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My father was not a fashionable man. By the time I was a teenager, his Jerry Seinfeld mullet was more than a decade past its expiration date. He dressed in what was not so much a uniform as variations on a single theme, comprised of a few non-negotiable staples. Jeans, light wash, were purchased primarily at Walmart; flannel button-downs were worn tucked in or open, over T-shirts; the T-shirts themselves were often from Hard Rock Cafés throughout Asia, relics of his father’s (my grandfather’s) extensive business travels and un-ironic love of kitsch; and sneakers, always white, were worn well into the process of their own disintegration.
This is all to say that clothes had never mattered to my dad, and so, after he died suddenly in 2011, it didn’t seem that they should matter to me. Or at least that’s what I told myself when I opted out of joining my family in cleaning out my dad’s home — a necessary postmortem process that nonetheless seemed daunting, if not downright ghoulish. I did not feel equipped to make decisions about which of his possessions should be kept and which discarded, and so I returned to college shortly after his funeral. The only item it would have occurred to me to keep — the University of Pennsylvania baseball cap he wore every day, not content to broadcast his pride in me through words alone — was cremated along with his body.
In the end, a single garment was chosen for me: a Philadelphia Flyers T-shirt so comically large that it’s more dress than shirt, and more sack than dress. It is the confused whitish gray of cigarette ash, with a ragged hem that skims the tops of my knees. The lettering is so faded that in parts it threatens to flake off completely. A curling, wrinkled tag sewn into its sweat-stained collar identifies the shirt as belonging to the now-defunct brand TRUE-FAN SPORTSWEAR. It’s not so much vintage as, well, old. It is, in short, the kind of shirt appropriate for little more than sleeping in, though naturally, this hasn’t dissuaded me from making a few ill-fated attempts at wearing it outside of the house, hanging over leggings or stuffed lumpily into high-waisted jeans. It’s possible that in a 24-year history of questionable sartorial choices, I have never owned a less flattering garment.
I will never throw it away.
Of all the items you can find yourself newly in possession of when a parent or loved one dies, few are as fraught with intimate meaning as clothing. While photographs are, by nature, as Susan Sontag writes, already “memento mori,” clothes and accessories aren’t made for posterity, but for people; what to do with them can prove a greater challenge for the recently bereaved. This is in part a result of clothing’s symbolic power, but also in part a reflection of material reality. On the one hand, clothes play an important role in our identity construction — they are the way we make ourselves legible to the world before we’ve even opened our mouths.
“My mom loved to shop and put a lot of thought into what she wore,” Kristen Martin, a college writing instructor who lost her mother to cancer at 12, told me. “Her personality is imbued in the clothing and accessories she left behind. I think that's why some of the things I've inherited from her feel so weighted for me — they're the remains of her that I can still access.”
On the other hand, clothes are also literally porous. They live against and around our bodies and are physically, demonstrably changed by them: stretched out or stained, torn or mended, cried on or slept in. As material texts scholar (and my former professor) Peter Stallybrass writes in Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things, “The magic of cloth... is that it receives us: receives our smell, our sweat, our shape even. And when our parents, our friends, our lovers die, the clothes in their closets still hang there, holding their gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead.” In other words, clothes retain something of the bodies that once animated them even after those bodies are gone.
The uncanniness of these traces can be too much for some people to bear at the height of their grief. “If it is the presence of the dead that is evoked, this can be comforting, healing,” JM Simpsons writes in “Materials for mourning: Bereavement literature and the afterlife of clothes,” but “if it is the manner of their death, or the fact of their absence that is underlined, it is deeply distressing.” When Kristen’s father died of cancer two years after her mother, some of her aunts had a sweatshirt of his made into a smaller one for a teddy bear. But the choice of garment wound up undermining its comforting intentions. “He only wore that sweatshirt once he became extremely ill, which isn't the way I thought he would want to be remembered,” Kristen explained.
Jamie-Lee Josselyn, a creative writing instructor at Penn whose mother died by suicide when she was 12, also attests to struggling with a difficult inheritance. One of the few items of her mother’s that she kept was a necklace: a simple opal pendant on a delicate gold chain. For a while, she wore it daily, but, Jamie-Lee tells me, the prospect of losing or breaking it eventually started to feel like its own kind of grief: “I had assigned so much meaning to it. This pendant was the thing of hers I'd carry forward with me. It was sort of too much to bear.” Now, she wears it only when she wants to.
If the mutable nature of these items can sometimes overwhelm, they also, in a sense, contain their own antidote. The ability of clothing to be changed by its wearer does not expire, even if the body that once filled it has. A jacket that belonged to your dead parent is not the same as one fished out of a pile at Goodwill, but both will, in time, lose the contours of their original wearers and begin to take on your own. “A lot of things that once felt like they were primarily my mom's have come to feel like they're really my belongings, simply because I wear them so often,” Kristen said. A once-daunting red Coach waist belt that her mother had saved up to buy has become an accessory like any other, valued as much for its utility as any emotional weight it may carry.
It has become something of a cliché in its own right to point out that the conventional wisdom about grief leaves much to be desired, especially in its insistence on linearity. But it is true that grief does not abate with time so much as it changes shape, takes up space in your life differently. Like the clothes of the dead, it’s something you get used to wearing, until it becomes difficult to remember a time before it was yours.
These days, my room is littered with objects that once belonged to my father: a middle-school portrait, a wedding album, a handful of vintage cameras in various states of disrepair. Though it comforts me to be near them, they all carry about them a whiff of elegy. These things that he once owned are static: They speak not to the fact that my dad once lived, but that he died. His shirt, though, tells a different story.
My mom used to say that my father and I were “cut from the same cloth:” two peas in a pod alike in interests, in shyness, in neuroses. In the five years since his death, the ratty Flyers T-shirt has long since ceased to smell like anything other than the plain Tide I buy at my corner bodega. Wearing it won’t return my father to me in any meaningful sense, but pulling it on can still feel like some kind of reunion: We were, after all, both made in his image.