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Get Rid of Your ‘In Case of Emergency’ Clothes

Business casual clothes hanging in a closet Photo: Getty Images

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There used to be a corner of my closet that I never touched. It contained five or six things hanging side by side: a blazer, a pair of extremely serious black pants, a couple of silky tanks that would be described by women’s magazines as “shells,” a button-down but not, like, the cute kind. These were my In Case of Emergency Clothes.

They were holdovers from an internship, mostly, or things bought in a feverish panic immediately before job interviews. They were, in a hyphenated word, “business-casual” (a.k.a. “biz-cajzh” — the proper spelling, IMHO). They were serviceable, not stylish; confining, not comfortable. Above all, they just weren’t me.

The career I would go on to have, it turned out, didn’t actually require them. Neither did the city I would move to, nor the people I would surround myself with. These staid, sedate clothes became something of a punchline — “Oh God, remember how I showed up to my first interview here in nude pantyhose and PUMPS?”

But I kept them for years, just in case. In case I got fired, or had a breakdown, or woke up one day and realized that what I thought I wanted wasn’t quite right anymore. In case the stock market crashed, or maybe the housing market, or I had to move back home to take care of someone, or any number of scenarios my feverish anxiety brain would dream up regardless of actual real feedback. My In Case of Emergency Clothes felt like a down payment against future catastrophe, like if I could anticipate everything that might go wrong I could prevent it from ever occurring. Making room for some pants and polyester seemed a small price to pay.

I wish I could say that the decision to get rid of them happened all at once, in a single fell swoop where I realized once and for all that I do live in my life, that I can’t avert disaster by beating it to the punch, that if my vague worries ever did transpire then I could always just hit up the Banana Republic around the corner.

Instead, I let them go gradually: in a donation bag, on a pile at a clothing swap, to a younger friend just starting out in her own job. It wasn’t that I’d totally reckoned with my fears — if only — just that the room they took up started to feel untenable in the face of everything new I had to bring in: dresses for graduations and choir concerts and funerals, outfits for parties and moving apartments, entirely too many jumpsuits even though I never don’t have to pee. Clothes for my real life, not my imagined one.

I cannot actually in good faith tell everyone to get rid of their In Case of Emergency Clothes — it’s expensive to buy new ones, and most people probably don’t live in a home where they can see into every corner from the bed, thereby making each square inch of storage impossibly precious. And many people who go into an office every day probably aren’t allowed to wear crop tops patterned with pictures of cheeseburgers, or tank tops that proclaim CRAFTY BITCH.

But In Case of Emergency Clothes can take different forms: jeans many sizes too large or too small for some far-off future body, sweaters belonging to exes who you know are never going to come back for them, any garment intended for a life that’s not the one you’re currently living. Some of these are harmless souvenirs, or signposts to walk toward, or well-planned necessities. But others taunt you silently, radiating shame and worry and what-if-what-if-what-if until it makes you sick to look at them.

Get rid of those. You can always find another shirt.

Maybe soon that newly freed space in my closet will be taken up by a different set of In Case of Emergency Clothes — days-of-the-week Hazmat suits, perhaps — but right now, I like to have some room to fill with possibility.