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Clear Out the Closet (and the '60s)

`WHAT'S wrong with this?" my husband asks, pulling a frayed shirt from the closet.

"No one's worn that style since the '60s," I say. "And neither have you, judging from the dust clinging to the shoulders."

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We're on an archaeological dig through David's wardrobe - something we do twice a year, spring and fall. He has the largest collection of bell-bottoms, three-inch ties, and pointed collars of anyone I know - except maybe an antique clothing dealer.

"But this is a good shirt," he says.

"We have rules," I remind him. "If you haven't worn something in 10 years, you have to get rid of it."

"Remember my Army jacket!" he says. "I wore it all the time."

How could I forget? I had thrown it out on a rampage the day my eight-year-old daughter and I moved into David's three-room apartment, a week after our wedding. In Manhattan, the only thing tighter than living space is storage space, which is why obsolete clothing must go.

Allissa and I arrived at David's with myriad toys, 50 cartons, and four rooms of furniture - only to discover that he had not emptied one closet in anticipation of our arrival.

He had been busy preparing for the painter and had no time to deal with closets. But I had Friday plus a weekend to get settled and back to work. Confronted by jungles thriving inside his closets, I knew I'd never get everything done.

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So when I saw that greasy Army jacket hanging in the hall closet, smeared with soot and smelling of barbecue smoke and steak fat, I headed straight for the incinerator. After that, the honeymoon was over.

"I sure miss my Army jacket," he says now.

"We've been all through that," I say. "I've apologized a thousand times. At the moment, we're discussing your shirt."

"You're pressuring me to make a decision I'll regret," he says.

"There are brown stains under the armpits," I say.

"I'm just not ready to part with it," he says.

"Then put it in the `maybes,' " I say. The maybes are articles of clothing in question. They may be worth saving. We consider them after making arduous decisions on everything else. We rate maybes according to general condition, sentimental value, comfort factors, and exactly what fashion period an item represents.

The maybes always outnumber clothing destined for the garbage collector. The problem with the maybe system is that once we've agonized over each vintage piece - a painful process in itself - we have to face 90 percent of the pile again.

Using every manipulation ever mastered during his child- and adulthood, David holds onto his maybes for dear life, while I plot their demise in order to ease closet congestion.

"Call the exterminator," David says, examining two crumpled pullovers. "Moths are eating my sweaters."

"How old are they?" I ask, noticing that the suede elbow patches are bald. "When did they first wear out?"

"My aunt patched them the summer I spent in Italy," he says.

"That was 1974," I say.

"You won't be laughing when moths attack your sweaters," he says.

"We don't have moths," I say. "Disintegrating yarn is what's turning your sweaters to Swiss cheese."

"I'll save them for fishing," he says.

"You've already got two dozen shabby specimens for fishing."

"What about the Salvation Army?" he asks.

"They don't take things in tatters," I say. "Get rid of them."

"I won't be dictated to," he says in the firm belief that retaining lost youth is a sign of a "real man." It's also a sign of a man who gets old clothes mixed up with new ones and goes to parties in threadbare slacks.

"Let's compromise," I say, sensing he's been pushed far enough. "Throw out the frayed shirt and the navy blazer two sizes too small. Keep your college T-shirts, the faded-glory denim jacket, the wide ties, the flared pants, and the moth-eaten sweaters."

"I predict all this stuff will come back into style," he says, with a frown.

"It has," I say. "But fringed jackets and tie-dye are no longer you."

My goal is to clear out the '60s before the '90s slip away.

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