A sweatshirt as a memory

“Here, you can have this back. I think if we continue to wash it will fade away,” my husband alerts me while handing me back a sweatshirt he had taken from my closet sixteen years before (see fig. 1). My father had bought it for me sometime in the mid-nineties when I was a teenager. Usually, fashion information, dressing habits, clothing exchange and even consumer purchase attitudes appear from the relationship between mothers and daughters (Appleford 153; Kestler and Paulins 314). Not in my case. Most of my knowledge and taste for anything related to design comes from my father, an industrial designer who enjoys fashion more than my mother ever did. I was around 15 years old, living in my native country, Brazil, and desperately wishing to own designer clothes my father could not afford. He then proposed a deal that would benefit us both: he would buy male garments from the brands I wanted so we could share. That is why this sweatshirt fits my husband and me. He had found this garment when he was looking for an old piece of clothing to wear to sleep. I had stopped wearing this sweatshirt because it no longer spoke to me and its fashionable life had finished. My husband wore it as a pyjama top until last year, when it started to rip apart (see fig. 2). The fabric is becoming thinner on the elbows; side seams are split open, there is a hole on one armpit, and the sleeves openings are tearing into shreds.


fig. 1 – the sweatshirt in use
fig. 2 – front side


Brazilian fashion and the 1990s

I cannot recall precisely the year I acquired the sweatshirt, but I remember it was from the same brand store that appears on both labels, placed inside and outside close to the neckline (see fig 3). Launched in 1990, Zapping was the second line of Zoomp, one of the most influential denim brands at that time (Kherlakian 49). Their collections were aimed a young audience of people between 15 and 25 years-old (Lucchesi), designed to please distinct groups and tastes like urban art, hip-hop, skate and club cultures (Kherlakian 211). Zapping’s style evolved over the decade with the mixing of references as its core principle and in line with anthropologist’s Ted Polhemus concept of “supermarket of style” (Polhemus 10; Palomino MorumbiFashion). Polhemus critiques the time when subcultures used style to set them apart from other groups, and, in the 1990s, there was a proliferation of style options that made everyone play and test all of what was available for consumption like cans of soup in a supermarket shelf (10). He saw this phenomenon as superficial because no one had a deep commitment to an idea like the mods or punks had in the past, thus resulting in fragmentation and inauthenticity like the cyberpunks, grunge haute couture or “acid jazzers” (Polhemus 11).

fig. 3 – sweatshirt’s back

The Brazilian fashion industry in the nineteen-nineties was experiencing rapid expansion, boosted in part by economic stability and eagerness among fashion designers fresh out of university to build an identity compatible with the country’s culture (Bonadio 70). As Maria Claudia Bonadio explains, Brazil’s production had, so far, been associated with natural landscapes and indigenous and popular cultures (71). Brands like Osklen and Carlos Miele still explore “exoticism” in their designs, limiting the capacity for other themes to emerge within the fashion community that could potentially open more the national market for global exportation (72).

The brands I followed in that decade, were proposing a style as a blend of mainstream Brazilian culture and international trends from designers such as John Galliano for Dior, Prada and Helmut Lang (Palomino, Supermercado), to the streetwear movement unique to the city I was born, Sao Paulo. I remember that in my group of friends there was a desire to be part of a technologically advanced future, increasingly connected by the internet and the possibilities of knowledge that lingered in our imaginations at the end of the millennium. A T-shirt, a pair of jeans or sweatshirts were all used as symbols to represent our tastes in music, art and movies. It showed how we placed ourselves in groups of people like us, reaffirming Polhemus’ “supermarket of styles” idea, but with substance. “Deconstructivism, gender-bending and androgyny” were concepts that Zapping translated into clothing in a call for inclusiveness and a tool for self-expression (Palomino Jovens Desconstrutivistas). Embodied by the clashing of hair and makeup styles against normal clothes to create unusual looks such as a punk dressed in khakis (Fassina).

