduate school, to get me through a horrible New York winter while I worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. That hoodie’s lost its strings, and the front pockets are fraying off. It hangs lower in the front than it does in the back. It’s the only thing I have left from those days of running support groups for PWAs, tramping about from hospital to hospital on Christmas Eve, running workshops to sign guys up for SSI and SSD. The truth is I hated the Columbia School of Social Work and it hated me, but I did love those guys.

It’s good to hang onto the memories, but it’s not good to wear a worn-out sweatshirt to the grocery store in 2010. It’s time to give it up and go shopping.++

Silence=Death, but so does hanging onto the past. (Keith Haring)