The first time I appeared in our kitchen wearing a “vintage” (read: Goodwill) garment, my father recoiled.
“I don’t understand why you’d want to wear someone else’s old clothes,” he said, a dramatic shudder thrown in for added effect. I told him that he didn’t get it: It wasn’t gross, it was unique, and plucking it from a rack of other discards would only prove to the rest of the world how smart and discerning I was.
“But what if …” he asked, silently begging me to beg him to finish the question.
“But what if what?” I shot back.
“What if someone died in it?”
I announced that I didn’t care, that that would only make it more authentic, and he stared at me in horror. An extreme germophobe, he didn’t recognize this strange creature he’d spawned — this girl who was regularly treated to mall field trips and yet suddenly wanted to swan around our house in someone else’s moldy cast-offs.
More than a decade later, I’ve been thinking about this exchange a lot: Just before Christmas, my father died. And now, 3,000 miles away from his closet, I can often be found dressed in his old clothes.
Okay: I am not wearing anything he actually died in, but I am at the moment of this typing sitting at my desk wearing a Rolling Stones sweatshirt advertising a 1983 American tour, fished out of a cedar chest that sat at the foot of my dad’s bed for as long as I can remember. I’ve also got several band T-shirts, a blue-and-gold polka-dotted cashmere sweater from Bloomingdale’s, and two orange sweatshirts from the Gap scattered around my apartment. In the months since he died, I’ve adopted his everyday sweatshirts as my statement pieces, and I can’t help but wonder what he would make of this appropriation, given his sometimes infuriatingly exact opinions about how a person should dress.
My father and I argued about how a person should dress a lot, I should say. To his credit, our fights about what I’d wear rarely centered around notions of modesty or appropriateness, but instead about what was actually “cool” and what might be a passing fad, and about the ever-evolving notion of “quality.” I didn’t inherit his passion for khaki shorts (which he once suggested I wear to work! In 2015! In New York City!) or loafers, which he foisted upon me every time the subject of comfortable, attractive shoes came up. As a college student, I was fanatical about wearing dresses (the more traditionally feminine the better), and he’d beg me to consider the weather, accidents, wayward nails or glass I might step on — arguing that my ballet flats and sheer tights offered no protection from the outside world. We often shopped together anyway, bickering about what we liked, and while I was drawn to what seemed fashionable (and full price), nothing pleased him more that plucking a hidden treasure from the clearance rack and asking a department-store clerk how much it had been marked down.
Everything he wore looked new, probably because he thought it was normal to send T-shirts to the dry cleaner. When the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser hit stores, he was elated — here, finally, was a weapon in the never-ending war he fought against dirty sneakers.
After he died, I spent nearly a month skulking around my parents’ house. I hadn’t brought much with me in the way of clothes when I arrived, so I began fishing things out of my dad’s dresser: sweatshirts, a soft gray cardigan, a pair of plaid pajamas.
I was surprised how far back some of the clothes went: jeans clearly not worn since the ’80s mixed with funny-sayings T-shirts from 2003, a few compulsory (and very wide) ties, plus a cache of white Jack Purcells, bought on sale and still in the box. The sweatshirts I’d once rolled my eyes at looked like they’d keep me warm, and when I pulled the first one on, I looked in the mirror for a long time, admiring its detail. I’d have kept a few things no matter what, but many of the things felt so right that I wondered if he’d planned it this way all along.
A lot of this stuff came back to New York with me. I reach for his things on cold mornings, or rainy evenings, or sunny afternoons. I worried there was something wrong with me, that I was dressing myself in my father’s clothes because I couldn’t bear to admit he was no longer living, or worse, that it was creepy — that he’d been right about the symbolism of vintage clothing, that it was spooky. That someone’s old sweaters could be haunted. But now I like to think I’m just being practical. After all, my dad took great care of his belongings. Some of the things I found still had tags attached! I hope he’d be proud, all things considered, that so much of the wardrobe he so carefully assembled is still in use, not already halfway buried in a landfill. I can’t imagine there’s anything else he’d rather I be wearing. I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be wearing, either.