fig. 4 – side seam ripped open, shows fabric’s inside design

Despite materials like neoprene, vinyl, glazed cotton and plastic, Zapping had comfort as the ultimate goal (Folha de S. Paulo 3-12), and my sweatshirt is proof of that. It is probably made of cotton (the care label is missing) and is constructed with the fabric’s design side turned inwards bringing the inside texture outside and making it a design feature (see fig. 4). The overall sweatshirt appearance is rough, reinforced by the terracotta colour and the stripe print resembling a ripped piece of paper, originally yellow with another green stripe in the centre. Due to constant washing, the green stripe is now almost entirely faded. This print circulates around one sleeve, jumps diagonally to the bodice, ending on the other sleeve. The sweatshirt’s colour combination alludes to the natural Brazilian reddish soil, and its ripped effect caused by the uneven yellow and green stripes resembles a harvest mark on the dirt. Although sold as a male garment, the collar is wide (26cm, 10.25 inches), the cut is loose, making it comfortable to wear by any body type, therefore marking it as a unisex piece. The sweatshirt size is probably small (the size label is also missing) because both my father and I are short, so I suppose we bought it to fit us true-to-size. Since it was designed with the male body in mind, it fits me a little larger than in my husband. The bodice width is 29cm (11 inches), 65cm long (26 inches), the sleeves’ seams are dropped from the shoulder, and they sit at wrist length. All edge finishes on the neck, hem and sleeves lines are stitched to prevent unravelling making them roll inwards a little, reinforcing the rough appearance of the sweatshirt.


Material Culture

I had not noticed the importance the sweatshirt acquired over time until it was given back to me. My husband realized this when he told me to store it. I have a small collection of pieces, saved as reminders of people or periods that were important throughout my life. For example, there is a nightgown from one grandmother, a handkerchief from the other one, some of my kids’ baby clothes, my mother’s scarf and a party dress I wore to my best friend’s wedding. All those pieces have in common a design quality imbued with memory that is worth preserving like the Christian Dior handkerchief or the dress from the Brazilian luxury brand Huis Clos. They stood out from other objects I could have chosen to keep. Except for the sweatshirt, an ordinary piece of clothing, out of fashion, in a colour that no longer is appealing to me. But now, after so many years, the sweatshirt has a biography, its own story created when it changed from one body to another, acquiring different end-uses.

This sweatshirt’s life started as all clothing starts, as a commodity “produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing” (Kopytoff 64). I purchased this piece in the middle of the nineteen-nineties, when it symbolized membership with a specific group of people. As per our agreement, my father wore this sweatshirt once, quickly realizing the style was too remarkably young for his almost 60 years of age, especially if compared to a denim jacket, from the same brand, we had shared before. After the sweatshirt was no longer interesting to me because it had lost its style allure, I had left it forgotten until my husband gave it a second life and another purpose. As Kopytoff explains, a commodity can be transformed as it loses its status as such, when it no longer has resale value, therefore, opening space for redefinition by an individual instead of belonging to a collective agreement (76).


A family object

My husband unconsciously altered the sweatshirt’s signification when he decided to wear it as a pyjama, therefore, enabling different haptic experiences that can affect a body attributing to it a new level of comfort. The perception of our surroundings mediated by this sweatshirt shows how one garment can influence in multiple ways different people, whereas “the body is fundamentally social in nature since we come to an understanding of ourselves through our interaction with others” (Negrin 118). While for me the comfort it provided my body begun to fade, the opposite was true for my husband, as the ageing textile provided him with the support he needed for sleeping. Bethan Bide reflects on how the objects we keep are capable of linking past and present; everyday garments have the power to tell a story of wear, evoke memories of time lived (451). For us, this sweatshirt will be kept carefully stored, entering the third phase in its biography, as a family object that tells a story of a connection across generations and between male and female bodies.


Works Cited

Appleford, Katherine. “Like Mother, Like Daughter: Lessons in Fashion Consumption, Taste and Class.” Families, Relationships and Societies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 153.

Bide, Bethan. “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection.” Fashion Theory, vol. 21, no. 4, 2017, pp. 449-28.

Bonadio, Maria C. “Brazilian Fashion and the ‘exotic’.” International Journal of Fashion Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 57-74.

Fassina, Cesar. “Conceito se Expande no Brasil.” Folha de S. Paulo, 14 mar 1997: 4-16. Web. 20 feb 2018.


Lucchesi, Cristiane P. “Lee Vai Trazer Marca Riders para o Brasil.” Folha de S. Paulo, 1o jan 1994: 2-4.Web. 20 feb 2018.


