Clothing I Have Loved and Lost
by Jenna Kunze
I like clothes best when they’re not my own. It’s like a shirt is only just a shirt until it’s on the body of someone I love, or even just moderately like, then it’s The Shirt and I need it now.
More than a shirt itself though, what I really like is the chase. You never want to borrow the clothes I don’t wear, my friend Kelsey tells me. You literally only want my favorite things. It’s a dare, really. What I’m saying when I borrow your jeans for six weeks is: how much do you love me? Because clothes are an important medium to my own self expression, it is an intoxicating high when I’m granted permission to try on the outer shells of my friends. To borrow identities, and to share my own. For me, it doesn’t get closer than that.
At some point the line blurs between what is mine and what is someone else’s. We trade for keeps, or exchange belongings for so long their origins become forgotten: yours or mine? In this way, the clothing I wear tells stories, an atlas of people I love, countries I’ve lived, experiences I’ve weathered. I remember the shells because I remember the people.
These are the clothes I have loved and lost:
The brown Roxy halter top with white diamond embroidery detailing I have off and on from fourth grade. It’s Katie’s. Throughout middle school, we plan our outfits over landlines based on the feeling we wanted to emote: girly; casual; sporty, and swap out clothes in CVS plastic bags to be stored in each other’s locker. For the longest time in and after college, we’re not in the same place long enough to share, but she holds onto everything: never outgrowing and rarely donating. This summer, we go to Maine together to visit another friend and she resurrects a Lucky Brand blue top and I am literally in sixth grade again.
Starchy Abercrombie boxer shorts, dark blue with negative spaces where the moose lived. Katie and I buy each other a new pair each year on a made-up holiday we invent for fun—Boxer Day—and wear them to sleep in. Our other best friend Ian takes mine and wears them in earnest as underwear. When I get them back, or maybe when I see them peeking above his waistband, the color is dulled like suede when you run your hand against it.
This purple rouchey spaghetti strap top with tiers of fabric down the front and teeny tiny abalone beading that catches light along the straight neckline. Peyton, Aimee and I split it three ways at Ross, something like $8 each paid for with lifeguarding money. Over school breaks when we all come home, someone will inevitably start a group chat. “Alright, who has the shirt?” Eventually, Aimee’s parents move away, then mine. I’m not sure which state the shirt lives in.
My brother’s large blue cable knit Varsity sweater emblazoned with a honey mustard “P” on the chest. He freaks out when he catches me wearing it, but leaves it behind when he moves away for college. It now lives on the top shelf of his closet in Seattle, I see when I’m living with him and his wife for a summer. I borrow his T-shirt to jog in for a straight three months and he says: Are you trying to steal that? But lets me wear it anyway.
The white Lucky beach Brand coverup crocheted with flowers that falls at the same exact spot on both my mother and me. We co-own it, and she repurposes it over a turtleneck. I say “nice shirt” when I glimpsed it over Facetime. When I come home from school with a backpack over the holidays, I live in her skin. Later, my parents relocated from my childhood home in New Jersey to a new place near the beach in North Carolina. I don’t know if she ended up with the coverup, or if it got lost in the frantic fits of letting go.
My cropped leather jacket the color of dried blood that I got it on mega sale when I worked at Fossil in the Freehold Mall one winter in high school. Melina, a full nine inches shorter than me, wore it often throughout college. It has long strips of leather pulleys on the zippers, protecting deep pockets I’d sometimes sink my hands in to find L’Oreal Paris red lipstick. For half a decade now, we have occupied different time zones. When I see Melina for the first time in years, I recognize almost nothing she’s wearing. Don’t freak out, she tells me. It’s not all new. But it’s all new to me.
Ariana’s similarly cropped pea green leather jacket she got in London. Ariana has the best clothes and lets me wear whatever I want throughout college, but this coat is my favorite for the way it makes me feel: tough and sleek. After almost a decade in New York, Ariana moved back to her home in Cyprus last year, but I feel comforted when I see her social media. Same clothes.
