One of the great luxuries of losing weight is that you can buy clothes that fit.

If you’re fat, you don’t get to buy clothes that fit. All you can do is buy “the right size,” defined as “the smallest size that goes all the way around you.” This will not (except by pure happenstance) be a size that fits correctly. The same size XXL t-shirt will be considered “the right size” for the bodybuilder, the basketball player, the linebacker, and the powerlifter, as well as the fat guy. At most it will fit one of those people well. Very likely, it will fit none of them well.

Still, things are better than they were.

Back in the early 1980s there were companies that simply didn’t make pants in waist sizes above 34, because they thought the sight of fat men wearing their clothes would taint their brand. Even brands that didn’t refuse to sell clothes in ordinary large sizes had very little for people fatter than that. I remember a comedy routine from about the same time with a fat comedian complaining that they quit making normal pants a couple of inches before they got to his size. Gesturing toward the plaid pants he was wearing, he said, “It’s not bad enough that I’m fat? I also have to dress like a clown?”

Twenty years ago, waist sizes in men’s pants went up in one-inch increments until you hit 34, then they went to two-inch increments. So, if the right size for you was 35, you either wore a 36 and cinched your belt to keep them up, or else you wore a 34 and got it to go around you by wearing it under your waist and letting your belly sag over the front of your pants. About fifteen years ago companies started selling pants with a 35-inch waist. Not long after they started selling pants with a 37-inch waist. The companies figured out there was a big market for big people.

During the five years or so that I’ve been losing weight, I’ve been making the smallest possible investments in my wardrobe, figuring that I’d wait until I was at a stable weight before buying more new clothes than the minimum needed to keep myself dressed until laundry day. I bought about two new t-shirts when I hit size L, and then three more when size M started fitting.

Finally, just in the last few weeks, I’ve started buying a significant amount of new clothes that actually fit.

Which brings me back to my starting point: The luxury of being able to buy clothes that fit.

Last week I went to the nearby Goodwill store and spent half an hour going through the men’s shirts. Short-sleeve men’s shirts in size M pretty routinely just fit. (The exception was a very nice Brooks Brothers shirt that was way too big. It was so nice I was sorely tempted to go through the size S men’s shirts to see if I could find something from Brooks Brothers.) Long sleeve shirts are trickier because I have short arms, but even so I found two shirts that fit—one in the exact right size, another in a size that should have had sleeves a little too long, but that must have been altered by the previous owner.

Here’s my Goodwill haul:

Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End.
Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End. The blue short sleeve shirt on top is mostly linen. The green one behind it is 100% silk. The two long-sleeve shirts and the black t-shirt are all 100% cotton.

It would not have been so easy if I still wore XL or XXL. Except by pure luck (like the white shirt whose sleeves had been shortened to my size), nothing would have fit well. The neck would be too tight, unless the shoulders were way too big, and the sleeves would all be too long.

Clothes that fit: One more convenience for thin people.

I was interested to read John Scalzi’s thoughts about his wardrobe in Why I Wear What I Do, because his thinking (although not his sartorial choice) mirrors my own. Like him, I’m very aware that any disadvantage that accrues to me from my choosing to dress down is going to be minor and temporary. Like him, I’m aware that this is a privilege that doesn’t apply to everybody.

Sometimes I get hit in the face with a reminder that this issue is real, even if it mostly doesn’t apply to me. A couple instances come to mind. One was being taken for a possible bicycle thief.

Bicycle thief

A couple of summers back, my brother was visiting, and he and I were out walking in the neighborhood of my apartment complex. Our route took us past a Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant. Outside the entrance, a bicycle had been left, unlocked, lying on the pavement.

The bicycle caught my eye because of the owner’s alternative to locking it up: He had removed the left pedal and taken it with him. I paused for a moment to think about that. It wouldn’t, I remember thinking, be effective against someone who showed up with a truck to haul off stolen bicycles, but it probably would be effective against the casual thief who simply wanted to ride a few blocks instead of walking. It’d not only be hard to ride, it would be hard even to mount—most people stand on the left pedal as they swing their right leg over the seat. It was a clever minimalist solution, that I wanted to stash in my brain for possible future use, if I needed to leave my bike unattended briefly and was unable to use my lock for some reason.

