Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When it no longer suits you

Suit jacket made by Opa's friend Mau in the 70's
Eighty-five years ago, Opa and his friend Mau were twelve year old boys playing in the streets of Amsterdam, riding bikes, going to the movies, and camping along the North Sea. By the time I knew them as retired old men sitting in lawn chairs on the beach, their friendship had survived a World War, immigration, and over fifty years of telling the same jokes. Mau grew up to be a tailor, and every few decades Opa would have a new suit made by his oldest friend.

When I was clearing out the wardrobe closet in Florida last spring, it was packed with every dress my grandmother had worn since immigration in 1957, (in a full range of sizes), purses and shoes in at least seven shades of beige, zippered bathrobes in every imaginable length and material, multiple pairs of identical slacks ("Buy one, get another half-off"), winter coats that hadn't been worn since the move from Massachusetts in the mid-eighties, an array of sun visors, and so much more. A woman's clothes are so occasional; the dress she wore to the fiftieth anniversary party when they hired that polka band... .the beaded blue two-piece suit from the last Captain's dinner, neatly stored in the dry cleaning bag, optimistically awaiting the next cruise. Cleaning out the closet of a recently departed loved one is overwhelmingly intimate and profoundly lonesome. The scent of familiarity has the power to deeply soothe and wound us in the same breath. I cried both kinds of tears as I sat on the floor of that closet, and the eleven umbrellas Oma had been saving for a rainy day could do nothing to deflect them.

When we would go for our walk to get the mail each afternoon, Opa would inevitably say to the ladies we met along the way, “My wife died. She was about your size. You could come to my house and see if any of her clothes fit you.” He didn't understand why nobody ever followed-up on his offer, so I started sneaking things out to the Goodwill and Salvation Army early in the morning, telling him later that I'd found someone who could really use them, which I desperately hoped was the truth.

When it came time to tackle Opa's side of the closet in preparation for our move, I made him try on everything he owned and we had a fashion show in the living room. We sorted his wardrobe into piles of 'things that fit' and 'things that didn't'. Then we subdivided, eliminating the fabrics that would most easily melt if they caught on fire, and other things we decided were unlikely to be worn by him in his ninety-fifth year (the belt buckles to his square dancing outfits, and the stretched out Speedo bathing suit with the lightening bolt on the backside). I appreciated his utilitarian approach to the process, “Why the hell do I need sixteen pairs of pants when I wear the same ones for a whole week and we have a perfectly good washing machine?” Moments of such clarity must be seized!  The decisions that followed were more straight forward than they would have been if my Oma had still been alive, and believe me, I felt guilty about that. We made one exception to our practical and ruthless purging; Mau's suits. They no longer fit Opa well, and we don't attend many suit-worthy occasions anymore, but after parting with so much already, “My longest- lasting friend made them for me,” seemed like a good enough reason to keep them.  

About six months after we got settled, Opa started to lose track of things that he usually carried in his pockets. My purse started getting overloaded with wadded up handkerchiefs, colored pencils, camera batteries, word search puzzle books, and the other items that travel with us on our daily outings. He needed a bag of his own...So we sent a suit jacket to my sister and she transformed it into the perfect solution, keeping the pockets intact and even reusing the original lining! (Click on the 'Something New' photo below to see her other similar projects.)

Something OldSomething New
Opa's jacket in 1979Opa's bag in 2011

Opa loves his new bag and tells everyone that it was “twice made” for him. The very same pocket that once held theater tickets and hotel keys now holds a pack of UNO cards and some spare hearing aide batteries, and it's getting a lot more use than it did while it was hanging in the back of the closet for the past twenty years.

What could you do with the beloved things that no longer suit you in their current form?

Spring is a great time to take a look in your closet. The Downsize Challenge this week is to sort through your wardrobe. I invite you to start with the things on hangers if the idea of tackling contents of dresser drawers feels like it will zap your life force. Diverting clothing from the textile waste stream is good for the planet and for the people on it. You probably already have some system in place for downsizing your unwanted clothing. Here are some options to consider:

You can maximize interest in a post on Freecyle or Craigslist by mentioning sizes and materials of what you have to offer (cotton dresses, denim jeans, wool coats, etc) rather than just listing “free clothes”. Don't limit yourself to thinking about the clothes as worthless in their current form. Many craftspeople seek these items for up-cycling projects and will be happy to take them off your hands. The condition may not matter if it is going to be deconstructed. When your old wool sweater has been cut up and felted and turned into something beautiful and new, nobody will ever know about that big hole in the left armpit.

Alterations: Do you still really love it but it needs some adjustment? Could it fit you again after a trip to the seamstress or tailor?

Consignment: Could you get some cash back?  

Donation: To maximize the impact of your local clothing donation, it's best to work seasonally. Your unwanted winter coat is honestly more likely to end up in the dumpster outside of the thrift store if you donate it in July than if you do so in October. Ask your donation center what happens to things that don't get purchased. Some participate in textile recycling programs (like this one in New York City). Others aren't in the loop yet. A lot of clothing goes into our landfills in spite of our best intentions.  (Readers, please post comments with your other resources and ideas.)

If you've got professional clothes in good condition, consider donating to one of several organizations that promote economic independence by providing workplace attire as part of career development programs:

But please remember, the recipients are not interviewing for careers as 1990's fashion models, so these clothes must be interview appropriate and IN STYLE.

Got any vintage items of interest? (Not just clothes, think about shoes, accessories, coats, hats, suitcases, parasols?...) A community theater company  in your area might welcome them for their costume shop.

And if you've been holding on to something sentimental from your longest lasting friend, consider how it might be transformed into something new to suit you. One of the keys to healthy downsizing is knowing what you really need to keep. 


  1. I'm loving your blog. People these days really want to make a difference, but even I seem to "just throw it away", because it takes such effort to find these resources that you are sharing.
    Keep it going, sister!

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  2. While helping my dad sort through my mother's clothing after her death from cancer in '93, two items kept popping up in pockets and handbags: toothpicks and dainty hankies. We washed the hankies and used them to wrap the gifts we gave to all of my cousins that following Christmas. As for the toothpicks, I still smile and think of my mom every time I use or find one.

  3. I love the idea of using hankies to wrap gifts. We had quite a few of those too, though I can't say "dainty" would describe any of ours, even after washing...Thanks for posting. You reminded me of our less classy approach to the gift wrapping that year; we used up the endless supply of return address labels in place of tape on all of our packages.

  4. I just ... that's just ... I just ... so ... love you. That's beautiful.

  5. I've done that housecleaning--the home my grandparents built and my parents lived in for a subsequent 54 years. I've sat on the floor of that closet with the 11 umbrellas. Your Jean Nate moment (and so many others) capture it perfectly.

    Kudos both for perfectly articulating the emotions around divesting and for transforming pain to glory through your brilliant use of the recycling opportunities.

  6. Thank you for the encouraging feedback. Comments are like messages in bottles, drifting up onto the shores of Care-Giver island.

  7. I have some suits from my father that I need to donate somewhere. This article might be enough to get me moving!

  8. Katie in AustraliaJune 26, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    Love the transformation of Opa's much-loved, but little-used, suit into a very functional every-day bag. Brilliant!

  9. Your wonderful story here is referenced on page 88 of my new book, Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff. Thank you so much for sharing and being an inspiration!

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