Style

Thrift shopping is an affordable way to build a wardrobe, but it has its drawbacks.

Why I Stopped Wearing Dead Men’s Clothes. Mostly.

“This is disgusting,” my mother said, holding a pair of psychedelic trousers I’d brought home from a thrift store. “Someone could have died in these.”

I was 17—old enough to shop on my own but young enough to want to share my haul with Mom. The blue and red paisley on the outside of the pants looked faded but mostly clean. The inside, however, was covered with stains. Yellowish stains. “I’m going to wash these before you even think about wearing them,” my mother insisted.

The pants emerged from the basement laundry room stain-free. But my mother was still revolted by the idea of someone else’s clothes—someone who might be dead—rubbing against my skin. She had grown up poor in rural Portugal, so wearing other people’s clothes was not inconceivable. For her, though, those other people were family. Family you knew didn’t have hepatitis or shingles. But I didn’t care. I was young and immortal. Plus, they were just clothes—vintage clothes that were cool and cheap: a siren song teenagers can’t ignore.

My love affair with vintage clothes didn’t end with my teens, but it didn’t really get serious until I was in my mid-30s, when I decided to stop dressing like a teen. When the time came to put away my soccer jerseys and jeans, I discovered that the world of vintage clothes wasn’t just costumes for dress-up parties. It was full of suits, jackets, ties and classic shoes. They weren’t on-trend, which I didn’t mind, but they were affordable. Instead of spending $5,000 on a tight-laced Tom Ford suit, I could have a slightly baggy, wide-lapelled vintage three-piece for around $100. With my mother’s voice in my head, however, I always dry cleaned before wearing.

I’m pretty sure that no one died in any of the vintage clothes I wore, but I did discover that most of them were from dead people. The jackets themselves provided the clue. As I learned more about classic menswear and tailoring, I knew to look for the tailor’s tag in the breast pocket. It would reveal not only the maker and when it was made but for whom. With a little internet sleuthing, I could find out about the previous owners—and almost every time, they’d died. Family members had donated the clothing to a thrift store or clever vintage shop owners had scoured estate sales.

And so I built up a closet full of dead men’s clothes. The suits were stylish in a slightly old-fashioned, Talented Mr. Ripley kind of way. And with a few alterations, they fit me relatively well. But despite all this, I eventually had to stop wearing dead men’s clothing. I was being pigeonholed, by friends and the internet, as “that vintage guy.”

People assumed that I only listened to ’40s swing music and watched Downton Abbey. (The latter may be true.) That I was a regular at the annual Tweed Run (which I’ve never attended) and spent my evenings cleaning and sorting my spats (which I don’t own). Never mind the fact that no one listening to swing music in the ’40s would have had spats. But there were other assumptions. At the extreme end of the spectrum, my clothes signified that I longed for the days of white, male, patriarchal privilege. That my wardrobe, my donning of vintage ties, suits and hats, was an outward symbol of regressive thought. If only all bigots wore zoot suits, maybe fewer people would vote for them.

The truth is, however, that despite all of today’s problems, the world is a better place than it was 100 years ago. I know this. I’m a big fan of the internet, vaccines and social justice, thank you very much. I am happy to live in the here and now, even if my clothes sometimes evoked another time.

Personal style was another reason I stopped wearing dead men’s clothes. No matter how well made or how well fitting a vintage garment may be, if it was custom-made for someone else, it will never fit you as well as a garment should. Not to mention that it’s difficult to find a piece that fits reasonably well, is in good condition, goes for a fair price and is not victim to the fashion extremes of its era. I prefer moderation: lapels that are neither wide nor slim, jackets that are neither long nor short, a fit that is neither tight nor loose. I don’t try to evoke a certain era with my wardrobe; I am simply striving for elegance. And so I had to follow the same path these dead men had: invest in my own custom wardrobe.

I will admit, however, that my current custom commissions wouldn’t be so successful if it hadn’t been for those years of wearing vintage clothes. It was, after all, a relatively inexpensive way to learn: You simply re-thrift what you don’t like. For instance, I was drawn to loud patterns until I tired of all the attention. I also experimented with lots of ornamentation before settling on understatement. All the while, I fell more and more in love with tweed as I tried various patterns and colours. So while I have moved away from vintage clothing, I would still recommend it as a good starting point for those early in their sartorial journey. As long as you wash everything before you wear it. Because you never know.

There is only one vintage suit left in my wardrobe: a chalk-stripe blue flannel three-piece. The lapels are a bit wide but look rakish. The shoulders are slightly roped, à la française. Seventies style, yes, just not bold. And after extensive tailoring that cost twice as much as the suit—shortening the jacket, slimming the chest and vest, lengthening the trousers—it fits so well that most people think it was made for me. However, the suit is heavy, weighing almost as much as I do. So heavy, in fact, that when I had it altered, the tailor wondered if I’d ever wear it. “It’s too warm,” he insisted. “You’ll be sweating as soon as you put it on.” So I save it for blisteringly cold days.

The suit was custom made in 1972, just after I was born, for Al Patte, a Canadian mining executive. His obituary is not hard to find. He died a few years ago, just after I bought the suit. He had been in a long-term care facility after suffering a major stroke. I assume this was when his family decided to part with his old clothes. He was exactly the age I am now when he had the suit made. Men like Al invested in quality and in classic, personal style, which allowed me to learn and develop my own. And I suppose that that is the final lesson vintage clothes have taught me: to pay it forward.

I just pray to God that my family cleans the stuff before dumping it at the Goodwill.