The Woollen T-shirt Strikes Back

(reposted from where the Idle Ethnographer posts not entirely sociological impressions about being a foreigner, once again)

I have owned this goddamnugly woollen T-shirt since I can remember myself, and that was a pretty long time ago: some time in the early and mid-1980s.

It was enormous, sickly-yellowish, and stung like a wasp. I hated wasps ever since I had sat on one on the beach. I hated the vengeful T-shirt almost as much as I hated the martyr who had perished under my two-year old bum. Luckily, while I was still small and disenfranchised in the area of appearance and personal style, the offender was too large to be forced upon me. When I grew up a bit and gained the right of free vote on sartorial matters, I did try to put it on a few times, out of desperation. Every couple of winters, one morning my seaside town would wake up covered in 2-3 cm of snow. One felt obliged to go out and make a snowman, or else waste the chance of the five-year-plan. Of course, I didn’t have the requisite clothing, because such extreme cold wasn’t common and snow gear just wasn’t worth the investment. And so my eyes would eventually turn to the sore sight of this pseudo-beige monstrosity. But each time I tried it on, it was a bit smaller than the previous time, and stung so much and looked so despicably ugly that even I, who normally didn’t give a toss about fashion, couldn’t stand it, so I immediately gave up on the idea.

And so, the poor T-shirt, like an old unloved aunt, aged gracefully without ever being unfolded, and shrunk without ever needing to be washed. The fact was that I was the one growing, but it looked like it was the one shrinking.

A Bulgarian aerobics book from the late 1980s/early 1990s, Source:

Eventually, in a decade or so, it became just the size of me. The tag said 88/170. I was 164cm tall and almost stick-thin, so it should have been about right, if only it weren’t so ridiculously tight. At the time, tight T-shirts were out of vogue, but teenage me didn’t know that (I didn’t know what ‘vogue’ was, either). I believed that they couldn’t possibly have ever been, or ever be, in fashion. The only conceivable fashion was the one I had grown up with. Think leggings in all colours of the rainbow, or black ones if you wanted to look chic; a huge oversized XXXL T-shirt, also in all colours of the rainbow, and hairbands. And in winter, well, anything warm – but please, nothing that stings, or that you’re too embarrassed to show, if you have to take off your cardigan in a hot room. That’s right, aerobics guru Жоржета Димитрова did wear a tight costume, but it sure didn’t sting her back. Also, what sort of colour is this – beige? dirty white? Trying-to-be-yellow? Ew.

So, for my early teenage, early post-1989 mind, my poor unworn woollen T-shirt had come to symbolise the most dingy and heart-wrenching aspects of “соц” [“socialist”] production: plain-coloured, weirdly shaped, and overly practical – so practical that you never really needed it.

Forsaken in the very far corner of my not very large wardrobe, it gathered dust, year after year, watching fashions fleet past. Somehow, even in my black gothic metal phase, it eschewed all lets-throw-old-stuff-out raids. My mum always said, well, it’s a shame to throw it away, it’s practically new, you have no other non-black clothes, and you might go skiing some day. Did I mention we lived by the sea? Seaside Bulgarians don’t go skiing. We can’t afford it. And even we they could, we would freeze to death on the train, get a lung infection, wimp out, and never even reach the mountains. Better stick to the soggy and windy Black Sea coast winters and drink tea with fake rum somewhere cosy. Keep the woollen T-shirts hidden somewhere safe, where they can’t sting you in the back when you’re not looking.

This way, the unwearable and untouchable T-shirt had also acquired an unthrowawayable status. It had become like a useless broken sector in your hard-drive, which you can’t use, but can’t defragment, either, so you leave it be, because it doesn’t take up that much space, but is just a blloody nuisance sometimes when you come across it.

When I really grew up, at the wise old age of 19, I moved to another, much colder, city where I spent half a decade. Somehow the dreaded piece of clothing never made it to my student suitcase which was instead always full of home-made food.

Then I changed country. I went to another soggy and windy place where 2-3 cm of snow suffice for all social life to freeze. No one needs anti-sexy woollen T-shirts in England. It never gets that cold, and even if it did, the English are far too fashion-conscious – or so I reasoned once when I dug out the forgotten object from the heaps of T-shirts back at home. And besides, when it really gets to freezing temperatures, students can usually find some legitimate excuse to stay at home, in their (non-woollen) pyjamas, and in bed, drinking tea and pretending to read a book or write a paper.

Today there is an occasion to celebrate my inelegant repugnant соц T-shirt. It is the first day of my life on which I genuinely appreciate this well-preserved, no-nonsence clothing item. I find it perfect in size, shape, colour, and above all, warmth. Having grown up into a bit of a stingy scrooge, I’m also pleased I don’t need to go and spend money on a new one. But even the fashion-conscious, shopping-inclined section of my brain (still negligible, but far bigger than it was in my teenage years) is pacified. It gives me some measure of bizarre pride to think that my like-new T-shirt is older than most of the so-called “vintage” things sold in Berlin’s Vintage Clothing shops. I was about to cut off the tag, but it says Ютрика in fancy red Cyrillic letters that now evoke the obligatory nostalgia in 31 year old me, so I let it stay and sting my neck. My shivering back even somewhat enjoys the stinginess of this slightly weathered, almost-new, garment. In fact, worn over another shirt it hardly stings at all. Under a huge (also once hated, now loved) woollen hand-knit-by-grandma pullover it keeps me warm, while the world outside is covered in increasing amounts of German snow. And, as I keep telling everyone, Berlin degrees are colder than English or Bulgarian ones. They’re real hard-working degrees of cold, not some luke-warm welfare scroungers. So -5′C in Berlin feels actually more like -15′C elsewhere. So, dear wronged T-shirt, welcome back to my bosom. Who knew! Well, obviously, my mum did.

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