battered suit jacket that has been used for years

Tell me your worn stories

I call them memory clothes – bits and pieces of clothing that bring up such intense memories that seeing them takes you back in time. Emily Spivack, author of Worn Stories, calls them ‘sartorial memoirs’. If you’ve ever kept a band shirt you’ll never wear again just because you wore it to your first Nickelback concert, or your wedding dress even if that was two husbands ago, you have worn stories too.

READ MORE >>> What to do with sentimental clutter

Worn stories

It’s a satisfying concept for a book. On each left-hand page there’s a simple photograph of the piece of clothing and on the facing page, there’s a transcript of the owner’s story about why that particular shirt or that dull-looking tie is so important to them.

If it were an interactive piece in a museum, there’d be a way for each of us to add our own piece of clothing and the memory it brings up for us. Until that happens, the written word will have to do.

Just an ordinary jacket

a battered sports coat that holds memories

My husband wore this jacket to work every day. It’s an ordinary-looking suit coat, nothing to distinguish it from any other. I loved my job but David was frustrated with his. He’d always longed to be a foreign correspondent and yet here he was, almost 25 (practically ancient) and still covering junior congressional committees. He saw his dreams disintegrating under the weight of a thousand tedious government stories.

We decided to see if we could live on one of our meager salaries and save the other. A year later, my boss was livid when I told her I was quitting so we could move to Egypt. David was going to study Arabic, write freelance stories and maybe he’d land a foreign reporting gig. “You should be having babies now,” she said. “He has no contacts there, he’ll never make it. I won’t be able to hold your job for you. This is a huge mistake.”

Maybe it was a mistake

But who listens to advice at that age? We flew to Egypt, found a furnished apartment and David picked up piecework, writing stories for United Press International and the San Francisco Chronicle, getting paid by the story with no expenses covered. After about a year, Newsweek started taking stories from him too. All the excitement of being a foreign correspondent, none of the security of a salaried job.

As our savings got low, I started typing job applications for him to the foreign and national desks of every newspaper in America. I always mentioned the time he interviewed Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Why this jacket is so special

Gaddafi, for all you younger readers, was kind of a big deal in the dictator leagues. He ruled Libya with an iron fist, tolerating no dissent. He was eventually deposed, captured and executed in 2011. But when David interviewed him in the 1990s, he was busy causing international problems. An interview with him was a major coup.

Landing the interview was the easy part

David flew as far as United Nations sanctions would allow and then tried to get a taxi. But his wallet got stolen and no one wanted to take a chance on a passenger who couldn’t pay. A Tunisian cop eventually lent him a dinar, about a dollar, to take a bus into town where a taxi driver, hoping to get a fare to Libya, found an American Express office. Hours later, the manager got permission to front him enough money to pay for the ride to Tripoli.

Things got worse

They crossed into Libya and were promptly stopped at a checkpoint by suspicious guards. The driver was sent away. David waited for hours in a locked, unairconditioned trailer before someone thought to double check with the foreign ministry. Soon he was hurtling through the desert at 120 mph in a government car to sit down with Gaddafi, who talked for hours and gave him a copy of his bizarre Green Book.

Imagine how stinky that jacket was by then

It had been worn for days in the desert heat in a series of incredibly stressful situations. If someone offered you that jacket, you’d find a way to say no. But when David looks at the jacket, he’s transported back to that exciting time.

Less is more

If deep-pocketed families had funded our adventure, or we’d amassed bottomless savings through high-powered jobs, David would probably have had 15 jackets. Holding onto all 15 would have been fairly redundant. Picking out just one would have sharpened the memory.

That’s why saving all 65 band T-shirts isn’t as special as picking out the ones from your top three favorite concerts. When everything’s special, nothing’s special.

Not all memories are so great

Ever wonder why you never wear certain clothes you once loved? Sure, it could be the fit or the style or the color. Tastes change and our clothes as yet refuse to change with them. (I’m sure future technology will take care of this).

Often, it’s not the clothes themselves so much as the associations and sometimes, they’re not so good. The shirt you wore for the interview you thought you aced until you realized you had no chance after repeatedly addressing your interviewer by the wrong name. The dress you were wearing when you realized what a jerk your now ex was. The blouse you happened to have on when you got terrible news.