The birthday dress: an iconic antique white Free People lace number with billowing layers that falls down to my ankles. Sarah owns it when we room together at the 92Y in New York City the semester we both turn 21. She wears it for her birthday in October when we stand outside screaming at midnight. A month later on my 21st, I rent bikes with my parents in Central Park and the tail of the dress gets caught in the chain, streaking with grease. I manage to get the stain out, and feel rushing relief when Sarah offers it to me the following year. Seven years later, we don’t talk much, but I’ll ask her next month if she’s wearing the dress.
My favorite vintage Gap green tank covered in daisies, with the straight across top I procured at a thrift store from the Salvation Army off Route 33 in Trenton. Mark, Sara, Zach and and I pile into Mark’s red truck after the final bell in high school and beeline to Taco Bell, then scour the racks. We invent lives for previous owners: a fabulous Deadhead mom who had a baby; the beloved art teacher who aged out of her cropped knitwear. Eventually, I give this shirt to my friend Kelsey to make room in my closet and she sends me summer selfies from Pittsburgh, green straps visible.
The lipgloss pink fuzzy sweater my friend Melanie got in South Korea where we met as English teachers at 23. When we meet again in Alaska, then Iceland, years apart, she accuses me of stealing her things that have gone missing. The truth is, I never stole her Army green beanie she wore when we saw a mother bear with her cubs from a kayak ten feet away, but I might have, given the right opportunity.
This one thrift store denim Gap oxford of mine with spherical buttons, bronze and ornate. The seams fall exactly on Brennan’s shoulders. He wears it in Taiwan when we are possessed by a hunger that spits us into the deserted streets at midnight near our residential airbnb. We slow dance to his baritone in a park until a bat dive bombs us and Brennan runs. I tell him he should keep the shirt, but change my mind last minute and end up packing it home. I donated it a few months later in a move that requires my life to fit cleanly into two 50 pound suitcases. Letting go is sometimes made easier by having no other choice.
Saturated pink kurtas, velvet saris and silk hijabs belonging to mothers who hosted me all across Nepal and India. They strip me down in back rooms cluttered with life and dressed me in their traditional garb. I attend monastery openings, holiday parties and weddings like a grown up doll. I watch their faces change when they see me as they see themselves. I wonder if they still think of me when they revisit the outfits I once inhabited.
The Brooks Brothers tortoiseshell glasses Julian monogrammed with a label maker on the right temple I accidentally break into two by sitting on them, years after our breakup; The rainbow-dotted knit sweater Matt always says I can’t have for sentimental reasons, but gifts me in a box with hot sauce bottles on my birthday. I leave it with my sister-in-law in Seattle to babysit, not having enough room in my suitcase.
I still think of the ones that got away: The fantastically starched red and blue rugby shirt Conor lent me on the beach after prom; Raju’s khaki green cargo pants with elastic at the ankles I’m seen wearing in most pictures throughout six months in India. Jake’s knit beanie that’s not even my style. I give these belongings back to their owners, or they take them with them when they exit my life.
The caramel khaki carhartt overalls, double enforced at the knees and ideally made for felling trees, building a cabin or filleting salmon. I buy them for my 25th birthday, celebrating my new-found Alaskan identity and skill sets that come with the overalls. When I eventually pack up and head back east after two years, it feels fraudulent to wear them anywhere else but the complete wild. Kelsey has them now; another life repurposed.
Kelsey’s Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants Citizen of Humanity jeans with the perfect amount of stretch to conform to my body, the first pants that made me understand what a perfect fit meant. I beg her to give them to me, but they’re her only pair in her Upper East side apartment where out-of-season clothes are shoved in paper shopping bags under her bed. I wear them obsessively when I visit New York and we drink wine on her fire escape. Years later she tells me they ripped and I am devastated.
For a long time now, my friends who know me immediately reach for a sleeve, examine fabric, admire a hemline when they see me in something they don’t recognize. Great shirt they might say. Whose is it?
Jenna Kunze is a full time reporter for Indian Country Media, where she covers Indigenous news across the U.S. and Canada. Her bylines have appeared in The Guardian, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine, and Anchorage Daily News. Last year, she was a Pulitzer Center grantee for climate change reporting in the Arctic.