I’d only had a moment to think about it, when the owner came out of the restaurant, saw me looking at his bike, and began cursing me as a someone who was contemplating theft.

I saw no point in engaging with the guy, so I just walked on, expressing my amusement to my brother, who pointed out that my appearance might well have made me look like a possible thief. I was dressed down—I don’t remember what I was wearing, but it was almost certainly shorts and a t-shirt, possibly ragged. More to the point, I was on foot. (Anyone who isn’t in a car probably has something wrong with them—if they’re not alcoholics who have lost their driver’s license, they’re either poor or they’re some kind of weirdo. And I had to give him that one. I am some kind of weirdo, although not the bike-stealing kind.)

The other instance springs from my habit of letting my beard grow in the winter, which I do because it keeps my face warm.

Taken for a homeless guy

Maybe three years ago, on the coldest evening of a cold winter, I was on my way home from my Esperanto group. Having gotten to the bus stop just after my usual bus home had departed, I decided to take the next bus to the station, so I could wait indoors for the next bus home.

While I was waiting for my bus, a group of volunteers from local non-profit service organizations came in offering hats, gloves, other winter gear, referrals to homeless shelters, and hot beverages. One of them, clearly taking me to be a homeless person, focused on me.

For some reason, I was unable to come up with a response. I mean, I clearly should have just told her that my cold weather ensemble was entirely up to the task, and that in any case I was wasn’t homeless and would be heading home on the next bus. But I couldn’t quite get it out. First, it took me several seconds to realize that she was talking to me in particular, and then several more seconds to understand that she really thought I was an obvious example of her target audience.

Only then did it occur to me what I looked like. It was a really cold day, so I was wearing my warmest coat:


More to the point, it was winter and I’d grown out my beard. The picture above shows me with my neatly trimmed spring beard. At the time of the incident I had grown my beard out to its full winter length, so it probably looked more like this:


So, you know, I can accept being mistaken for a homeless person.

Issue of privilege

In my case, neither of the incidents did me any harm, but either one could have. In the bicycle incident, if circumstances had been only a bit different, the police might have gotten involved. Probably not a problem for me—even dressed down, I’m a middle-aged white guy with an education and some capital—but any interaction with the police has the potential to go badly wrong.

The other incident could have been even more problematic. What if I’d missed the last bus, and decided that rather than call for help or take a taxi, I’d just walk home? That’s something I really might do, even at night, even in the cold. But a scruffy-looking guy out on foot in the bitter cold might well draw more insistent offers of help than those that had rendered me speechless. Maybe a ride to a homeless shelter. Or a psych ward.

By the way, another bit of the internal conflict that kept me from articulately assuring the social worker that I was fine and that she should go look for people who actually needed help was that I was wearing what is probably the warmest coat in the world. My heavy winter parka was designed for workers on the Alaska Pipeline. Purchased cheap when work on the pipeline wound down, it has lasted more than 30 years already, and I expect it will last the rest of my life. I was trying to come up with a polite way to say that what they had in the way of cold weather gear couldn’t possibly measure up to what I already had.

Scaliz’s post was a response to The Logic of Stupid Poor People, an excellent essay on just how subtle the trade-offs are for a poor person deciding what it’s worth spending money on. Having a keen eye for when the right status symbol will open a door that would otherwise be shut (or ensure that an interaction with the police is courteous rather than confrontational) is a third option that I failed to consider when I wrote Not Stupid—Hopeless.

By the way, I used to wear polo shirts a lot, for just the reasons that Scalzi mentions: The collar makes the shirt just dressy enough to raise you above the t-shirt wearing classes, without making it look like you’re trying too hard. At some point, I found that middle-ground was no longer working for me. If circumstances call for something nicer than a t-shirt, I’m more comfortable in a shirt that buttons all the way down the front. My 30-something self would have found that weird. Why, the past few years, I’ve even been known to wear a tie voluntarily! (For a lot of reasons, some very much related to these issues—to manipulate what people think of me when they see how I’m dressed, and to mock the fact that people think that way.)

