first person

Other People’s Clothes Are the Best Clothes

Photo: Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A friend recently returned a whole lot of clothes I lent her. Elle is a neat and thoughtful person, so all the jumpers and shirts were washed and folded and somehow in a slightly better condition than when they left. They looked zesty and refreshed, and probably loved their holiday away from me. I am extremely hard on my clothes. I spill coffee on them all the time and I tear them more than I would guess is normal.

At the top of the bag of clothes were two items that did not belong to me: some black pants from Zara and some high-waisted jeans, also from Zara. The black pants were good grown-up office pants, perfectly fine, but the jeans were a different kind of creature altogether. I recognized them as such at once. I rapidly churned through a familiar yet still giddy set of emotions, clutching the jeans to my actual chest. Like this:

Oh God I bet these are amazing.

It is going to hurt my feelings when I have to part with them, as I surely must.

Must I, though. She put them in here by mistake, obviously, and maybe she will just think they got lost. People lose things all the time.

No. Theft is Wrong.

What even is the matter with me.

Let me just try them on.

Oh God they ARE amazing.

I look neat ‘n’ clean and like I know what is what.

This is how Elle feels every day at her job, where she does complicated tasks in an orderly and trustworthy fashion. She comes home from work and thinks, “Well, I did a lot today, and a great deal is required of me, but I know in my heart that I am up to it.”

If I had these jeans I would feel like that also.

She is probably worrying about them right now. Wondering where they are and what will become of her without them and so on.

I sat on my bed with Elle’s jeans on and texted her: “Elle I have your incredible jeans.” Sad.

And then the reply: “No. I’m giving you those jeans. Those jeans are yours now.”

She didn’t like how they fit her. I absorbed this information. I went through another series of emotions. Stood up and gave myself a hard stare in the mirror, wearing what I now understood to be my own pair of jeans. The jeans, I saw, were really just normal. Just some straightforward denims. They were nice and they fit me, but they were not life-changing in the way I had initially perceived them to be. They would not make me better at my job or give me more of a winning disposition. I do not like to think or talk too much about faerie or faerie-adjacent subjects, but I did think about the olden-times definition of the world “glamour,” as in having the quality of an enchantment or a spell. Whatever glamour had hovered in the air around Elle’s jeans was gone, now. They might even potentially be a bit stretchy. I do not love a stretchy jean.

This account reveals more than just my own avarice and childishness. There is something about other people’s clothes that has always prompted a great and terrible yearning within me. Other people’s clothes offer boundless possibility. My own seem so dreary in comparison — just things I put on so I am not naked in public.

The first time I remember it happening was when I was in preschool. Maybe 4 years old. My friend Phoenix had this Bugs Bunny T-shirt. Her grandparents had brought it to her from America, which, to a small South African girl, meant that they had brought it to her from Mars. The first time I saw it I very clearly remember thinking: That T-shirt is not from around here. Hard to overstate how parochial things were there in late-’80s Durban. Bugs Bunny was bigger and had more of a good outline than any Bugs Bunnies you saw in South African shops. Also, it didn’t actually say “Bugs Bunny” on the shirt, which I remember thinking was extremely sophisticated. It was just this huge towering rabbit, eating a carrot and looking confident and pleased. The shirt immediately acquired the status of a fetish object, a thing at the center of a cargo cult. A person could build a whole life around such a T-shirt. They would have grandparents in America. Better and different things in their lunchboxes. They would be allowed to drink red juice just whenever they wanted, instead of only at the birthday parties of children whose parents kept red juice in the house. They would have a name that was not a curse to a kid with a bit of a lisp: Rosa Frances Lyster. Rotha Franthith Lythter.

We all knew it was the best shirt. We used to fight over it when we went to her house and once I remember we all cried, proper lusty sobbing when your mouth goes open very wide and your tears are shooting out horizontally, over some shirt-based dispute. I remember clenching my little fists and weeping with genuine despair, unable to come to terms with the fact that the shirt and the life that came with it would just never, ever be mine. I coveted it so desperately, and yet it could not be. I would wear that shirt right now if I could.

This is the best thing about other people’s clothes: They retain their air of otherness, always. Their powerful energy clings to them still. I have some things in my wardrobe that were not given to me so much as mysteriously acquired, and I venerate them more than anything else I own, because I could lose them at any time. It is feasible that my flatmate from ten years ago could turn up and say listen, that is actually MY light-pink jumper with SIERRA NEVADA WRITING INSTITUTE printed on it in green, so give it back. It is unlikely, but it is possible, and so I treat it with wary respect. It is an honored guest, and I am its butler. I have never once spilled coffee on it.

It’s exhausting to always have to be yourself, and other people’s clothes offer a temporary respite from that. I currently have in my possession a black dress that belongs to my best friend. It is partially see-through, and tight, and has some swirly velvet bits. One of those things that is entirely beyond fashion — not at all concerned with making you look cool, only with making you look hot. It reminds me of something one of those hard-core old supermodels would wear to dinner at a rich person’s house in the ‘80s. Not the kind of dress I would ever think to buy, but I’ve had an absurdly good time whenever I have worn it. I put it on and I am suddenly the kind of girl with the confidence to buy a dress like that. Some kind of powerful and amazing bitch. It makes me wish I had a telephone with a long twirly cord, so that I could phone a man and be slightly mean to him while smoking Sobranie Blacks. It makes me feel like I have been married to a man with a yacht. Our divorce was very messy. He accused me of being scheming and power-hungry. He left me with a necklace in the shape of a crocodile and an imperfect grasp of French, acquired on our many trips to Paris. I have no regrets. Other people’s clothes will do that to you.

Other People’s Clothes Are the Best Clothes