Phil Gulley On Our Obsession With Buying Clothing

They say the clothes make the man, but all they make me do is yearn for one good cardigan.
I’ve been wearing clothes for 57 years, which, next to breathing, makes it my most enduring habit. I take a half-hour bath each morning, but other than that I am clothed. I have a friend who slept in the nude until his house caught fire. When he ran outside and found his neighbors standing in the street watching his house burn, he wished he had worn pajamas. Sleeping in the nude sounds like a great idea until you have a house fire.

I’ve probably owned a thousand pants and shirts, though I can only recall a fraction of them. During a recent visit to Conner Prairie, an employee there told me the average Hoosier in 1830 had one outfit for warm weather, another for cold weather, and a third outfit for Sunday church. I came home, counted my clothes, and discovered I have 27 pairs of pants, eight pairs of shorts, and 52 shirts. Those are just my Danville clothes. I have more clothes at our farmhouse in Southern Indiana.

When we remodeled our farmhouse, we only built two closets, both of them small, so we wouldn’t be tempted to fill them with clothes. Still, it’s amazing how many clothes you can fit into a closet if you push real hard until the hangers are all bunched up on one end of the rod. My closets don’t look anything like the ones in home-decorating magazines.

I have enough clothes to last me the rest of my life, but I still buy new items all the time, even though I’ve weighed the same for 20 years and it’s been 30 years since I’ve worn a hole in something. I buy new shirts and pants thinking they will change my life, even though I’m quite happy with my life and don’t want it changed. Nevertheless, if I’m in a store and see an outfit I think might make me look more like Matt Damon and less like Bernie Sanders, the chances are good I’ll buy it, even though my rational mind knows it won’t work. It has occurred to me that I expect way too much from my clothing.

We devote too much time to clothes—buying them, cleaning them, standing in front of our closets deciding which ones to wear. When they no longer fit, we have to decide whether to give them away or keep them, believing that we might shed a few pounds and be able to wear them again. I have a gorgeous sport coat that I could only wear if I got hyperthyroidism and lost 40 pounds. I suppose one can always hope.

So much clothing is being manufactured today that a power plant in Sweden burns old shirts and pants to generate energy. Think about that. We burn coal and natural gas because they’re plentiful and relatively cheap, which can only mean clothes are cheaper and more plentiful yet, and therein lies the problem. We’re making far more apparel than we can ever wear.

That said, I’m all for making clothes here, like we used to. When I was born in 1961, 95 percent of our clothing was produced domestically. Today, only 3 percent of it is made in America. When you drive through small towns in the South and see derelict town squares, it’s because the textile jobs left and never came back. If we banned the importation of clothes, our economy would soar. If any politician wants to take my idea and run with it, they can. They don’t even have to give me credit for it. In fact, I’d prefer they didn’t, just in case I’m wrong.

I looked through my 87 articles of clothing to see if any of them were made in America, and only one of them was—a wool vest made in Seattle by Filson. My wife bought it for me 15 years ago for $100, and it still looks brand new. I hope someone from Filson reads this essay and sends me another vest. (Brown, please. Size 42.) I can’t tell where my two pairs of Levi’s jeans were manufactured, but the writing on the label appears to be Chinese, so I’m thinking they weren’t made in Indiana.

I do have a sweater made in Ireland, but for some reason, that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as having jeans made in China. I hope when the legislators ban the importation of clothes, they make an exception for sweaters made in the British Isles. I’ve had my Irish sweater for 10 years, but don’t wear it much, because I’m saving it for when I’m an old man. Every old man worth his salt should have a cardigan sweater he wears year-round. It should have soup stains on it and holes in the elbows. If a moth has chewed on it, all the better. Ideally, it will have a few burn spots, caused by stray embers from his pipe. When he dies, his family should bury him in it.

While we’re on the subject of old clothes, I would be remiss not to point out the veritable treasure trove that can be found in the average well-worn garment. Not long ago, short on funds, I rifled through old pants, suits, and coats and collected over $50 I had tucked away and forgotten about. I also found a check for $500 I had received for delivering a speech several months before, plus a pocketknife and a Tootsie Roll, which was still soft. I don’t play the lottery, but finding a $20 bill in an old suit pocket feels like hitting the jackpot. I want to quit my job and retire.

Twenty years ago, when suit pants were cuffed and pleated, I bought a worsted wool suit. It still has a lot of life left in it, even though cuffs and pleats are now out of style. I can’t decide whether to hire a tailor to recut the pants, or to be patient and wait for cuffs and pleats to come back around. I suppose a third option would be to ignore prevailing fashions altogether and just wear it, but that would require more bravery than I possess. It takes a daring man to thumb his nose at convention.

When my older son announced he wasn’t going to college a few years ago, it caught me off guard. I had always pictured him in an office, wearing a suit. Instead, he became a farmer and began wearing farmer clothing. I guess I thought he would dress like Oliver Douglas on Green Acres.

Why do we think a man in a suit is smarter and more trustworthy than a man wearing overalls? I’ve never been sold a bill of goods by a man wearing overalls, though I have been lied to numerous times by sharply dressed politicians, preachers, and financiers. I would feel a lot better about Congress if the men and women who worked there wore flannel shirts and blue jeans all the time, not just when they’re visiting county fairs hustling for votes. We’d make the lobbyists wear suits, like we make inmates wear orange, so we would know to be on guard around them. As for Donald Trump, I think he’d look wonderful in black-and-white stripes.