Hanging on: Memories in our Closets


Back in June, a month before I moved across the country to Los Angeles, I got rid of more than a third of my entire wardrobe. Technically, it was all donated, but I’m sure at least a handful of pieces didn’t make it onto the racks of Goodwill. They were too worn, old and tattered.

More than a month later, when I unpacked everything that had been shipped out in a pod, I couldn’t believe some of the things I’d decided were worth bringing. Half a dozen pairs of old pajama pants, shoes with hardly any life left, a prom dress (hey, it still looks great on)—they seemed ridiculous to have brought along, and yet I found a place for them in my new closet.

To some extent, we all assign sentimental values to our things, especially clothes. But why? Why, when something is literally falling apart at the seams, can’t we bring ourselves to get rid of an old shirt that isn’t fit to wear outside of the house? Obviously, it’s about more than just the object itself—it’s about the feelings associated with it. The emotions we attach to things are oddly powerful. It goes against logic—and perhaps comes from a twinge of a hoarder’s mentality about what it is to let go.

There’s an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry illustrates men’s attachment to clothes:

“Men wear their underwear until it absolutely disintegrates. Men hang on to underwear until each individual underwear molecule is so strained it can barely retain the properties of a solid. It actually becomes underwear vapor. We don’t even throw it out, we just open a window and it goes out like dandelion spores. That’s how men throw out underwear we just go [blows into mic] and it’s gone.”

Which brings up a question: How do men and women compare and contrast in this realm?

Generally speaking, men seem to have a higher tolerance for anything of the stained or hole-y variety than women do. (Somewhere right now, there’s a family staging an intervention for a dad who refuses to retire a certain pair of jeans—the ones with the hole in the crotch.) But—also generally speaking—men seem to be much less concerned with fashion than women are. A man’s favorite T-shirt is most often not his best-looking T-shirt. Could men be slightly more sentimental than women in that regard?

And if clothes are all about memories, then why are we all so bent on buying vintage? The popularity of vintage is a paradox of feeling nostalgia for another era without having experienced that time in those clothes for ourselves. We’re buying someone else’s forgotten memories without any idea of what they are. But you could have fun imagining that your new-old 1980s bomber jacket went to all those hair metal band concerts of yore—and then, wearing said jacket, you could go see all those same bands reviving themselves for another money-making reunion tour. Maybe imagining that someone else will breathe new life into your tired, donated clothes is a good way to make us feel better about letting them go when we finally do.

To take that plunge and finally get rid of the old is a difficult step to take until you realize how much room you have for fresh, new memories. (Or the equally comforting feeling of having a clutter-free mind and space… that has its perks, too.) But whether new, old, vintage or disintegrated, our clothes are only objects to which we attach our memories. Memories that came from somewhere much more permanent.

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