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A white shirt on the floor with a red lipstick print on the collar. Photo: Paloma Marticorena/Getty Images

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We Live On in the Clothes We Leave Behind

My ex’s old T-shirt was material proof that I had something with someone.

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I didn’t date anyone until the summer before my freshman year of college. It was an objectively horrible time to embark on something you hoped would endure; my boyfriend would be going to one in-state school and I to another two hours away, and I guess we figured we would make things work.

There’s only one photograph of me from the day I made the drive down to move into my dorm. In it, I’m wearing one of those bad mass-produced Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon shirts. It had belonged to that boyfriend, but he had left it at my (parents’!) house one day. (It is not without extreme, sickening difficulty that I admit that we had naively thought that listening to his record player while fooling around was a very cool thing to do, which inspired one of the worst texts I’ve ever sent: “Just had sex to Dark Side of the Moon :))

But I only feel that shame retrospectively. As an 18-year-old, I loved that I was the new owner of that damn shirt, not because it was close to being unique or flattering, or because I liked Pink Floyd — the summer before college was my Aha Shake Heartbreak-era Kings of Leon and The Roots phase — but because it was material proof that I had this immaterial something with someone.

Clothes, unclaimed and unowned, don’t intrinsically hold personal value. Once they’re bought or found, though, they become a possession to which you can assign meaning: the suede jumper that you wore on an especially bad first date, the ribbed black turtleneck with the obnoxiously small neck hole that’s not conducive to a rushed removal, the vintage 501 Levi’s that your boyfriend said made your butt look “long,” which he meant endearingly but you took offensively. Through wear and association, your belongings become extensions of you — so what does it mean when you leave them behind? When you cling to ones left behind for you?

I’m not sure why my boyfriend gave me that Pink Floyd shirt; I’d like to think that he wasn’t influenced by my clumsy hints before we parted on that day, but I’m not that skilled at self-deception. It was funny, this relationship — one so carefree, where nothing was at stake. The idea of love never passed through my mind, nor was I all that sad when he passed me the shirt and kissed me goodbye. When I’d break up with him just weeks later, I’d only start to cry upon seeing him tear up. I think he figured I’d sleep in that shirt more than a handful of times.

In Acts of Undressing: Politics, Eroticism, and Discarded Clothing, visual communication expert Barbara Brownie writes that “we use our clothes to ‘map out the physical space we wish to occupy or reserve in [our] absence,’” citing a 1975 study conducted by sociologists David R. Shaffer and Cyril Sadowski. And through her continuing studies, Brownie prods into our relationship to disrobing, from the naked protests of feminist group FEMEN to the implications of garments that gape to the silly act of mooning. While she explores the act in a multitude of contexts, what she ultimately seeks is to identify the meaning of clothes once they’re removed.

Which, she ultimately argues, is “unstable” and heavily context-dependent. When you leave something behind, you’re inconspicuously articulating an intention to return, or you’re attempting to mark your territory, or perhaps you simply forgot you had worn gloves that day. If you find yourself looking for an empty booth in a crowded bar, you may lie your coat across the table, meant to send a signal to a stranger that another body is inhabiting this area — that, for now, this space is yours. In a romantic relationship, a discarded item is typically sexual, serving as a reminder that you had exposed a part of yourself.

“There’s an extension of vulnerability,” Brownie tells me, adding that to then leave that item behind is to bear that ripped-open seam. “Clothes are often viewed as an extension of the body. The removal and purposeful placement of a garment extends the body into the surrounding area, thereby establishing new boundaries between self and others beyond the outer layer of worn clothing.”

In college, my roommates and I would joke about a gross sock that a boy had unintentionally left at my apartment after I had convinced him to come home with me on Halloween while I was dressed as a piece of French toast. It became this inside joke: Did the guy with objectively large feet accidentally wear one of my tinier ones home? A few years later, when in the naive phase of a drawn-out relationship that would never transition from semi-regularly sleeping together to the monogamous partnership that I sought, I once considered leaving my underwear behind when I couldn’t find them during a rushed departure. That, at least, would’ve guaranteed a single text exchange and a future meeting.

Because unlike a left-behind bag of peanut M&Ms from a movie or a lipstick-marked water glass, “clothes... are perceived as having an unbreakable connection to the wearer, which remains even after they have been removed from the body,” Brownie writes. On the day that I wore that Pink Floyd shirt while unpacking boxes in my dorm room during one of that summer’s worst heat waves, I remember worrying that the smell of my sweat would slowly replace the smell of my boyfriend’s laundry detergent. I bundled up the shirt and stuffed it in the corner of my wardrobe, where it would lie through our breakup, through the times I would sometimes miss him, through the other crushes I would have that year.

I don’t know where many of the people with which I’ve had any degree of a relationship are today, nor could I place that worn-out Pink Floyd shirt — in fact, I likely gave it away, attempting to lessen my load through all the moves I would make in college. While it held meaning to me for multiple months, over time, that significance slowly diminished, a thought I never entertained when I first stuffed it into my dresser. It was an old shirt to me then; I’d like to imagine it’s a new one for someone today.

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