This is a love story about an L.L. Bean fleece vest. Now, here’s what you need to know. I’ve worn the vest every day for the last fourteen days, no exceptions. In fact, I’m wearing it as I write this post.
Now, if I didn’t also include the small detail – that I’ve washed it three or four times – you might think, ew, that’s just gross, instead of getting my real point, which is that I have found an article of clothing that, having survived several trips through both the washer and dryer, I love, or, better said, I still love. That hasn’t happened in so long, and it’s usually because once I put something into the washer and then dryer, it comes out as something other than what I put in, something decidedly not good. And that makes me angry because I view it as a breach of contract. Never mind that the washing instructions might say, “hand wash only” and “hang dry”. I think they put that on just about everything these days to let them off the hook. The liberal and, in my mind, excessive use of labels like this is designed to convince you that all clothing is a giant gamble. Have you noticed that labels are now sewn into seams in batches of ten or more to cover all languages? And, do you find yourself standing in front of your washing machine and squinting at the tiny icons, saying to yourself, That “X” is either telling me I can’t put this in the washer, or I can’t put this in the dryer, or it’s not microwavable.” Discouraged thus, you throw it in and follow with a Fuck it. (Be especially suspicious if a label says, “dry flat”, because that’s an indication that the item was constructed by garment workers in the midst of a New Year’s Eve celebration and they expect it to either emerge from the washing machine as something entirely unrecognizable or in no fewer than a dozen pieces.) Sad to say, the expected shelf life of clothing these days has been reduced to about the same length of time one can expect fresh raspberries to stay. . . well. . . fresh. The most maddening thing is that clothing manufacturers go about their business with deliberate, planned obsolescence as a key part of their model. I think, as proper punishment (or poetic justice) they all should be made to wear their own constructions after three washes*.
People who study fashion, especially from a historical perspective, are quick to point out that in the 60’s and 70’s clothing was made to last for several seasons. I’m not sure, but “several seasons” probably meant three. If we’re looking for a much more dramatic comparison, I invite you to consider how clothing was viewed in colonial times; one’s last will and testament very likely included language to assure that the testator’s one wool greatcoat and homespun breeches went to son Ezekiel or close friend Isaac. They weren’t taking any chances with their priceless “waring apparil”.
Consider, also, the status of closets in relationship to other rooms in colonial era houses. While all rooms at that time would be classified as utilitarian, i.e., there were no pointless foyers that wasted space, or sitting rooms – who had time for that anyway?, closets were the quintessential multi-purpose room, serving a variety of purposes (but perhaps not all at the same time): for conducting business (not necessarily “that kind”, but business business), dressing, praying, freshening up with a water basin, and, yes, for conducting “that kind” of business, too. These types of closets were larger than the rarer clothes closets. So, the obvious reason as to why 18th and 19th century homes, even the nice ones, did not have clothes closets is because, as alluded to before, they didn’t have much in the way of clothing.
It’s probably unimaginable to 21st century trendsetters, but three and four centuries ago, “fashionable” could be used to describe something that had been enjoying decades of “on trend” standing. There was a much longer trajectory from “conception to reality”, which can be better understood by taking a peek at a typical New Englander’s daily planner; instead of having quilled “school shopping”, Ezekiel’s parents likely entered a reminder to self to “shear sheep”, followed the next day by “clean wool”, followed the next by “card wool”, and so forth. Or maybe the notation was, “trade yrlng** for Asa’s 2nd jerkin***”. When you illuminate more broadly the historical context, it’s much easier to understand and appreciate the relationship that people had with their possessions.
Today’s habits paint a very different picture of our relationship with clothing and accessories. We are apt to assess our mood first before we reach for any one article; “What am I feeling today?”, we think aloud before we reach for the cream colored, slouchy, cotton/poly blend, waffle-textured, high-low sweater, and the frayed hem, distressed look, boyfriend jeans. But then we waver, “Maybe I should wear that coppery colored, high-waisted, pleated corduroy skirt that I bought on sale last month.” Our thoughts about clothing contradict our behaviors; we can refer to a sweater as our favorite, and love-love-love it, but it’s likely to be in a bag destined for the Goodwill drop-off center before the very next season. And while my advice might be to never get too attached to an article of clothing, the world can be a cold and unfriendly place if we don’t indulge in some of those feel-good moments that happen – even if rarely – when, for example, an ensemble not only feels right, but fits perfectly, too, or even when we wiggle into a new pair of tights and make the happy discovery that they fit everywhere and there are no baggy ankles and we haven’t ripped them the very first time out of the package. It’s enough to make us skip around or dance in those tights in our walk-in closet.
On the rare occasion when we stumble on an article of clothing that exceeds our much reduced expectations, it is indeed a cause for celebration. In my case, the celebration has taken the form of repeat usage. It’s not that I set out to see if I could find the breaking point of this one L.L. Bean fleece vest. I just happen to love how it feels. It’s so cozy and warm. I don’t find it impossible to believe that everyone has at least one item that’s their “go to”, one item that inspires warm and/or hopeful thoughts when they reach for it. These objects of our affection – the well-worn cap that invariably sits on a fisherman’s head when he goes out in his boat, or the Ugg slippers that would be worn to bed if the wearer could get away with it – become important talismans. While it’s highly unlikely that anyone in this day and age will puzzle over the wording of their last will and testament to assure the fate of their favorite baseball cap or L.L. Bean fleece vest, having such an attachment is of the most innocuous sort. Even if life expectancy (of the item in question) is reduced, as surely it must be, I say, Go for it! Wear it fourteen days in a row! You can always throw it in the washing machine (unless, of course, that vexing label says it’s hand wash.)
* unless we’re talking about the jean jacket, which evidence suggests has been around since colonial times, and can take any manner of abuse and still look as good as the day it was woven. . . on a loom.
*** Ezekiel’s uncle Asa operates the village’s only tannery behind his house on the west end, appropriately located just downwind of the last homestead.