Community Perspective: Sentimental Tee Shirts

A contributed perspectives piece by C.A. Mills

As I declutter in August, I am drawn to consider the humble, all-cotton tee shirt. The oldest I own have been worn more than ten years. They serve, and with age become household work shirts. I buy a few of them on sale at this time of year and toss the utterly destroyed ones. I do not clothes shop much otherwise (and find my classic Levi’s secondhand). This closet consideration is a cycle of organizing and evaluation.

I eye a version of the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress hanging in front of me. When I was small, it was a radical change from other styles I had seen my mother wear that were constricting or frumpy. Released in 1973 (originally envisioned by Elsa Schiaparelli and Claire McCardell in the 1930s and ’40s) the Furstenberg version quickly became popular, culturally iconic, and is still sold today. The wrap style in a fluid fabric lends itself to movement. 

I find myself deconstructing to elements that are practical. As Alton Brown rants “GET RID OF UNITASKERS”: tools that are only designed for one purpose, and usually don’t do that very well. Brown encourages a yearly review of kitchen tools that easily applies to clothes. His suggestion is to box items. Once used, move it to the “keep” drawer. At years end, what is left gets tossed. It is a good approach to most possessions- not just staring at them and expecting a bowel movement of joy (the “if it does not spark joy” decluttering method of Marie Kondo in “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”). Reducing to useful practicality AND potential happiness seems a more complete approach. 

William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement said it best: “If we want art to begin at home, as it must, we must clear our houses of troublesome superfluities that are forever in our way, conventional comforts that are no real comforts, and do but make work for servants and doctors. If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody this is it: have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” (1880).

Yet, sentiment has value. In her 1995 book Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman, how our clothes capture memory and become touchstones is truthfully told. I am, like most people, swayed by memories, shifting identities, and aesthetic inclinations. Over the years I have donated the silk dress I wore at graduation, mom’s crocodile heels, and other sentimental items that created a memory mausoleum. The JMU Forbes center did a terrific job recently of using the lower level gallery to display iconic clothing and costumes from various shows. I hope they continue to explore this opportunity. My closet is not the space for such a display, but Forbes allowed me the pleasure of connection to wardrobes I may have lost by decluttering and relate to from family photographs.

In a report from the Ethical Fashion Group, “Consumers spend on clothes, footwear, and jewelry each year the equivalent to the combined GDP of the 126 poorest countries in the world…It is estimated that 107 billion units of apparel and 14.5 billion pairs of shoes were purchased in 2016…although buying patterns vary considerably between countries.” “The amount of items produced is expected to increase by 13% by 2021. This outweighs the estimated 8% increase in value for the market…this increase points to a continuing ongoing shift in production towards lower-value items (which get quickly discarded).” The US is second only to China in clothing consumption. Covid-19 did not dramatically slow the consumption of clothing but did shift types of items, and honed a focus on materials sourcing and manufacturing. Clearly, considering my place in clothing consumption is an issue worth brooding over.

While I may not be ready to donate my leather jacket (that earns pride of place by being worn a few times a year AND giving me pleasure), other items are folded into the donation bag. William Morris’ exhortation to simplicity reinforces my actions as I smooth the soft fabric on my eye level shelf. I appreciate again the enduring pleasure and functionality of the well-constructed tee shirt.

C.A. Mills lives in Harrisonburg.

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