I put the shirt back on the rack and gave it a last look of farewell. It was a tad loose around the middle and, being very picky about the cut and fit of a shirt, it hadn’t quite made the grade. Still, it was a Diesel shirt with a nice collar and cuffs and an arrangement of blue and maroon stripes on white which I rather liked. I decided to let it go.
I looked at the other shirt I was still holding. It was a perfectly respectable, blue, white and black striped business shirt – ideal for day to day use when teaching – the sort of boring, unadventurous, yet reassuringly generic shirt that allowed me to remain both anonymous and blandly appealing.
For years I’ve been trying to blend back into the modern world, after a long Indian summer of youth in which I rejected everything mainstream and uniform.
When, now more than a decade ago, it dawned on me just how unindividual self-professed individuals were – who proved, more often than not, to be far more image conscious than the cattle they derided – I came to understand that anonymity was, in everyday life, a blessing.
I put the second shirt back on the rack. After all, it was practically identical to another one I had at home, if slightly less attractive in its colouring and thickness of stripe. It did fit me perfectly, however – so well that my girlfriend, V, who was busily prowling through Vinnies with me, had remarked at its figure-hugging qualities when I emerged from the change rooms. I had gone in there with five shirts, hoping no one would be officious about the three-items only rule. The other three shirts occupied the same end of the spectrum as the two I’d ultimately selected, then rejected, and consequently they were now all reunited on the colour-coded rack.
I lingered a moment, asking myself once more whether I wanted these two shirts. Second hand, the two were a mere thirty dollars, yet without any urgent need, the purchase seemed frivolous unless I was utterly sold on the style and cut.
Vinnies, it is worth mentioning, is a chain of charity stores who recently rebranded themselves from St Vincent De Paul. It is also one of the greatest places to shop in the known universe. There are stores everywhere in Sydney and around Australia and their range of offerings is quite formidable. Some of the larger places do furniture, household goods and kitchenware, though many only have room for clothing, books, CDs, records and the like. What makes Vinnies so attractive is the sheer amount of stuff they sell. Inevitably, anything cool and retro gets picked out pretty swiftly by hipsters, nostalgics and various other subaltern fashionistas, but there is still plenty to choose from and every so often one gets extremely lucky.
Vinnies is especially good for business shirts, trousers and suit jackets. There are quite simply so many thousands of business shirts worn and tossed aside in the world that the average Vinnies store will have upwards of three or four-hundred to choose from. Many are at the extremes of size, and many are so awfully tasteless as to garner no consideration whatsoever. Yet somewhere in that horde there is usually a very fine garment or two waiting to be snapped up. One of my favourite places to shop is the Paddington store on Oxford Street. Owing to the very wealthy and decadent nature of the locals, this outlet regularly has high quality items on its racks. I recently purchased a fine blue and white striped Van Heusen business shirt – now a teaching staple – for a mere twelve dollars. When I got it home I noticed that it had a recent dry-cleaning tag on it. Only in Paddington would someone have a shirt dry-cleaned before donating it to the local charity shop.
Another great thing about shopping at Vinnies is the complete lack of attention from staff. They are certainly helpful when approached, but otherwise they leave you alone. As there is no hope of asking “do you have this in a different size?” or “will you be getting any more of these in?” it makes for a wonderfully free and aloof shopping experience. Another great plus is that Vinnies only sells second-hand goods, which is marvellous for the environment in a world which produces far too much of everything, irrespective of demand. This knowledge, however, is tempered by the sorry fact that people actually wore some of the dreadful things on the racks in the first place.
So, having rejected both shirts, I walked back to the counter where V. was purchasing a woollen jumper.
“I decided not to get the shirts,” I said.
“Oh, why? They seemed fine.”
“Yeah, I dunno. Just not sure I really need them.”
“But they looked very good on you.”
“Did they? Oh, thanks.”
“Yes, you looked good in them. You know, handsome and respectable.”
“Oh. Yes, but – ”
I hovered a moment at the counter. Thirty dollars was hardly a big ask, and it would add flexibility to my relatively limited wardrobe. As a clothing minimalist, I usually maintain no more than about four or five outfits – combinations to which I regularly return for their comfort, style, casualness, formality or climatic-suitability. I suppose at the very least, more shirts would add a little lee-way to the wash cycle.
“Okay, fuck it. I think I’ll get them.”
Sure enough, I walked back to the rack and collected both of the shirts.
Later that day, back at home, I noticed a small stain on the arm of the Diesel shirt I had purchased. My current fad is to soak everything in Napisan for twenty-four hours to remove the inevitable yellowing around the collar and armpits. Napisan works wonders, it must be said, and my shirts have never looked cleaner. I filled up a bucket with hot water, stirred in a capful of Napisan as directed, then preceded to soak the two shirts.
The following day, having put the shirts through the wash, then ironed them and hung them up to dry, getting ready to go to work, I took the Diesel shirt off the hanger and attempted to put it on. That something had gone horribly wrong was immediately apparent, for I could barely get my arms through the sleeves at all. What had, in the shop, been a size too large for me – a little ballooning around the middle, which I thought would be countered by wearing my favourite vest over the top – was now about three sizes too small. I managed to get my arm through one sleeve; pulled it around and forced my other arm through, but the tightness across the shoulders and chest were such that I could not do up the buttons!
I tugged and stretched the fabric as best as possible, yet it was quite firmly stuck in its new size and didn’t seem inclined to expand at all. I flexed, I pulled, I wrestled with this straight-jacket, and finally, after much effort, managed to do up the buttons. I knew already that I could not wear the shirt out, but hoped that if I wore it and flexed and moved about a whole lot, it might, given time, regain some of its former size. After all, it would ultimately be advantageous if the shirt finished up a little tighter than when I had originally tried it on.
I wore a different shirt to work that evening, and when I returned home after work, put the tight shirt back on and wore it round the house. I flexed, I stretched, I pulled, I bent, but to no avail. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it looked bloody ridiculous. And, I’m afraid to say, it still does.
The buttons strain across the chest, the sleeves hug my arms like a leotard, and whenever I move it rides high, popping open at the chest and sending the collar skywards like the headdress of the flying nun. Still, having spent so long deliberating over this purchase, having invested in it in this manner and feeling a certain fatefulness about the decision, I am determined to get the damned thing back to a wearable state. And so, for the last week, I have adopted it as my home shirt, to be worn as often as possible in the hope of loosening things up a little. It’s slow going, though I’m hoping ultimately to make some progress.
Having mentioned the saga of this shirt on Facebook, I’ve had a few tips as to what I might try. One friend, Sarah, suggested I go running in it. On Saturday evening, I did this – looking very silly indeed as I pounded around the streets of Glebe, my chest ready to burst out and my arms swinging robotically in the tight sleeves. On returning home, I took a long, cold shower, despite the winter weather, and stretched and flexed the fabric as much as possible. Having since hung it up to dry and attempted to wear it again, I found my efforts have made little difference in making this shirt wearable in public. Still, I hold out hope, and will continue to wear the shirt around the house. We’ll see who cracks first.
And so, by way of conclusion, I say to you people out there, check the washing instructions before stupidly assuming, as I did, that any shirt can be happily soaked in boiling Napisan. That is all.