It was on my first trip to England that I came to understand that what we think of as formal wear, business attire, and sports clothing was originally designed to be the most comfortable possible clothing for the circumstances. The circumstances in this case being the climate, technology, and infrastructure of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Without central heat interiors were going to be chilly, but even if you were quite frugal with your wood or coal they would not have to be really cold.

Given those indoor circumstances, and given that you had to make do with wool, silk, linen, and cotton (because there were no synthetic fibers), you would quite naturally end up with just the sort of garments that we now think of as being part of formal wear—wool coats and vests, silk bands to wrap around your neck, and so on. Sport clothing, of course, was for the sort of sports the English aristocracy engaged in: riding and shooting. Tweed and leather were very practical.

It seems obvious now, but it was something of a revelation to me. When I was younger, I always thought of that sort of clothing as being uncomfortable.

Partially that’s because such clothing is only really comfortable if it really fits. You don’t need a bespoke suit for it to fit correctly; even today good men’s clothing is routinely altered to fit. But clothing purchased for a child will never fit for long (and often never fit at all, because the child knows neither how the garment is supposed to fit nor how to articulate any issues discovered during the fitting).

Perhaps more important, such clothing is only comfortable in the sort of very cool environment for which it was originally designed. If your interior temperatures are around 60°F, you will be more comfortable in a wool coat over a wool vest than you would be in shirtsleeves. At 70°F it will be the other way around.

My attitudes toward such things has also been influenced by Jackie’s work with fiber. In my youth, my experience with wool was that it was scratchy, uncomfortable stuff (totally aside from it being made into garments that didn’t fit and were wrong for the climate). Now I’ve learned about the many different kinds of wool—starting with merino, of course, but by no means ending there—that are not scratchy. Now I have wonderful vests and sweaters, made to fit, from premium materials.

Of course, the top layers are really the last thing to think about. Comfortable clothing begins with the base layer. There again, my experiences as a child turned me against a whole very useful category: long underwear. Any clothing that you’re going to put another layer of clothing on top of needs to fit exactly right. An outer layer that’s too loose can be tolerated. But a too-loose under layer is going to get bunched up and shifted away from where it needs to be: Intolerable.

The ill-fitting hand-me-down long underwear I got as a child turned me against a whole category of garments that doubtless have an important role to play in comfortable dressing. I’m only now, more than two decades after returning to the Midwest, beginning to accumulate items for an appropriate cold-weather base layer. (I’ve made do up to now by having a wide range of top-layer options: spring jackets, fall jackets, winter coats, parkas, my Alaska pipeline coat.)

As a young man, I think I’d have been perfectly happy to wear nothing but shorts and t-shirts, and simply crank up the heat to make up the difference. My attitude has changed. If I had the money, I’d be very pleased to get and wear wool coats and vests, silk cravats, smoking jackets, and the like. Not because of the fashion statement they’d make (which would be a rather silly statement, however much I’ve come to appreciate a fine tweed), but because they’d be very comfortable.

It happened this way:

We were going to brunch with Barbara at Windsor, where they prefer that people not wear jeans in the dining room, so I wore khakis. Then, since I was wearing those, I decided to wear my khaki linen shirt. I don’t wear it much, for various reasons. (It’s long sleeved, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s hot, but it’s linen, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s cold. Plus, since it’s linen, it needs to be ironed. Plus it’s been ever-so-slightly on the snug side, but I’ve lost a little weight, so it’s now fitting quite well.)

That outfit was going to have me looking just a bit dressed up, so I though maybe I’ll go whole-hog and wear my tweed jacket. That, plus the fact that the linen shirt has a button-down collar, made me think that maybe I wanted to wear a tie. And then, since it was the day after Christmas, it occurred to me that I could wear my Christmas tie—a very red, very shiny tie that my mom made about 30 years ago. It’s so red and so shiny that there’s not really much other opportunity to wear it.

To go out, I wore the trench coat my dad gave me last summer. It used to be just a bit on the snug side as well, but fits just fine now (even over my tweed jacket). But it’s not quite as warm as a parka, so I added the grey scarf Jackie wove for me last year. It’s the newest of my many handwoven scarves, and perfect for when one of my more colorful scarves would be insufficiently understated.

I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Wow. I look just like a grownup.”

Then I put on my grandfather’s homburg and headed out to brunch.