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What's the point of new clothes?

BY Richard Glover

22nd Aug 2023 Inspire

3 min read

What's the point of new clothes?
Richard Glover wonders if he is an ardent follower of the theory of wabi-sabi (an appreciation of imperfect things)…or just a tightwad 
Sartorially speaking, my philosophy is the opposite of fast fashion. I’m an adherent of wear-it-until-it-falls-off-your-body. Sometimes this brings marital discord.
“You are not going out in that,” says my wife, Jocasta, as she inserts a wriggling finger into various holes in my t-shirt.
“That’s air-conditioning,” I respond as I defiantly head out the door.
Or she’ll say: “I can actually see your underwear through those jeans. You are an outrage to public decency.”
To which I reply: “Yes, but I can wear these jeans at least seven or eight more times. And if it gives others a thrill…”
My boots are even better—or should that be worse? “Breathing panels” have emerged in the sides and toes. Sure, I can’t leave the house in wet weather, but, in fine conditions, these boots are my perfect companion.

The preciousness of worn-out clothes

To me, a treasured piece of clothing or footwear is like a map of past misfortunes: the shirt that was ripped when you fell out of a tree, the boots that were stained with agricultural chemicals the day you helped a friend on his farm, the belt with stretched holes recording the success, and failure, of various diets.
American folk singer Mary Chapin Carpenter captured this philosophy in her song “This Shirt,” describing a garment that had been worn to every school dance, then used as a pillow on a train trip through Italy, then lent to a lover who gave it back with a torn sleeve. “So old I should replace it,” she sang. “But I’m not about to try.”
Some people—Jocasta, my workmates, my children—allege that I’m just a miser whose wallet would release moths should I ever open it. I went along with this theory until I learned about wabi-sabi.

The art of wabi-sabi

This ancient Japanese aesthetic celebrates the impermanence of life by appreciating things that are torn, lopsided, weathered or otherwise imperfect. Far from being a miserable tightwad, I’m actually an advanced Buddhist aesthete.
Of course, it’s not just the Japanese who understand the joy of the long-treasured, battered item. Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British parliamentarian, observed that a well-worn pair of shoes was more comfortable than a new pair. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau mistrusted “all enterprises which require new clothes.”
"American philosopher Henry David Thoreau mistrusted 'all enterprises which require new clothes.'"
In his Dance to the Music of Time series of novels, British author Anthony Powell satirises those who care too much about fashion. One character delivers a terrible warning to another: “If you’re not careful, you will suffer the awful fate of the man who always knows the right clothes to wear and the right shop to buy them at.”
Why not, instead, choose to avoid clothes shopping whenever possible?
Three years ago, a British menswear firm found in a survey that, on average, men buy new underwear once every five years—with some retaining them for more than 20 years. The UK Times quoted the company’s founder, Tom Clinch: “It’s deeply depressing to discover that men invest in something as important as underwear so infrequently. Men don’t hesitate to throw money at expensive suits but cut corners with underwear. It’s like buying a Ferrari and filling it up with cooking oil.”

Worn-out clothes and worn-out furniture

I notice Clinch doesn’t appear to recognise the high number of wabi-sabi followers who may lurk among us.
Like those devotees, I’m not only keen about old clothes, I also like battered furniture and worn-out briefcases. Why? Maybe it’s a kind of preparation for that moment when, each morning, toothbrush poised, I look in the mirror. Where others might see the ravages of time, I embrace the impermanence of all things, thanks to the teachings of wabi-sabi.
Besides which, have you seen the price of a new pair of shoes?
Banner credit: Ripped clothes (Moon Safari)
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