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A tribute to the Wardrobe Workhorse

A tribute to the Wardrobe Workhorse

If fashion could be summed up in a single question, it would be: what’s new? 

You’re probably on this website because you need something new, or let’s face it, want something new, because if clothes were just about needs you’d be sat in a saffron kāṣāya with a rope tied around the middle like a Buddhist monk, reducing your need to shop to once every ten years or so. Instead, your wages are burning a hole in your pocket for something, and whether that’s a pair of sturdy leather lace-ups, a bomber jacket with a nice shearling trim or just some comfy olive track pants to binge-watch Euphoria in, the one thing for sure is that it’ll arrive tightly packed and have that lovely fresh smell when you burst it open. It will be new. 

The fashion industry, meanwhile, traditionally tries to answer the question of what’s ‘new’ in the trendy, oh-we’re-meant-to-wear-those-now sense of the word every six months or so, with what is fondly known as ‘the seasons’. The fashion seasons, as you’ll know, are exactly the same as the meteorologic seasons only stuck together in pairs: Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer (or A/W and S/S if you’re in the biz).

Heralded by a series of fashion shows in Milan and Paris in which lithe young men with weapons-grade cheekbones saunter down runways decked out in the latest designer creations for the delectation of photographers and jaded fashion editors, it is, like the ancient pagan ceremony of Ostara, a sort of ritualistic sacrifice on the altar of renewal. By dint of its absence, just about anything – skinny trousers, wide lapels, socks, even whole colours – could be slain before your very eyes, no longer in, no longer cool. And every time something ends up Old Yellered behind Fashion Week’s woodshed, it’s replaced with something new.

‘Newness’, then, is what keeps the whole show on the road. But I’m here to advance a shocking argument. That while fashion is all about what’s new, style is far more often about what’s old. That the real hero of your outfit is usually not the last item you bought but the one you’ve owned through several seasons – both real ones and fashion ones – and which age has only improved. I am talking about your Wardrobe Workhorses.

Generally speaking, they’re your big occasion go-to. My first Wardrobe Workhorse entered my life when I was around 10-years-old, and it will surprise no one who grew in my corner of north-east England to hear it was a t-shirt with black and white stripes and the logo of a local brewery company stuck to the chest. My Newcastle United jersey – or ‘strip’ as we called it at the time – was what I pulled on when I needed to feel cool, whether that was for a kickabout in an unfamiliar park, a meal out during a family holiday, or when searching for the courage to ask Rebecca Hubbard to dance at the Alnwick Middle School summer disco of 1997 (she said no, but that’s a moot point).

Fast-forward to uni and I had that one shirt – didn’t you? I bet you did – that just looked good every time I wore it, that somehow, by some strange alchemy of its colour and fit, marshalled all the forces of my youth and the then-lean angles of my face and body into the best possible sum of its parts. Powerful, was that one, blessed shirt. It was the one I’d turn to time and time again to look my best on nights in sticky-floored basement bars and ‘dates’ that were really just pints in the union. I look back over my Facebook photos now and see it every other shot, thinking: where has that shirt gone? The answer, of course, is that at some point it no longer seemed to fit, like floppy fringes, like that unhinged friend from the halls next door, like dreams of a successful music career. But the point is it did then, and it served me well.

Even today I have a Wardrobe Workhorse, and it’s the dullest thing I own: a navy, merino wool sweater from Tiger of Sweden. Its unassuming dullness is exactly what has made it my favourite item of clothing for the past five years. It just fits, you know? It’s kind to my shoulders, generous about my midriff, easy on my arms. If I wake up feeling bad about myself or overawed by the days ahead, I know I can pair it with some chinos and white trainers or even tuck it beneath a suit and feel absolutely good to go.

I love this jumper so much I didn’t even retire it after I discovered there was an irreparable, fist-sized hole in the left elbow. I simply perfected a way of rolling up the sleeves so no one can tell. Every year, when it gets cold enough, I dust this jumper off and marvel at its longevity and staying power. It’s the Roger Federer of my knitwear collection, still stroking winning backhands from the baseline deep into the twilight of its playing career.

My point is this. New clothes – whether we’re talking new off the rack, newly ‘on trend’, or both – are great. But just as we shouldn’t discard old friends when new lovers arrive, we shouldn’t become so enamoured with our new, watercolour-print camp collar shirt that we forget the plain Oxford that’s never let us down. Just once, I’d love to see a fashion show for the Wardrobe Workhorses: a line of models walking past in a pair of perfect jeans that have survived six summers of punishment; the woollen overcoat that’s carried every out-there sweater they ever tried to get away with; the one plain white t-shirt that, even now, somehow still makes them feel twice as handsome as they really are. They’d be smiling, I bet. And so would we.

Words: Sam Parker
Illustration: Guy Field