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Published: November 21st 2020
I have just counted my shirts. I possess 66. A ridiculous number. Is 66 symbolic – the Mark of the Shirt Beast?
My shirt collection stretches back into antiquity. I have one white cotton shirt which I bought in Silver’s, a posh menswear shop in Reading, in the early 1980’s. I bought it in a sale. A posh-sounding label - ‘The Paris House Collection’ - is sewn beneath the collar, and it has a unique feature (unique, that is, to my shirt collection): after you do up the buttons, they are hidden from view. Ancient it may be, but it remains my best white shirt. I wore it a couple of weeks ago at a friend’s wedding.
That is my oldest shirt, and the fact that it has lasted all these years attests to its quality. My second oldest shirt, and my most expensive, is a Thomas Pink shirt that I bought in an airport tailor’s shop in the late 1980’s. It is 100% cotton and was made in Ireland. I bought it because it is a very nice colour – golden-brown with a white grid pattern – and because it was half price. I like my shirts to
be baggy, and this one is very baggy indeed. When I tried it on in the shop, the plummy-voiced assistant used the word “generous” to describe the shirt’s bagginess – hinting that it was a tad too large for me – but I went ahead and bought it. Because it is such a fine shirt, I have worn it sparingly – at work only - and it as good as new today.
Now let me tell you about my all-time favourite shirts. I used to visit Bangkok a lot during my early years in Vietnam and always stayed in the same hotel: The Crown on Sukhumvit Road. Sukhumvit Road is lined with stalls selling all manner of merchandise, including shirts. In 2003 or 2004, I bought 8 short-sleeved ‘100% cotton XXL Polo’ shirts in a variety of colours. I like shirts that are not meant to be tucked in, that hang loosely around the waist. Well, these were the perfect length and fit; the light cotton was ideal for a tropical climate, and they had a breast pocket. I used to be a t-shirt fan in my Egyptian and Tanzanian days, but around 20 years ago I gave up
wearing t-shirts in favour of collared shirts. The breast pocket of a collared shirt makes all the difference to me, because it is so handy for toothpicks and other small items. I have worn these 8 shirts – the Magnificent 8 – non-stop ever since buying them, and in 2020 most of them are still going strong. They are particularly good for wearing on holiday because, after a quick wash in the hotel sink, they dry out quickly and do not need ironing. I am wearing the red one today. After hundreds of washes, the cotton is diaphanous and the collar frayed, but I will keep wearing it until it falls apart.
There used to be a department store in HCMC – the Tax Trade Centre on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi – where I bought trousers and shirts suitable for school. One of my favourite shirts, bought there around 2003, is still with me: a coral red one with a very nice grid pattern. The polo-player logo of Ralph Lauren (surely fake) is stitched below the collar, and the shirt was made in the Northern Mariana Islands (a U.S. territory east of the Philippines).
Another favourite of mine - another Ralph Lauren fake bought in the same shop - is a patterned green shirt with very long sleeves. I usually prefer short sleeves, but the long sleeves of this shirt offer excellent protection against the flies of Tan Chau, my wife’s home town in the Mekong Delta, where, after sunset during certain months, the flies are rampant. When I am sitting in her open-air restaurant, in the evening during fly season, the long sleeves are a life-saver. This most practical of shirts is stored permanently in a wardrobe in Tan Chau.
When I buy a shirt, it has to be loose-fitting and made wholly, or mainly, of cotton. I cannot stand cheap synthetic shirts. And I much prefer a shirt with a breast pocket. I also prefer short-sleeved shirts, because the climate of Vietnam is always tropical – either dry and hot or hot and wet. If I happen to buy a long-sleeved shirt, then I invariably roll up the sleeves (except when sitting out of doors after sunset in Tan Chau). It is difficult to find shirts meeting my requirements in Vietnam; because Vietnam is a nation of small wiry men, shirt
shops here do not cater for large-framed English giants like yours truly. However, several years ago I discovered a splendid new outlet.
The Central Market in Phnom Penh is a beautiful Art Deco building with a large clothing section. Among the clothes stalls are a number of small shops selling secondhand shirts. Most, or all, of these ‘secondhand’ shirts have never been worn. I’m not sure how these shirts have been acquired, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that the shirts are cheap, of good quality and big enough to hang loosely over my XXL frame. Over the years, during my annual visits to Phnom Penh, I have purchased many shirts – smart shirts for work, jazzy shirts for casual wear. A typical haul, consisting of 4 shirts, sets me back $12 – a mere bagatelle when you consider the cost of a brand new shirt from a regular store.
My shirt collection is housed in two places: my favourite shirts are lined up in the spare bedroom on a clothes rack where I can see them and choose one at a glance; my other shirts are out of sight in a wardrobe. Looking at my 66
shirts, I conclude there is no need for me ever to buy another one. I am semi-retired from teaching, so my smart shirts are largely redundant, and there are many shirts I’ve grown tired of and will never wear again. I have asked my wife if her relatives would like some free shirts, but she is against the idea of giving them away. She’s probably right; her diminutive male relatives would look silly wearing my vast flapping cast-offs – like midgets inside circus tents.
How many shirts does a man in my situation need? Nowadays I tend to rotate between 12 or so casual shirts, including, of course, my threadbare yet beloved ‘Magnificent 8’ from Bangkok. These shirts are more than mere fabric; they remind me of days gone by, of adventures I had while wearing them. Indeed, if I look at my old photographs from Vietnam and Ghana and Thailand and Indonesia and Cambodia, there I am in my Bangkok shirts – drinking beer in Nha Trang, playing chess in Accra, meeting an old friend in Reading, climbing Tambora Volcano, exploring Angkor Wat.
These articles of clothing – ostensibly threadbare old shirts - are imbued with so many memories. I will continue to wear them until either I or they disintegrate.
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