Everything and Nothing: Thou shalt not separate a man from his holy holey shirt

Aïda Rogers

Posted Aug. 23, 2021

By Aïda Rogers

What is he wearing now I think to myself as Wally appears in the doorway, his T-shirt ripped to give his neck more room and a hole under the arm almost as wide as the sleeve. This isn’t unusual. The man has drawers of ancient shirts.

I know better than to throw them out. Or cut them into rags.

I especially know better than to toss the green MIT sweatshirt from his daughter. To him it’s just getting good, even with the letters faded off and the cotton shredding from the collar. I just counted: There are seven holes in this beloved shirt.

My theory? A shirt is close to the heart. The special ones are hard – maybe impossible – to throw away.

That’s just a theory, though. Why do guys wear holey shirts? Here’s what a Facebook poll revealed:

“It’s a Brando thing,” writer Billy Baldwin asserted from McClellanville, saying he had at least 15 holey shirts, and didn’t care much for Brando.  

“They’re a religious experience,” claimed newspaper reporter William Yelverton in Tampa. “They also provide instant air conditioning.”

Mt. Pleasant native Chick Jacobs recalled his mother singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” when she came across disintegrating shirts in the laundry. She didn’t throw them out, and his wife Meredith doesn’t either. “When they reach a point beyond redemption, they go in the rag bag or stuffed into a doggie bed.”

Chick said what so many others did: We come from people who didn’t have much. They didn’t throw things away easily. We inherited that trait.

Which means there’s something survivalist about a holey shirt, and liberating. When a hole appears, you’re free to mess it up more. As my classmate Mike Miller pointed out, “Once they have holes, you don’t have to worry about stains. You’re indestructible!”

Stuart Register, retired from law enforcement, said the Coolmax T-shirts he wore under ballistic vests and suits have holes everywhere – but not from guns.

“It’s weird I find value in old shirts but not the pants I typically wore with them,” he mused from his Lake Murray home. For him, the T-shirts represent good times – vacations, concerts – and college jerseys hold fun fraternity memories. “It was around college graduation that I couldn’t part with some worn-out shirts, but I was too old to wear them without looking like a loser. Now I’m old and I wear old fraternity stuff with holes just to reminisce – but only around the house.”

Some people have T-shirt rituals. Lexington lawyer Jim Snell buys his from Walmart in Batesburg the first Saturday in May. He wears them for a year, and if he likes the ones that develop holes, he keeps them. “He says it doesn’t matter,” wife Lee reports, “because he’s a guy and he is comfortable.” The Rolling on the Floor Laughing emoji followed.

Yep, comfort seems to be the main thing when it comes to this particular glad rag. Cousin Doug Ferrell, answering from California, bemoans how his favorite brands are gone, and that fabric often doesn’t get comfy until the first holes appear. His shirts from 20 years ago have outlasted newer ones.

“It’s a design flaw,” the computer engineer from Irmo says. “Same with socks, underwear, and sometimes shoes.”

Some women said they wear holey shirts, citing comfort and inability to find comfortable newer ones (is there a business here?). Regardless, they know better than to toss or transform their husbands’ shirts.

“That would be a seriously huge mistake,” says Janis Leaphart, who nevertheless is making strides clearing out husband Damone’s other things without him knowing it. “If I threw away a single shirt? An alarm would go off.” 

After decades as a coach at Lexington High, Damone Leaphart has plenty of old shirts. “I have huge tubs full of them,” Janis says, “in our bedroom, upstairs, in the garage. That’s the worst part for me.”

Ah, somebody has it worse than I do. That’s a good feeling, a comfortable feeling.

Wally approaches me at the computer. He’s read my Facebook post.

“It’s a simple answer,” he tells me. I see a stain on his shirt.

“If you’re next to me and you start to fall down, the holes give you a convenient place to hold on to.”

I’ll remember that when I’m folding his 14 holey shirts. Yes, I counted them.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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