Vintage memories from outdated duds

"Add a piece, subtract a piece," teased my husband, Ken. I'd just lurched through the front door, lugging bargains from my semiannual shopping trip.

I knew what he meant. In our older home, there are no walk-in closets. "Peek in, if you dare," is more the size of things. My clothes closet is so tightly packed that rearranging it always reminds me of shuffling a giant, mismatched deck of cards.

That night, as I shoehorned my new slacks, skirts, and blouse into my deck of duds, I decided to give every garment I owned a hard look, to determine whether it would be (1) retained and worn soon, (2) passed to my slightly smaller sister, (3) donated to charity, or (4) scissored into "designer" dust rags: those bearing brand-name tags.

My sorting sortie gradually revealed a fifth category of castoffs: my keepsake clothes. It seemed they had achieved what nuclear physicists call critical mass, requiring a full 16 inches of horizontal hanging space. This segment of my wardrobe has evolved into my own personal Smithsonian exhibit, the story of my life as told by my togs. I don't kid myself that I'll ever wear these clothes. Rather, I've retained them as mementos, tokens of turning points, sometimes the only evidence that certain events occurred.

For instance, I'll vaguely recall some occasion - a wedding, a party, a family reunion. Unable to summon its particulars to mind, I'll try to remember what I wore. That often tugs a thread that unravels moribund memory, unleashing a flood of specifics: who else was there, what we ate, whether we danced, sometimes entire transcripts of conversations.

Cases in point: the simple lavender dress I wore when I gave the eulogy for a beloved aunt at my little hometown church. My timeworn polo shirt, a prize for finishing fast in a 10K road race. The souvenir T-shirt from my teaching years, my colleagues' farewell signatures scrawled across it for posterity in black laundry marker. Not to mention the tweed suit I wore to a life-changing job interview. And the "perfect" birthday blazer Ken bought me a decade ago, now outmoded, too snug in the shoulders, and matching nothing else I own.

The joker in my metaphorical card deck of collectibles has to be the mutton-sleeved, maroon velvet frock my sister chose when I served as her matron of honor. ("You'll be able to wear it again," she'd declared brightly. Incredulous, I'd blurted out, "Where?" Indeed, I later wore it to a medieval costume party.)

As I continued my sentimental sartorial journey, I felt almost sorry for pragmatic Ken, who seems to regard clothes as mundane necessities, not portals to the past.

A moment later, I rediscovered the denim shirt my stepdaughter Susan gave me two Christmases ago. I'd admired this shirt, with its embroidered ferryboat logo, as we window-shopped in her island town the summer before. I was so touched that she'd remembered and gone back to buy it for me. Unfortunately, although the tag said "small," it turned out to be impossibly oversized. It has hung in my closet all this time, cherished but unworn.

Now, as I admired it anew, it occurred to me that perhaps it was a men's size small. I summoned Ken to try it on. To my delight, it fit him to a T. Not only did he like it; he agreed that its provenance made it special.

When he thanked me and began arranging it on a hanger, I couldn't resist singsonging: "Add a piece, subtract a piece!" He frowned.

Peering over his shoulder into his closet, I glimpsed with surprise the wild batik shirt that his Malaysian students gave him a dozen years ago, a shirt he professes to love but never wears. On his shelf rested his old National Park Service cap from his summer stints as a naturalist during the 1980s.

Speaking of Smithsonian, next I spied an assortment of vintage outdoor garb, including a ratty black jacket from an earlier epoch, pockmarked by the sparks of untold campfires.

We've since agreed that building additional closet space makes more sense than keeping our clothing inventories at constant levels. If the Smithsonian can fill 16 museums and galleries (talk about walk-ins!), we should be able to hoard a few dozen hangers' worth of heirloom apparel.

But before we expand, we need to finish taking stock. Next week's project: our dresser drawers.

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