As my daughter left the house for school this morning, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, told her to learn lots, have fun, and that she looked cute in the outfit she picked out. After the flash of blond hair and fluff of fuzzy fall sweater bobbed out of sight, I settled in at my computer with my coffee and took a breath. And thought about that cute outfit she was wearing. My 11-year old had just left the house looking quite stylish, wearing a big chunk of my own past.
Under that fuzzy sweater, paired with stylishly threadbare denim, she was wearing a paint-splattered white t-shirt that I had made when I was about her age. I’m pretty sure that the t-shirt had originally belonged to my best friend’s dad, probably “borrowed” without his knowledge or permission. The paint it was splattered with were various house paints that I had found in our basement: the yellow that my dad had used to paint an old plywood table, the green that had been used on the shutters of our old Berkeley house where we lived until I was 4, light blue… my brother’s room, maybe? And I don’t know where the red and purple came from.
I had the idea for the t-shirt after my first trip to New York City. My family had taken a cross-country road trip to visit my grandmother in Poughkeepsie, with a stop in Manhattan on the way. I remember my first glimpses of the city, coming out of the subway into Soho of the 80s. I don’t remember where we stayed – probably somewhere outside the city and then took the subway in – but I clearly remember the galleries we visited, and museums, and my first baklava eaten as a little pick-me-up after a day of walking the city.
When we got back, I felt fueled by my dip in the New York art scene, and inspired by images of Jackson Pollack paintings I had seen, as well as the arty, 80’s new wave fashion that my parents wouldn’t let me buy (buy I could make). T-shirts were splattered, and worn (with multi-pocketed, tight-ankled capris), all through high-school. And apparently, they were kept.
The t-shirts resurfaced last summer during a visit to my mom’s house, where she gently suggested I sort through some old boxes of clothes she had stored in the basement. Almost all of the piles were to give away, but I was struggling to let go of the splattered t-shirt. And honestly, who would want it anyway? My daughter waltzed into the room and announced that SHE wanted it. And now it’s hers.
I have mixed feelings when I see her wearing that shirt. On one hand, I feel viscerally connected to the person I was when I wore that shirt. I remember so clearly all of the trepidation and excitement and expansiveness of being a teenager, the possibility and potential. Part of that comes from the experiences I had wearing the shirt, and part comes from the fact of its existence – whatever creative boldness let me rummage old house paints from the basement to make my wardrobe. At the same time, it’s just a shirt, and I feel amazed that this piece of cloth has made it this far. This humble, $5 t-shirt (well, free to me, I guess) is having a second life 40 years later, and somehow passes as being pretty fashionable. It’s a reminder of the value of our clothing, especially clothing that we have made unique, either by hand making, or in this case embellishing. It’s a tale of very slow fashion.