Luxury Tax

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

A Versace shirt became the first in my collection of favorite clothes that I don’t wear. It was striped, brown and black, made of a cotton blend with some stretch to it. My reverence for the shirt was directly proportional to my unwillingness to wear it. That would run the risk of sullying it in some way with stray pen marks (the writer’s burden) or food spills.

I’m not sure that I ever even washed it; it was too delicate for that—the machine would be brusque with it. And taking it to the dry cleaners would have been too proletarian for such a shirt. I would wear it for a day here and there--for special occasions when I wanted to look particularly smart and stylish--then let it air out. Cosmic rays, indoor drafts, and the shirt’s inherent divinity (derived from its proto-Italian luxury heritage) would get it clean.

The cut, along with the tightness of the stretch fabric, was very unforgiving. The perfectly proportioned stripes were vertical, a solid backdrop of black broken by thin groupings of golden brown lines. Replacing the standard single seam along the shoulder was a rectangular swatch joining the back and front sides. The detail would function almost like a general’s epaulet but for anatomical emphasis; it showed off my shoulders to good effect. The handfeel was gloriously soft, as all such fabric blends are. On the inside, the label Versace Jeans Couture, with the Medusa-like icon of a woman’s face.

I always wore a shirt underneath it, hoping that the lines of the undershirt wouldn’t show—the male equivalent of panty line anxiety, I suppose. But wearing it without an undershirt—indeed donning any top but a T-shirt without that extra layer of something underneath—was too risky. The underarms might stain, rendering the shirt an embarrassing totem of my body’s unworthiness of such luxury rather than a reflection of my modishness.

Eventually it wasn’t my body or motor skills but the Versace that betrayed me: a thread on the bottom seam came undone. Like all threads in such plot lines, it further unraveled as time passed. Though I had sewn a stuffed football and owl in high school home economics, it would be years before I took the sewing class at FIT with a friend, so I was yet a sewing novice. I could only watch the unraveling occur, no more believing that I could intervene there than I could in the impending doom of a horror movie.

Luxury is supposed to last. And so my wishes for this totem to be eternal translated into a heightened unwillingness to wear the acquisition; it remained unworn and out of sight, sitting on the top of the pile of clothes in my closet or sandwiched between other shirts that were worthy of it. The stretch fabric presented a conundrum about how to preserve it best during those ever-longer interstices between wearings—to hang it would have been disastrous, and yet folding it entailed similar if less dramatic alterations. Even with my particular methodology of folding, there were some lingering traces of a crease: Stretch fabric has a memory that cannot be ironed out. If I had known at the time that there were such museums as the Costume Institute, I would have called the archivists to ask their recommendations.

The most recent shirt I favorited but did not wear is also of an Italian pedigree—a Massimo Alba, again a striped shirt, this one an oxford in light and dark tones of gold, the fabric pleasantly but not overly soft. A minimal abstract shape, presumably Massimo’s logo, is threaded in an off-center location on the left side: a reassuring dimple of tangible form against the otherwise smooth sheen of cotton. In its architecture, the shirt has frills like the inner lining along the front providing extra reinforcement and structural form. A colleague gave it to me, having himself visited Alba, who let him choose from his personal collection whatever he wanted.

Upon returning from Italy, my coworker offered this shirt to me, telling me it was my color and size. I was skeptical that it was right for me, yet it fit perfectly. Putting it on gave me a thrill, the exhilaration of someone who could never himself afford such an item, particularly with any regularity, but who nevertheless finds himself in possession of it. Or possessed by it, as if by some kind of enchanted mask that transforms the wearer when worn.

When I brought the shirt home, it hung in my closet for several weeks. As with the pauper who must be judicious about taking out his solitary suit, its rarity figured into the calculation of not promenading about in it. Instead, I would pause every so often to admire it. The Alba has a patina, a subtly inconsistent coloring to the fabric that my colleague told me was because Massimo “paints” it to render this effect, an artisanal technique that gives it a distinctive look, ensuring no two shirts would be exactly alike. What occasion would be suitable for my wearing it? Finally, I realized  that to leave the Alba hermetically sealed in my apartment would be like robbing it—and me—of the life we might have together. I wore it to the office one day, feeling resplendent, as though it were a raiment.

I’ve worn it multiple times since then and even washed it. Perhaps I’ve begun to accept that luxury can attain a certain normalcy. But I don’t anticipate many further such additions to my wardrobe, since the high-end stores that sell them are unapproachably out of reach.

The Versace shirt remains unworn and tucked away somewhere, a museum piece of when I cared about the perfect preservation of that kind of clothing. Perhaps now I’ll dig it out and wear it with abandon, cut off the sleeves, sew it into something different. And like its threads, allow those vestiges of another time, place, and fashion sensibility to continue unraveling.

(Jeremy Lehrer is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.)