A Tale of Two Shirts

See the folded knit shirt, its cotton threads washed and worn until its color has faded into a welcoming pale blue, its surface a comforting, reassuring landscape of hollows and pills that you would expect from a favored garment you’ve had for a long time, that has shared with you many weekends, days of rain and bright sunshine.

I remember the advertisement perfectly: the shirt in the foreground, with some gently out-of-focus dark wood behind it, what you might find in an seaside summer house or a darkly masculine armoire. I don’t recall the magazine where I spotted this image, but who can forget the words along the bottom of the page?

Ralph Lauren Polo.

I’m not so much a fan of fashion, or an historian of clothing, to say with authority how effective this advertisement actually was. I do recall that after this advertisement appeared, the Ralph Lauren Polo shirt began to edge aside the Izod Lacoste Tennis Shirt as warm weather leisure garb for those who wanted something a little bit dressier than a white T.

More pre-washed, stone-washed, artificially aged shirts appearing in the discount department stores in which my family shopped. For more than a decade, Ralph Lauren became an apostle of the “pre-washed” look. Legend has it he tested ways of giving his clothing that worn but not worn-out look by running over samples in with the numerous automobiles he collected.

We all know that the pre-washed trend appeared first in blue denim jeans. American middle class hippies borrowed the style from the Beat Generation, who wore them because they were cheap and didn’t show stains of the bleached khaki’s favored by 1950s hot rodders. The hippies imagined they were rejecting the bright, thin, synthetic fabrics of the 1960s for something “natural,” durable, practical and eminently anti-fashion that farmers wore.

But farmers didn’t shrink their trousers until they hugged their legs and bums like a second skin. They didn’t streak their trousers with bleach, adorn them with patches or rip holes in them to make them appear as if they had been used forever.

After Ralph Lauren’s advertisement, it seemed that the entire suburban American middle class fell in love with the idea of “classic” clothing: things that you bought and owned for years because they never went out of style. If the clothing was faded or showed a bit too much wear and tear, that indicated that you, and the garment, were both built to last.

Of course, things go in and out of style all the time, but blue jeans, T-shirts, polo/tennis/golf shirts, canvas sneakers, leather jackets, sport coats with lapels and button down dress shirts have been a part of the suburban male uniform for longer than I can remember. The idea of holding on to clothing for a long time is almost a masculine American, anti-elitist virtue: who wants some designer forcing us to buy new every season when that perfectly good “classic” stuff that our mothers/girlfriends/wives picked out for us is all we really need.

Especially when you’re trying to survive on your writing, which pays like professional sports: the people at the very top are making more than any human being in history. The people in the middle, at the bottom, who might be just as good as those at the top but haven’t won enough games or aren’t celebrated in the sports media, are struggling to survive.

So I was comforted when, during an interview with L. Sprague de Camp, the science fiction and fantasy writer told me that the great thing about writing as a career was that you have the opportunity to wear out your old clothes.

At the time he was wearing a tweed suit that was made before I was born.

I have an unbranded cotton short sleeve shirt that is at least thirty years old. My mother bought it for me new, when it was a dark hunter green, in a South Jersey mall, because she wanted me to wear something new. The label says it was made in Sri Lanka.

Over the years it has faded to a weathered aqua, with little patches of white showing inside the color where the dyed fabric has worn away.  It has that Japanese quality of wabi sabi, its age and imperfects have become interesting, beautiful, evidence of character and resilience. Some buttons have had to be resown, but the shirt has held up wonderfully.

I don’t wear the shirt often, but when I do, the “vibes” feel very good. The shirt is an old friend.

Two years ago my wife bought me a pre-washed azure blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt at an outlet store. Now, after less than a dozen trips to the washing machine, and mostly hang drying on a clothes line, small tears have appeared in the side seams that, this being a Ralph Lauren style, end in a Y, with the front flap of the shirt being slightly shorter than the back, to remind us that this was designed for people who ride horses.

If you’ve ever acquired a polo shirt, you know that, depending on what you’re doing when you wear it, it will develop the kind of deterioration that is definitely NOT wabi sabi, in the underarm seams from close arm movement that rubs cloth against cloth, and the side seams.

Because I read the Wall Street Journal, I know that Ralph Lauren has been one of several branded American clothing designer who are foundering on the retail shores. There’s talk that Ralph is over exposed, that the clothing has lost its American psuedo-old money vibe, that he’s taken some body blows from “fast fashion,” and that millenials don’t want to wear a brand that reflected their parents’ aspirations.

Because an outlet mall is a short drive from my home, I also know that clothing sold in outlet branded shops is only incidently similar to what you find in department stores and full-priced branded shops. A sport jacket may have half the inside lining, or none. A shirt may lack a pocket. The fabric may be thinner.  The buttons are uniformly plastic.

But everything either is, or seems to be, made in some awful factory in China. You go to an outlet store because you want the brand’s prestige, and you want to think you’re saving money.

I wonder, though, if someone at Ralph Lauren listened to one of the common complaints lobbed at the rag trade: that, ever since Wal-Mart became the world’s largest bricks-and-mortar retailer, American clothing is made too well. Our duds aren’t dying fast enough to force us to buy new ones.

I’ve had other Ralph Lauren garments, purchased in department stores, full-price Ralph Lauren shops and outlets, that haven’t deteriorated this quickly. Maybe this specific line was a cheap-out. Or someone is Ralph Lauren wants to put the word out to outlet shoppers with their big branded shopping bags: “you get what you pay for.”

Alas, we almost never get what we pay for, in retail, in restaurants, in hotels, in health care, in college educations.  Or maybe we do, about as often as a slot machine jackpot hits. Yes, some things happen more or less frequently when the cost goes up, but why must this be related to cost? In a country where we believe all are created equal, why can’t everyone be treated at the same high standard of courtesy and civility?

Because we don’t.

Even before the airline industry found new ways to make travel miserable, hierarchical, inefficient (if you’re not flying to a hub), humiliating, degrading, claustrophobic and punitively expensive, we could not help but notice the value we received from monetary transactions is complicated, contradictory and nearly impossible to determine with any certainty.

So why is it that a brandless shirt has stayed with me for so long, and the one that became a symbol of class and timelessness is signalling that it’s on the way out?

A fashion industry person could probably answer this question, discussing materials, workmanship, profit margins, how Chinese manufactering varies as much as Sri Lankan, etc.

I’m not expecting an answer.  Instead, I’m thinking about my right knee, which has been hurting off and on for about a month. My eyes are developing cataracts, but I won’t have to worry about them for a few years.

I hope these, and other good friends stay with me for a while longer.



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