The red plaid wool shirt

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red plaid wool shirtIt is not at all uncommon for our senses, particularly smell, to bring us back to places or times in our memory. Anytime I smell just-rained-on cement, for example, I feel like I'm in Portland. There is a certain industrial rubber flooring+old rainwater smell that puts me in my freshman dorm at Reed. The sting of camphor in my nose gets me feeling like a sick kid again. These things are, I think, pretty typical.

It is harder to be pulled into memory by visual objects. They're less specific, and more universal, I think. Once in a while you see someone whose smile or head tilt reminds you of someone you used to know, but actually objects are less memory invoking.

Except for a few. And of the few, for me, is a certain kind of red and black wool shirt or jacket. Where I grew up, wearing that type of shirt was almost a sign of manhood--certainly a sign of a certain kind and class of manhood. I remember no time when my step dad didn't have one of those shirts. When I waitressed in high school, the morning regulars who came in for coffee and cinnamon rolls before going to cut trees or run machinery or herd cows often sat in a circle of those shirts. During hunting season, those shirts abounded, being both bright enough to serve as safety gear and warm enough to stand between expectant hunters and cold morning air.

Last time I was home, I pulled a very old example of that type of shirt out of the closet in what was formerly my bedroom. The cuffs were very frayed and the elbows were patched with old flannel. Looking at it, I was momentarily puzzled--it was far too small to be my step dad's, and I didn't recognize it as one of his anyway. Looking closer, it occurred to me to whom it had belonged--my mother's father, who died in 1984. If I crawl back as far as I can into the recesses of my early childhood memory, I can just see him wearing it. Of all of the possible mementos to keep of him, my mom chose that shirt.

Twice in the last few days, I have seen this style of shirt where it doesn't belong. This morning I saw one in a window display at Buffalo Exchange, a store I don't go into anymore, because they are too good to even consider reselling my non-hip clothes. A couple of days ago, I saw a guy on the street wearing one, along with chunky glasses, a fedora, and pegged pants. No. No no no. My memories are not your fashion accessories, dammit!

Whenever anything I remember from my childhood gets twisted into hipness, I get annoyed. The modern cult of Johnny Cash drives me nuts. I loathe haut cuisine updates on country food--chicken fried steak is not meant to be made with expensive cuts of meat, and it should come with fried potatoes, not a gratin. Now this, the iconic red and black plaid wool shirt, taken from its roots in a certain class and geography and made just one more piece of ironically hip clothing.

Which, when it comes down to it, is what is happening to the entire culture in which I was raised, at least in the culture in which I now live. There is no real respect for the conventions, the ideals, or even the food and clothing of country people. Instead, there is this grim twisting of everything that was simple into something ironic. There was nothing ironic about the red and black wool plaid shirts the men I grew up around wore--they were there to keep out the cold, not to make a statement. Now I live here, I don't understand the statement, and I'm left increasingly cold.

4 Comments

There's no respect for placement of anyone's memories--I mean all the food/clothing/smell/people of my childhood memories have been co-opted by mob movies. It would be awesome to discuss my favorite childhood dessert with non-Italians without a quotation from the Godfather coming up. Punk rock versions of Sinatra too!

That's sort of the point of America though, I thought. You bring your culture, we get to make a white American version of it. The fact that rural whiteys finally get it done to them doesn't break my heart. What about those ceramic versions of Chinese take out containers available at Crate and Barrel? Taco Bell? Rich businessmen eating sushi as a meal instead of a snack, thus wiping out whole species of fish because it's so popular? Hipsters in German army surplus? That's the point of the mishmosh. You get to make someone else's stuff your own, even if it makes no sense.

I'll bet my expensive, sweatshop made Che Guevara shirt that it happens to everyone.

We're totally going to rape everyone's childhood and the rape baby is going to be sold at Urban Outfitter's.

I'm wearing a Realtree baseball cap right now and a button down shirt with hunters and deer all over it. Pure coincience, but maybe a good object lesson.

Hi, I've been lurking here for a while (found by way of Heroine Content) and really enjoying your blog. It's posts like these-- smart, witty, thought-provoking-- that make your blog so much fun to read.

I'm not sure I should be commenting, but as somebody who listens to Patsy Cline and Panic! at the Disco (and definitely finds it ironic), perhaps it's not meant as an insult, but as a way of justifying something comforting and likeable (in this case, plaid flannel) in a "hip" culture that only appreciates the ironic.

Sorry, I'm not only the random lurker, I'm also ranting-- just a thought.

Your article reminds me of how down jackets, which were originally intended for climbers and backpackers, have changed over the years. These jackets were initially simple sewn thru, non-waterproof (because you wore a shell over it for rain/snow) items with hand pockets and perhaps one internal pocket. Their uncomplicated design reflected their target audience's desire for functional outerwear without any bells and whistles.

Today, down jackets have become fashion pieces for both urban youth and suburban office workers, neither of who spends much time in the backwoods. Their numerous pockets are designed strictly for in-town use to hold cell phones, I-pods, and other accoutrements required by the modern day urbanite. They tend to be big baffled heavy waterproof beasts more suited for Himalayan base camp than a trip to Starbucks. In fact, few backpackers/climbers would ever consider lugging along such monstrosities. Mountain Hardware and The North Face seems to be the brands favored by today’s audience, both of which abandoned their roots as hardcore equipment providers. Apparel, they’ve discovered is far more lucrative and trendy.

Yes, the down jacket, once the iconic symbol of the high mountain trekker, has mutated into something more suited for the urban hipster, another casualty of out modern culture.

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