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The Reason Men Don’t Throw Out Their Old T-Shirts

T-shirts have a multidimensional sentimentality. They remind the wearer of moments in time — but also who they were when they first wore it.

There’s a little ritual I like to perform in the evenings. Sometime after dinner, but before teeth brushing and bedtime stories, I slip upstairs and discard the sad accoutrements of white-collar work: dress shirt, “nice” jeans, shoes that may have been fashionable two seasons ago. Then, like a priest handing the Shroud of Turin, I gingerly extract a tattered Metallica t-shirt from my dresser. You know the type: faded logo, tissue-thin fabric, softer than God’s own pillowcase. My wife says it belongs in the trash, but first she’ll need to pry it off my cold dead torso.

I am far from alone in my ritual. I recently polled my male friends on social media, and almost everyone reported having at least one t-shirt that is 15-plus years old. Fifteen years! Britney may have been married to K-Fed when these unholy-yet-porous garments were purchased, but they live on. This isn’t gendered either. Both men and women cling to old t-shirts — in a a survey of Americans across all demographics 80-percent said they were attached to one. Regardless, it begs the question: Why do men refuse to throw away t-shirts, and why do significant others often detest them so? 

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I have a theory when it comes to t-shirt attachment, and it starts with design. The t-shirt, I would argue, is the Platonic Telos of clothing. There is simply no match when it comes to wearability. Think about it. They fit our imperfect bodies perfectly. They’re great for sleeping, sprinting, and everything in between. They don’t have malfunction-prone extras like buttons or zippers. They serve as natural two-sided billboards. And, unlike other functional items of clothing (I’m looking at you, socks), they have an extended lifespan. A good t-shirt is like a fine wine that you wear.

What’s more, t-shirts have a kind of multi-dimensional sentimentality. At the surface level, there’s the story of the shirt itself. A coworker gave me my Metallica shirt as a Secret Santa gift at one of my first “real” jobs, and not long afterward, the company folded. So there’s a story there, but on a deeper level, the shirt represents a time in my life when a sudden job loss wasn’t as scary, because I didn’t have kids and other grown-up responsibilities. At the time, clothing was the only thing I owned. 

“We attach ideas to things — that’s why people like clothes that famous people once wore,”.says James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less and Time and How To Spend It. “We hold on to old t-shirts because they evoke memories and connect us to earlier versions of ourselves, giving us a sense of enduring identity.”

Applying an identity to a shirt is crucial and a reason why my wife sees the shirt in a different light than I do. Having spent the past decade reforming me into a respectable partner, she doesn’t particularly enjoy the spectacle of me parading around the house (or the yard, or the grocery store) in a physical reminder of my larvae stage. Where I see a comfortable shirt with a cool story, she is transported back to 2006, a time when I was living with two roommates in a tiny NYC apartment and eating cereal for dinner. Also, she claims that it’s barely a shirt anymore, and that it looks ridiculous. I say it’s the distilled version of what every t-shirt strives to be. Besides, it performs the same basic functions as every other t-shirt in the world, so what’s the point?

Sadly, the authentically aged t-shirt is a dying breed. These days, you can walk into any Target and buy one that looks and feels like it’s a decade old. Younger generations may never know the satisfaction of cultivating a t-shirt to perfection over the course of many, many years. It’s a real shame, and it makes me even more determined to wear mine for as long as possible. One day, I will drop it in the wash and it will simply not emerge. Rather, it will dissolve into the warm soapy water and break the bonds of shirthood entirely, attaining a state of t-shirt Nirvana. That, or my wife will throw it away.