I was wearing this top the day my vision suddenly went wonky a few years ago and we ended up in the Emergency Room. I was still wearing it as I got the news that years of tough medical treatment lay ahead. Things are good now but I still keep it so I can wear it to every follow up appointment. If I get more bad news, I don’t want another blouse ruined by association.

The mind is a meaning-making machine

Clothes are just clothes. But we humans put meaning onto everything, as any therapist will tell you. If your mind has decided those are your lucky socks because you once found a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk when you were wearing them, the connection has been made.

That’s bad news if you try to let go of something with such strong positive associations, but it works in your favor overall. Since humans are hard-wired to remember the negative (it kept our ancestors alive), take advantage of any bad feelings and associations to help you decide what to keep. If something makes you feel angry or conjures up a sad memory, there’s no reason to hold onto it.

Give that item a do over

If you keep it in your house, it’s making you less happy than you could be and it’s stopping someone else from loving it as a connection to a wonderful time. (And if it’s a Monkey’s Paw, you don’t want to be left holding it anyway.) Someone else might love it and keep it forever because it reminds them of the day they got into college, or the time their Dad told them he loved them. Donate, so someone else can feel great about that item.

What’s your worn story?

  • Which innocent-looking item of clothing reminds you of a dismal time?
  • What piece of clothing are you keeping that you’ll never wear again and you’ll never, ever let go of?

READ MORE >>> What to do with sentimental clutter

by Lucy Kelly


  1. What an incredible story about David, your early days together, the Gaddafi interview, and “the jacket!” And clearly between the jacket and your shirt, you’ve conveyed how clothes can mean so much more than they appear. I’ve experienced this with clients that can’t let go of their now adult daughter’s prom dress, or the outfit they brought their baby home from the hospital in, or their wedding dress. None of these items will be worn again by them or anyone, but the physicality of what they represent are real. They don’t want to let them go.

    Mostly, I don’t have strong attachments to clothes. Other things yes, but clothing less so. However, I remember keeping a bathing suit top that I loved long after I would wear it. It was a favorite and I held onto it for years- pre having baby body days. Maybe I thought that one day, I’d be that tiny again. Who knows? I remember the day when I realized that I would never wear it, that it had served it’s purpose, and it was time to let go. The mama body had arrived and it was here to stay. Letting it go allowed me to accept the present.

  2. For me it is not a worn story about me but my father. In his later years, my father lived in an assisted care facility. We had a family get together and my father was sitting in his wheel chair. I came up behind him and gave him a hug. One of my siblings took a picture of us and that is my favourite image of the two of us. He was wearing a grey and black stripped shirt.

    When he passed, I asked my mother for that top and it remains in my possession. Every once in a while, I pull it out and just sit with it. I loved my father dearly and I will likely never get rid of that top.

  3. Wow, Lucy, this was compelling. From “Gaddafi, for all you younger readers, was kind of a big deal in the dictator leagues” to “When everything’s special, nothing’s special” to everything throughout, I was captivated. This is “book deal” material!

  4. Wow! I love learning more about you through this story. I love the concept of creating a book of worn stories. That’s going on my bucket list. Great post!

  5. That was super interesting to read. What an experience!! And I’m sorry to read about your bad news, and thought it was interesting that you keep the shirt so you won’t “ruin” another shirt by association. I can’t remember what I was wearing when I received bad news, which is also interesting. I do think that we imbue various belongings with sentiment. I think you should record that whole story and slip it into the pocket of the jacket for future generations!

  6. I am not a clothing person. It has always been an issue for me to find things that fit well. So, when I find something I like and fit well, I buy several colors of that same thing if it is available.

  7. Golly, Lucy, that’s a fabulous story about David’s jacket! I love that the two of you took a chance and had that adventure together. I agree with you we wear or don’t wear certain clothes because of the memories they evoke. When Nick and I were dating I had this dress I wore often thinking I looked so cute. Once we were married he told me he didn’t like the way I looked wearing that dress – OMG – I wished he would have said something the first time I wore the dress. I am keeping the dress I wore to my son’s wedding. It has some stains (I had a great time at the wedding) but it stays in my closet as a constant reminder of that wonderful event. Clothes speak volumes to us.

  8. Hi Lucy! I have kept the dress that I wore the night I met my husband at a party in Baltimore, Maryland. That was 30 years ago so I have had it for awhile now! I will never wear the dress again but it brings back so many wonderful memories of being so young, free and in love. I will never part with it!