Kestler, Jessica L., and V. A. Paulins. “Fashion Influences between Mothers and Daughters: Exploring Relationships of Involvement, Leadership, and Information Seeking.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, vol. 42, no. 4, 2014, pp. 313-329.

Kherlakian, Renato. Uns jeans… uns não. SENAI-SP, 2016.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 64-91.

Negrin, Llewellyn. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Corporeal Experience of Fashion.” Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists. edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, I.B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 115-131.

Polhemus, Ted. “No Supermercado do Estilo.” Revista Contracampo, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 7.

Palomino, Erika. “Jovens Desconstrutivistas no Brasil.”

—. “MorumbiFashion Termina com Glamour e Profissionalismo.” Folha de S. Paulo, 27 feb 1997: 4-7.Web. 20 feb 2018.


—. “Supermercado de Estilos Mistura Tudo.” Folha de S. Paulo, 14 mar 1997: 4-16.Web. 20 feb 2018.


“Zapping Pula com Dândis dos anos 90.” Folha de S. Paulo, 13 feb 1998: 3-12.Web. 20 feb 2018.


6 thoughts on “A sweatshirt as a memory”

  1. Cecilia, I think your post has many intriguing elements! I like how you included pictures of you and your husband wearing the clothing—it helps illustrate the different life cycle phases you discuss. I also appreciate that you picked a “regular” item to analyze on a deeper level.

    I remember you telling the class at one point, about the clothes you and your father used to share. I thought it was interesting then, and I still think it’s interesting now, that you had little resistance in wearing clothes with marketed gender differences. Do your children care whether or not their clothes come from the “boys” or the “girls” section?
    Although not entirely within the scope of your post, I think it would have been really interesting to examine the fast fashion industry. As the industry’s trendy clothes are decreasing in quality, do simple items such as sweaters and shirts still go through different biographical phases? (I think they do, but in hyper-speed compared to the past).

    1. My children don’t care. Once my daughter saw a t-shirt from the boy’s section that had a skull print and asked me to buy it. And I did, of course! The only thing that makes a little upset is that women can always pick something from the boys/men section, but the opposite almost never happens. That’s an interesting point about fast fashion trendy clothes. I think simple items can still carry biographical phases, it depends on the story behind it.

  2. Cecilia, I can’t help but think how special it is to have one item that is connected to two significant men in your life. In particular, I like how this garment has always come back to you, like a boomerang! So many designer pieces find their way to donation bins or resale and this one stayed in your life as a connection point between yourself and your significant others. It’s very special. I wonder how your children will remember this garment when it eventually gets handed down to them as a keeper of memories.

    It is interesting how some garment’s signification changes over its lifetime. It sounds like you are implying this garment’s signification was reduced when it became a pyjama top. I think now its signification is much greater, in its current state, by being lovingly preserved by you as a memory and now immortalized in this blog post!

    You are so right about a girl’s connection to her mother and grandmother through clothing. I’ve never shared a love for something with my father the way you describe what you shared with your father. This is a special story. I only remember raiding my father’s closet to grab his corduroy blazer with patches on the elbows to complete my “look” after it became a popular look because of the movie “Terms of Endearment”. We never shared that blazer, I quite literally stole it from him!

  3. I think this is such an interesting history – both of the garment, and of your fashion history! Garments often see a few owners before inevitably reaching the grave (or, in this case, a comfortable spot in a memory box), but it’s not often that that whole history plays out within one family, which I think made this really unique.

    When I ‘retire’ t-shirts that I no longer consider fashionable but feel connected to in some way (old summer camp tshirts, etc.), I also often relegate them to pyjamas. Like you, this reduces their esteem to me in some way, but if we consider the amount of time worn, they technically spend more time on my body than any of the clothes in my closet! Maybe we should consider pyjama-fication to be a more prestigious position.

    1. I love it, “pyjama-fication” – maybe Alison should consider another blog category where students can blog about the “pyjama-fication” of garments in their life. I see many ex-boyfriend stories on the horizon if she does! Great comments, I hadn’t thought of the life of the garment being lived out in one family.

      1. I was just talking to Professor Carolyn Kane about pyjamas–not enough research on them, for sure…I’m all for another blog category! 🙂

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