It’s not as if this garment goes with anything; nothing else in the world even complements this color. No other color wants to be seen next to it. It’s not a shade others would regard as autumnal, having no smoky, sunset undertones or hints of hauntingly early harvests. Put a plastic hat on me and I’d look exactly like a life-size bottle of Pepto-Bismol wearing this coat.
Now ask me if I care.
Everybody has a beloved piece of apparel. Graphic novelist Mimi Pond, author of the bestselling “Over Easy,” shares my penchant for outerwear. Her gotta-keep garment is a “1950s black swing coat that I’ve owned since I was about 17. Replaced the lining around 1980 or so, I still wear it. It’s been to operas and it’s served as a blanket for impromptu camping.”
That’s a coat that lives to serve.
Mimi also has “a pair of American flag knee socks from circa 1969, but those stay in the Museum of Personal History.”
We all have a version of Mimi’s Museum of Personal History. If I asked you, “What is the oldest item of clothing you still wear on a regular basis?” I bet you’ll have a quick answer that will be followed by an equally swift justification. You’ll sing the praises of the boots you bought at L.L. Bean in 1976, like my friend Anne Schwartz.
Or, like my friend Donna, you’ll tell me about your robe, which will force me to tell you about mine. A piece of terrycloth so old, it probably no longer technically qualifies as a robe. It actually looks like a costume from “Night Of The Living Dead,” or “The Walking Dead” or whatever The Dead do now — dance? (Will we soon see a show called Dancing With the Dead Stars? And wouldn’t that be great?)
You’ll have a story to connect to the cloth, a text to go with textile, and you’ll explain how a sentimental chord is struck to go along with the literal cords braiding the edges of the jacket that you wore to a protest march in 1969.
There’s usually one shirt, scarf or sweater that, despite being no longer flattering, in fashion or intact, that you fetishize. Maybe, like Helen Lukash and Brooks Clark, you’ll have stories about shoes resoled so many times they’d more accurately be called “reincarnated.”
Part of you insists this item is essential even if you recognize its hideousness. It’s one of those things you might even grab if your house was on fire, now that photographs are on thumb drives.
It’s a non-negotiable item. Even if your family members, life partners and best friends think it’s hilarious, abhorrent or simply puzzling, they’ll have to pry it out of your hands with a crowbar.
There’s the flannel shirt worn by your grandfather; the fabric is worn so thin it’s virtually transparent, but you believe it imparts some of his strength to you when you need it. There’s your grandmother’s shawl which, despite years of washings, still uncannily bears traces of her lavender perfume. There are dove-colored kid gloves from your aunt who, believing they were too nice to wear, never took them out of the original box. These beauties you keep in your car and slip carefully over your fingers whenever it’s chilly or damp, reminding yourself not only of your dad’s favorite sister but also of the need to make good use of what’s at hand.
These favorite pieces are slightly numinous, carrying with them moments of the past that wrap around the present.
When I put on that bright pink coat, not only am I making sure I’m easy to find in a crowd, I’m putting on a cross between a suit of armor and a baby blanket. It gives me strength and it gives me comfort.
Of course I know it’s only stuff. Yet I understand why we all have one thing about which we say: This I’m keeping. This is mine.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.