If we die tonight, these will be our ghost clothes.
5/20 5:41:39 UTC
NightDay
Clothes last a long time. If you don’t give them a long, useful life in your wardrobe, they’ll last forever in the landfill.

By Kris Herndon

If we die tonight, these will be our ghost clothes. 

Like many of the verbal games of youth, the concept of “ghost clothes” is deceptively simple. Beneath that seeming simplicity, though, is a dizzying plunge straight into icy, deep and dangerous waters, a laser beam of illumination pointed at the purest essentials of life, death and identity. It’s a thought experiment whose ultimate purpose is to form, define, or test the bonds of friendship.  

In this way it’s a game that stands in smiling contradiction to the weary, testy conversations of adult life, which center all too often on a recitation of woes, exercises in subtle one-upmanship, uneasy jockeying for status or, sometimes, all three at once. This may be why as an adult I still think often about ghost clothes, and why quite a few of my friends are similarly inclined. It’s a game we never really outgrew.

I don’t recall precisely who introduced me to ghost clothes. I do remember a sun-drenched afternoon after soccer practice, junior year of high school, late in the month of October – the ordained season to speak of ghosts. On the day in question I was basking (probably for the first time in my life) in the settled bliss that comes with knowing you are appropriately dressed. And one of us said the magic words:

If we die today, these will be our ghost clothes.

Ophelia, John Everett Millais, c. 1851 and The Death of Chatterton, Henry Wallis, c. 1856
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, c. 1851 and The Death of Chatterton, Henry Wallis, c. 1856

Ophelia, John Everett Millais, c. 1851 and The Death of Chatterton, Henry Wallis, c. 1856

After soccer practice, that would have meant some combination of the following: sunscreen and lip balm; white satin Umbros; my team jersey, if it was clean, or else a plain white men’s V-neck cotton tee; a sweater or sweatshirt of some description; leather soccer cleats; possibly some sweaty shin guards; and a pair of sweat-wicking striped tube socks pulled all the way up to the knee. 

My teammates and I, dressed all but identically, talking idly while we waited for our rides home, were immersed in a practice Pierre Bourdieu has called mutual acculturation:

Quote from Pierre Bourdieu
Quote from Pierre Bourdieu

Had we died that afternoon, we’d have spent eternity as sweaty, grass-stained “soccer ghosts.” That’s one possible outcome in the game of ghost clothes: You are stuck wearing something you absolutely do not want to wear for all eternity. Something uncomfortable, unflattering, or impractical; something that doesn’t suit you; something designed for a limited range of uses. Something that doesn’t have pockets. So the intended subtext that afternoon was basically this: 

We would be so screwed going to the afterlife in sweaty soccer clothes.  

Life is uncertain! We should live like there’s no tomorrow, and dress like each fit could be your last: your forever-after fit for the hereafter.
Life is uncertain! We should live like there’s no tomorrow, and dress like each fit could be your last: your forever-after fit for the hereafter.

But the invocation of ghost clothes just then had the unintended effect of pinpointing my fleeting sense of belonging, of feeling at home in my clothes, and preserving it like a fly in amber. I can run in these, I can sweat in these, my skin can breathe in these, I can lie in the grass, I’m wearing what works for the weather and what the occasion demands, I am content

So it’s a silly game, but there are layers to it. Ghost clothes are like that. And, of necessity, certain clothes and certain occasions seem to inspire that sense of sartorial memento mori more than others. In a cab on the way to the venue; or trying to make what I wore to a work meeting look okay for drinks afterward; or wearing some expensive, impractical, overly-formal fit that I’m not sure I could afford to get properly cleaned if anyone were to spill guacamole on it: ghost clothes

Functionality is only one level of the game. Ghost clothes are also for calling out those moments when you’re wearing something unexpected that suits you, something you need an excuse to wear more often (or even, perhaps, every day for all eternity!) A bowler hat, flowers in your hair, a crown of laurels and a toga, rainbow-striped woolen arm-warmers, a pair of cat ears. (“Why are you wearing that?” “I had just tried it on at the flea market, and… you know.” Your fellow ghosts nod appreciatively!)

And, too, certain contexts (certain jobs, certain relationships, certain affluent American suburbs) require clothes that don’t suit you at all. In such cases, ghost clothes can serve as your wake-up call to find the right context– one where you feel at home, where you can wear what you truly love, wear what makes you feel most yourself. 

The maybe-almost-too-corny subtext: Life is uncertain! We should live like there’s no tomorrow, and dress like each fit could be your last: your forever-after fit for the hereafter.

In the decades since that sun-soaked October afternoon when I lay on the grass and contemplated becoming a tube-socks-sporting soccer ghost for all eternity, the way that Westerners consume clothes has undergone a profound shift. With mass-production of ready-to-wear garments an established norm, the 1980s brought a sharp decline in U.S.-based manufacturing as companies shifted production to countries where labor was cheaper. Mail-order catalogs like J.Crew inspired imitators, which in turn primed consumers for the e-commerce boom. Trend cycles sped up, fueling the evolution of what we now call “fast fashion.” 

And along the way, textile waste exponentially increased, far outrunning our capacity to deal with its environmental consequences.

My generation, and the next and the next, are now waking up to this reality. We may feel we weren’t the authors of that shift to overconsumption and disposable fashion, but we can drive the next one: the shift away from those modes. And we must. Because a radical reassessment and reinvention is long overdue. 

In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai argues that “...commodities, like persons, have social lives.” If clothes have a life (as Bordieu also reminds us that they do), they also have an afterlife. Clothes last a long time – in the context of a human lifespan, they last the meaningful equivalent of forever. If you don’t give them a long, useful life in your wardrobe, they’ll have a long life in the landfill, or as little plastic shreds in the ocean. 

A line of people walking on a trail and a tree illuminated by a camera flash.
A line of people walking on a trail and a tree illuminated by a camera flash.

With these sobering facts in mind, we can – we must – change the way we make and consume garments and textiles. It’s a small but meaningful mental shift, a lot like the one we played at as kids when we talked about ghost clothes. It’s looking at things in a new light, while bearing in mind a very long-term future. 

Clothes can be reanimated. In the looseknit community that is the visible mend movement, a mass-produced sweater with holes and tears can have a new life as something unique and personalized. There is now an entire industry, often referred to by proponents as the circular economy, dedicated to ensuring that we only consume what has already been produced.

We tend to vastly overestimate the power of consumer choice to alter this landscape, but the choices we make can play a bigger role. We can support legislation aimed at reforming the industry. When we see brands doing the hard work in this space, we can align with them. We can buy less, and put what we have to better use, for longer. Beyond donating or recycling old clothes and textiles, we can reinvent and repair. We can align with and support brands that make that model workable for us.

We can embrace this process. We can enjoy it. Meaningful games are more fun. Deep down, we – many of us, anyhow – never really stopped looking at clothes this way. 

Stop reading right now, and take a good look at what you wear. Think about what (or whether) you’ll buy next. Those are your ghost clothes. You’re wearing them forever.