A plain black raincoat hangs in columnist John Kelly’s house. Purchased around 1983, it’s still in his rotation. (John Kelly /The Washington Post)
On one of last week’s moister days, I pulled my raincoat from the hall closet and was struck by a realization: It’s probably the oldest piece of clothing I own that I still use.
I bought it around 1983 at a Burlington Coat Factory in College Park, Md., when I was a college student. Back then, I got most of my clothes at thrift shops, but I remember feeling that I needed something that wasn’t weird or stained or threadbare.
It is the most nondescript thing you’ve ever seen. It is not a fashionable trench coat — no belt — but a black, shapeless shift with a shirt-style collar, five buttons and a zip-out lining in fuzzy gray acrylic. It was made — in the USA — by Botany 500.
The coat looks like something Willy Loman would wear and, to be honest, whenever I put it on, I feel my salaryman shoulders slump a little.
Still, it keeps me dry. And I’ve had it for so long!
It’s not the oldest garment I own. I have a circa 1977 school blazer from when I lived in England: lurid-green polyester, with a crest on the breast pocket. It’s way too small for me now, a memento.
And I have a baseball cap from my 1970 T-ball team, the Dustriders. It’s in a box in the attic, squashed and moth-eaten.
I don’t wear either of those. But when it rains and I’m dressed for work, I reach for the Botany 500.
It made me wonder: How old are the world’s oldest clothes?
I consulted Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.
“As you know, textiles are made from organic fiber,” he said. “They start to deteriorate from the moment they’re made.”
They survive only in places where the climate is accommodating. Those are places like Peru, where the dry mountain air helps preserve fabric. The Textile Museum has fabrics from 900 B.C., but recognizable clothing — tunics, loin cloths and headbands — dates from 350 B.C.
Among the oldest fabrics found are from western China — dating to 3000 B.C. — and in Egyptian tombs, where mummies were wrapped in fabric 3,000 years ago.
Of course, if a piece of fabric is in a tomb, it’s not something that anyone is wearing — not anyone who’s alive, anyway.
“Textiles that survive aboveground tend to be ones that are really special in some way,” Lee said. “Until the Industrial Revolution, textiles were expensive, so everyone would wear them until they would wear out. Then they would repurpose them into other objects.”
That could be repurposed into another article of clothing (until that wore out), or it might be as a rag or for use in paper.
Then there are what you might call ceremonial garments — “ones you find in church reliquaries and things like that,” Lee said.
I bet Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Francis have access to pretty old clothes, passed down through generations of people who held their titles and thus wore that very same ermine cape or embroidered vestment.
And, come to think of it, I do wear one of my late father-in-law’s hats, a brown Dobbs fedora from Embassy Men’s Wear in what was then known as Wheaton Plaza. It’s probably 50 years old.
Having ascertained that the Textile Museum has 2,300-year-old Peruvian duds in its collection, I asked Lee what’s the oldest piece of clothing in his own closet.
“I have an overcoat that I got in high school,” he said without hesitation.
He was an exchange student in Australia in the early 1980s. “My host family had a sheepskin coat tailored for me,” he said. “That was my Christmas gift. And because it has sentimental value and because it’s a nice garment — a sheepskin coat, tailor-made — I’ve kept it.”
As you would expect of something owned by a curator, the shearling coat is still in pristine shape, kept clean so bugs don’t feast on it, protected from extremes of temperature. And it still fits Lee.
What’s the oldest piece of clothing that you own — and wear? I don’t want to hear about your christening gown, unless you slip into it from time to time. Tell me what it is, why you’ve kept it all these years and why you still wear it.
Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Old Clothes” in the subject line.