A very long time ago, on a hot summer day, Jane Austen put ink to paper and announced she was a hot mess. Naturally, Jane was a little more Austenesque with her language. She actually wrote, “What dreadful weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.”
If the summer of ’22 has taught us anything, it’s that we have all been forced into inelegance to varying degrees, in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. From extreme heat to record droughts to wild weather, inelegance seems to be more than continual. It’s normal.
When it comes to gardening, South Florida doesn’t provide many options. Standing still or moving about, I’m a hot mess. Still, when I discovered this quote, I couldn’t help but think Jane had captured my essence. It’s as if she actually witnessed me mowing my South Florida lawn in my elastic-less bathing suit, sweat-stained t-shirt, worn wide-brimmed hat, and grassy bits. I could actually hear her say, “My word! That man is a hot mess, figuratively and literally.”
When it comes to my clothes, I have a sort of filing system. My closet, for example, is reserved for the fancy outfits. In my case, that’s button-down, collared shirts and long pants. In my dresser, I have a drawer dedicated to cargo shorts and nicer plaids and solids without all of the pockets. Another drawer is for graphic t-shirts. As these clothes become frayed or stained, they’re moved to the bottom drawer.
The bottom drawer is for my gardening clothes. It’s the final drawer before my clothes become the final straw and find an afterlife as garage rags — and it’s packed with shorts and bathing suits, assorted tees and golf shirts that are far beyond their faded glory days. Some people would say they’re tattered and torn. I prefer to think of them as comfortable and lived in — or, to paraphrase a horse-riding expression from my sister-in-law, Donna, my gardening clothes have been worn hard and put away wet.
After keeping socially distant during the COVID years, I found my filing system falling apart as quickly as some of my gardening clothes. For the past two years, I have essentially worn the same two shorts, bathing suit, and handful golf shirts and t-shirts. Naturally, seams and collars have frayed, while the actual fabric has — shall we say? — opened up.
It was now impossible for these clothes to step out into the world. They were, though, perfectly fine for gardening. They had to be moved to the drawer of last resorts.
The bottom drawer, though, was packed with clothes in even worse shape. There were holy (not in the religious sense) t-shirts, shorts with tears along the inseam or just under the pockets and legs with threads unraveling. One pair not only lost the button to keep them closed, but the zipper kept slipping down. These were the shipwreck survivor clothes I wore in front of my neighbors — which probably explains their looks of amazement when they saw me dressed in clothes that actually clothe.
The final straw was my flowery bathing suit. Nine times out of ten, I garden while wearing a cheap bathing suit so I can quickly jump in the pool, cool off, and get back to work. One day, while mowing the lawn, I walked too close to the saw-toothed edge of a bromeliad leaf.
My flowery bathing suit shredded, as if I had just had a garden encounter with Wolverine. Thankfully, the netting underneath remained intact — which is why I threw caution and propriety to the wind and continued with my mowing, flesh and netting peeking out with each step.
At that moment, I out-ineleganced Jane Austen.
Yes, it was time to tackle the project I had been putting off for a rainy day, a project I had ignored on rainy days. It was time to clean house, or at least the bottom drawer, and make room for the Great Clothing Shift.
Going through the bottom drawer was a bit like an archaeological dig. Normally, I wear only the items on top. I very rarely dig deeper. Once through the top stratum, I re-discovered clothing treasures from years (decades) gone by, shirts stained with paints of the past, and waist sizes I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I don’t consider myself a hoarder, but how did I manage to not get rid of ratty clothing while making rattier replacements? I think a large part of the answer is frugality. Once a short or shirt could no longer be worn in proper company, I would tell myself, “It’s still good for gardening or painting. I’m sure I could squeeze a few more wearings out of it.”
I also wondered if it had to do with genetics. Growing up, my father held onto a flannel shirt, one with hunters and dogs and ducks, for way too long. For the longest time — literally, the longest time — that shirt was the butt of family jokes. It was a legendary shirt, a king among shirts — and that fact was driven home when a near-identical flannel replacement joined his closet. A flannel dynasty was born.
As I continued my journey through the layers, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least, I told myself, I didn’t have my own clothing dynasty. That’s when I discovered the mother lode — three pairs of stone-colored cargo shorts.
Naturally, the oldest — and my favorite shorts of all-time — was in the worst shape. I loved those shorts — and over the years, I was able to find two other similar replacements (three, if you count the pair sitting in the wearable drawer).
In my world, no matter what the stylists and fashionistas say, every wardrobe should include a pair of stone-colored cargo shorts. It has pockets and it’s a neutral color that goes with every single fancy shirt in my closet and t-shirt in the graphic-t drawer.
That’s not pride and prejudice talking. That’s just sense and sensibility.