Finding balance in the second half of life

I Love My Shirt

In Survival on December 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

“I love my shirt. I love my shirt. My shirt is so comfortably lovely.”

So goes the old song . But Donovan is not the reason I rock my Brooks Brothers’ forward-point collar, pinpoint cotton, white, dress shirts. He can’t decode my reasons for wearing them nearly every day, nearly everywhere.

My 10 white shirts are going through the laundry now, part of a cycle that begins with me quickly sweeping up the shirts where they have landed in laundry room, bedroom, closet, gym, and bath, mixing up the bluing agent I use in lieu of bleach. These suckers cost me around $75 a pop when I can get them on sale, and I do everything I can to keep them in circulation. So bluing and washing. But they will air-dry on plastic hangers, and serve me for years before I buy the next batch, the brand, model, and size all saved on a list of my sartorial standards and shopping links (I buy all my clothes online), which I keep in an EverNote file for safe keeping.

Hanging next to my 10 laundered shirts are my black pants, made by a designer who understands how to drape a normal female body (Here’s looking at you Eileen Fisher. Please don’t abandon us.). My underthings, too, are uniform. And my shoes.

Socks and sweaters, I mostly make.

I wear a uniform, and have done so for years and years. There was a time when this uniform was just for home use. After-work clothes. Weekend wear. But as connectedness chafed, breached, and finally erased the lines of demarcation between my professional and personal life, the idea of maintaining separate wardrobes — particularly when one of those wardrobes was unwieldy, uncomfortable, complicated, time-consuming and expensive — became silly. Just…. silly.

But I have many other reasons for choosing to wear a uniform. I present them here not to try to convert readers to a uniformed existence, but really to make a public explanation, in hope that it may find its way to the people who, I know, are annoyed by my choice. A sartorial apologia, if not an apology.

Buying Time. We are born with one commodity whose measure we can’t take — Time. Time. Time. We know only that we don’t have enough of it. We can increase the time we have to do the things we love by decreasing the time we spend doing things we don’t, or by eliminating unnecessary spinning. We can trade time, but can’t buy more. So, let’s say I spend 15 minutes a day deciding, finding (which belt, which socks, which hose, which bra, which bodyshaper for what shape, which accessories and outerwear), assembling, and donning a single outfit. (And we know it can often take a great deal longer, if you add hand-washing and ironing, and the once- or twice-a-month melt-down into abject despair +/- closet rage.) That tiny amount of time, a radically low estimate, still adds up to about 6 16-hour days every year of my life. Add to that the hours spent shopping for clothes, online, in boutiques and malls, which I will make out to be a conservative 16 hours a month. Now we’re up to 18 full days a year I could be spending re-reading Middlemarch or knitting something lovely while listening to Orlando. Again. This is a good trade. I don’t like managing clothes or shopping for them. At all. Many women do, but I have never been one of them. Not when I was 12. And not now.

Psychological Cost. Especially not now. I am not fit. But even at my most fit, my body was never fashionable. Would have been, in 15th Century Italy. I could have owned that century. But I have a normal female 50-year-old body. I’ve earned my lumps and my droops, and no one designs clothes for me. Or not clothes I would wear. The less time I spend in badly lit dressing rooms trying on clothes that underscore how my body doesn’t fit society’s expectations, the better. By never, ever, going into those stores, or giving that industry my money, I avoid massive psychological costs. I am a happier person. I buy a little smugness. I wear a Cheshire Cat’s grin. Ha. Beat that bad thing. Ground it to dust. Poof! By not paying attention to fashion, it simply disappears.

Waste. I’m not a frugal person. Not by a long shot. I wear Brooks Brothers’ shirts and Eileen Fisher slacks. My shoes, uniform Danskos for half the year, Uggs for Michigan’s other half, are not cheap. I buy expensive wool to knit sweaters whose cost, if we used my hourly earnings as a measure, would stretch into the thousands. But. The Danskos I wear today I bought 4 years ago. The Uggs date from some time before they were fashionable. (I don’t wear them with mini-skirts.) Well-made sweaters last for decades. My shirts go for 6 years if I’m careful. When fashion’s profiles change by the season, not the year, and certainly not the half-decade, the closet turnover of the fashion-forward woman makes me glad only a very tiny minority of us can fit into or afford fashion-forward clothes. Kudos to folks who offer their clothes to resale shops, of course. Fashion trickles down, I realize. But the longer I wear my clothes, the less they cost me and everybody else. I believe. Does that make sense? I think it does. It’s my blog post, so it does. But go ahead and comment to tell me why I’m crazy. I’m ready to hear about it.

Formative Influence. Here, I could cite history. I was raised in the U.S. Navy. (I say in the service rather than by a serviceman, because I completely believe that military kids and spouses serve their country alongside the troop member. Don’t try to argue that one with me. I served for 21 years. I don’t happen to have any medals to show for it.)

Or I might trot out my Roman Catholicism, except that I never attended a Catholic school. I just admired those uniforms from afar. My lust for Tartan plaid was hotter than a Japanese businessman’s.

