Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Clothes on Our Backs

I've been thinking about clothes. Dreaming about dresses, shirts, skirts and pants. Shoes with mates, and without. Boots, tall and short. Sandals, socks, scarves, shawls. All of these things were in my head when I woke at 3:30 this morning. When I was a waitress, I served Surf 'n Turf all night long. Now that I've been volunteering to sort donations at The Downtown Women's Center, mountains of clothing rise taller and taller until I open my eyes to verify that I am in my bed--and not about to be buried beneath an avalanche of clothes.

When sorting through the donations received by the DWC, it's easy to figure out, sometimes, that two or three Hefty bags have come from the same person. Did that person die, I wonder--or is this just the result of a closet-cleaning extravaganza--and is there twice as much that she's kept? I have a childhood memory of an old man on our front porch calling, "Rags, rags," but maybe it's a scene from a fairy tale. One thing I know for sure, there wasn't much wear left in anything by the time it was removed from its drawer or hanger. Things didn't go to Goodwill or any other charity. They went to a cousin if they had any life at all left in them, and if not, they were cut up for doll clothes or dust rags--or perhaps given to my possibly mythical rag man.

My daughter C. is a sailor. She works on historic tall ships, moving from boat to boat with no permanent address. She travels with a sea bag and often has only one hook and a drawer or two to stow her belongings while she is at sea. Her regular clothes live on dry land at my place. A half-dozen shirts, five skirts, five dresses, three jackets, three sweaters, a coat, a couple pairs of pants, and a surprising 15 pairs of shoes which may not include her steel-toed work boots. There are a few pieces of jewelry too, some scarves, a short stack of work clothes, and the accessories of her trade--knives and a marlin spike. A tool box. There's a second tool box of make-up and grooming products. Some bulky foul weather sailing gear. But I'd wager that, with her top-notch packing skills, everything mentioned above could fit into the trunk of her car.

My clothes would not fit into my car. My rule about clothes is that they have to fit in my closet--and I finagle that a bit. I have a modern double-sliding-door closet with an organizer system, not a closet like the one in the house I grew up in, which probably would have held a third of what I currently call my wardrobe. Isn't it weird that we have so much clothing in an era when, for most of us, washing them has become so simple? I have vague memories of my grandma or my aunt or someone doing the wash on an old hand-wringer machine. It would have been great to have some extra outfits in those days because washing them and hanging them on the line to dry required actual participation.

In 1973 I worked as an au pair in Paris. Monsieur was a doctor, and Madame was a med student. They and their darling seven-month-old daughter lived in a beautiful old building a couple of blocks from Parc Monceau. They had a nice car and a summer house on the beach in Montpelier. Their flat was comfortably furnished, but they had almost no clothes. Madame wore the same outfit to her classes nearly every day--red overalls in a thin velvet-soft fabric than she accessorized in a variety of ways. A navy t-shirt, a white man-tailored shirt, scarves, a little jacket. Monsieur had a couple of suits, a half-dozen shirts. His white t-shirts, worn as underwear shirts, were so much nicer than the Fruit of the Loom I was familiar with, that, I confess,  I pilfered one when I left my job to travel with friends. I wore it for a decade or more.

When did quantity win the fist fight with quality?

And if one would have the misfortune to be buried by an avalanche of clothes--from my own closet or elsewhere, it would be possible to dig out, right?


Elizabeth said...

This is an essay with a few tweaks, Denise. You know that, right?

Life In A Pink Fibro said...

Great post. Love it. I tend to be less is more when it comes to clothes, but only because I never seem to be able to find anything to buy. I'm no good at anything beyond the basics.

kimmie said...

I love this conversation :)

My new favorite place to shop is Goodwill these days and I practically live in my woolen sweaters. At GW I find shetland wool, cashmere, lamswool .... Sometimes a little motheaten, but i figured out how to patch them. They hardly ever need washing and repel the rain and sleet. I'm often thankful I live in a place where a good outfit is a good outfit only if it can withstand the weather.

I just love the questions you raise .... It really is something to think about