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Giving Away Clothes

  • By Sadie Stein
  • Issue 5
  • Essential

If innocence does indeed end when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself, mine met its death the day I gave away my blue leather jacket. I am aware that the words “blue leather jacket” conjure up something hideous; in fact, it was great: a navy bomber with a sort of vintage feel that I wore a lot, and loved. My then-boyfriend was very upset. We had bought it together, on vacation, at a flea market, and it had figured prominently in many of our adventures. It was one of the garments that he had specifically asked me not to give away in one of my sprees. “You’re out of control,” he said. And he wasn’t wrong.

Cleaning out closets—not drowning in stuff—is of course a good idea. Magazines are always instructing us to take stock of what we haven’t worn in two years and pare down our wardrobes to only the barest, and highest-quality, essentials. But while I have been known to give away those things I no longer fit or wear—vestiges of my 1970s-grad-student phase, or the one babydoll dress I have ever bought, in the summer of 2007—I am just as inclined to insist a friend take a sweater that I wear all the time. If someone compliments a skirt I am sporting, odds are very good that I will force it upon them; my friends have learned not to ever do this. On one occasion, I actually gave someone—a stranger—the pair of pine-green, high-waisted pants I was wearing.

In my own defense, I come from a family in which old clothing is a sort of currency. We are all keen thrift-store- shoppers and bargain-hunters, and frequently pick things up for others, or decide something we have found might suit someone else better. My grandfather always had a sack of old things around—Navy-issue sailor suits, kimonos, wedding gowns—and the free exchange of such items was a part of my life growing up, a sign of love and consideration. In high school, my friends and I frequently swapped cropped sweaters and vintage skirts, as teenagers do. And later, when I worked in a clothing store, I enjoyed taking advantage of my employee discount to buy presents for others.

I wonder if that’s when it started. Certainly, it was working in retail that I somehow began to understand the power women have over each other’s appearances. When you are helping other women choose how they present themselves to the world, when they put themselves in your hands, you become conscious of your responsibility. It is a pleasure to wield it benevolently—to help a woman find a dress that says who she is at a wedding, or that allows her to feel confident at work.

But as anyone who has attended a clothing swap knows, the politics of exchanging clothes is complex. Here, this will look good on you, someone might say. But she is also saying, I am rejecting this. And, I am choosing what you wear, and what the world sees. We won’t even get into the thorny issue of size. Now that I think about it, although I always take armfuls of clothing to swaps, I never come away with much. And even then, I’ve never found it as satisfying as being able to choose who gets what, deciding what will flatter them or what, in my opinion, they should be wearing.

If it sounds like some sort of creepy puppeteering, it’s never for me been so conscious as that. But there have been moments when I have felt insecure—with an ex’s new flame, or someone whom I find intimidating—and have found myself offering her something in my closet that I suddenly feel she must have. In the moment, I only know that I want them to have the dress, or the scarf. “It’s never really been me,” I might say, or, “I’ve been waiting for the right person to give it to.”

I can only describe this feeling as a high. It overtakes me; in that moment, the most important thing in the world is that this woman have this piece of clothing. And then I will go to my closet and think, Also this! And this! And this! and emerge with more clothes—sometimes expensive, often beloved. But I really mean it: the thrill of bestowing them far overcomes any other concerns, like the fact that the whole thing is weird. And they are always disarmed, and exclaim at my generosity, and then I feel slightly ashamed, because I am conscious of euphoria, and of relief: the balance of power has somehow shifted. Maybe that is a normal part of generosity. But nothing that feels so good can be healthy.

I saw the friend to whom I had given the blue leather jacket not long ago. It looked great on her, and I was struck by a moment of regret. But she told me she wears it all the time, and receives compliments on it, and loves it. And I smiled, and said it looked better on her anyway. And I was not lying.

Sadie Stein is a writer living in New York, and a contributing editor to The Paris Review.

Photo © Adam Bartos, from the series Yard Sale. Courtesy Gitterman Gallery, New York City