But the biggest influence on me came through my first boss. His name was Tom Symons. He was a Northern Michigan Renaissance Man on the order of the original Abercrombie. (What’s become of Abercrombie and Fitch must bother old Tom’s mind as he ties and casts dry flies on some trout stream in the great beyond.) He seemed to channel Teddy Roosevelt and the Buddha and Jackie Gleason all at the same time. He was big and moustached and booming and tough and soft and formidable. I was a bit in love with him. And he wore a uniform. Everything came in the mail from Abercrombie’s Manhattan shop. Khaki pants, blue oxford-cloth, button-down shirts. White socks. Jack Parcels, I think? (Ed: Alert pals have noted my misspelling Purcells. And also noted my addition of a pair of tangarine-colored Vans this summer. Correct, both of you. I have many weaknesses… Otoh, the Vans might become uniform.) Or something very like them. Something warmer in the winter, but I don’t recall. He sent his clothes to the cleaner. My job included taking them in and collecting them. He had sets of maybe 40. That meant 40 long-sleeve shirts, 40 short-sleeve. 40 winter-weight khakis, and 40 summer-weight. The number allowed him to think about laundry just once a month. He’d worn this uniform for so long, no one could remember when he settled on it. We all believed he married his wife in his uniform, though I never had evidence of it. He was the one who taught me that if you find the right clothes once, you really don’t have to repeat the exercise. Why would you do the same thing over and over and over? When you could be catching fish? Or panning for gold? Or camp-hopping in Alaska?

In my work, I found more people who wore and wear uniforms: Ray Eames. Dean Kamen. Steve Jobs. All interesting people so wrapped up in doing what they love they simply couldn’t be bothered to spend time on garment management. I realize I am not a genius, nor contributing in huge ways to the advancement of our civilization. But I’ll take my inspiration from people like these any day.

Irony. I know it’s a cheap form of humor, and a bad basis for inspiration, but I have just discovered that the very people responsible for fashion madness and impossible-for-me couture choose simple uniforms for themselves. The tastemakers. The standard setters. (Blink, blink.) The audacity.

Slipstream. I wake thinking about my day, and my thoughts travel with me, uninterrupted as I fall into my shirt, my slacks, maybe a sweater. I have coffee in hand in minutes, dressed, and ready for my day.

Having decided the outfit is appropriate for everything from washing the dog to meeting with clients has made it so. I work in a creative field, and am expected to have my quirks. In five years since taking my uniform to work, exactly one client has noted my choice. I was a little disappointed to discover that people really didn’t notice at all, unless they were family or close friends. I hoped to have this conversation with someone, much sooner than this. But the truth is, most people pay more attention to what they are wearing — and whether it’s appropriate, fitting, tucked correctly, accessorized appropriately, or not — and not to what you are wearing. My clothes are not nearly as interesting as the reason my clients want to meet with me — which is them and their business, driving their success. And that’s as it should be.

I love my shirt. It really is comfortably lovely. It’s not so much the brand as the artifact of a man’s pinpoint cotton dress shirt. It’s a nearly perfect garment for a busy human. I look nothing like Diane Keaton, but the Annie Hall essence lives in the man’s dress shirt, at least in my head. The softness of the sheets you didn’t want to leave this morning. The endlessly useful breast pocket. I don’t know how other knitters knit without one. I do love the deep red Helvetica laundry tag on the shirt-tail. Unlike 90 percent of the blouses made for women, the buttons stay on for the entire life of the shirt. With laundering, the collar curls in what my mother would call a go-to-hell sort of way. That’s as far as I can rhapsodize. It’s a shirt. A reliable, comfortable shirt. But it has come to stand for independence, freedom from fashion and trend, from wishing for a different body, and a zen-y freedom from want and lust for every new hemline and ruffle. Or maybe it’s become a kind of armor, protecting my soft insides from cultural bullies.

Now, if only I could find a really reliable pair of underwear…. Write if you can recommend anything.

–Julie Ridl

  1. I feel the same way about clothes. I wonder what my uniform would look like……. thanks for the post!!!

  2. If I had 18 more days each year, rereading Middlemarch would be nowhere near the top of my list.

  3. Thanks for the pithy and sensible outline of your fashion philosophy. I am moving towards uniform dressing, and your piece strengthened my resolve.

    Last year I gave away (almost) all the clothes that no longer fit, or were awful (Eight sizes.) I bought five short sleeve men’s button down shirts, five pairs of jeans that actually fit, and two (identical) pairs of black “dress pants.” (All Old Navy, I confess the only Eileen Fischer items I have are from “the GW” boutique.) For winter I added five long sleeved mid-weight cotton tees. After I broke my toe this fall my two pairs of clogs were supplanted by all weather Merrill sandals and wool (quite warm) socks.

    p.s. I was blessed to be raised in a uniform dressing environment, when 60’s “peasant” style clothes were still the rage, and pink and purple did not devour young girls. My father wore Brooks Brothers and LL Bean, I wore blue tunics and white shirts to school, and my summers were spent unconsciously following the dress code of our cottage community–all prior to the P***** Handbook.

  4. Re: undies – try Jockey -all cotton, a variety of styles. Very comfy.

  5. I love your shirt…and how you think about the whole dress thing…how heartening to read a topic that resonates. Georgia O’Keefe was a uniform woman, too, black in winter and white in summer. The time that is spent on consumerism is devastating whether it is groceries, gifts or clothing. I’ve just spent time mending son Tom’s bluejeans and it is so satisfying to add life to the calculated obsolescence of jeans that are scrappy to begin with. Your writing gives me new courage to finish off my closet. It is such a personal thing…our bodies and how we “adorn” them for our life’s work…thanks for your thoughts.

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