Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Fish Shirt

The other day I was in the Oxfam charity shop in St. John's Wood, buying a Christmas card for my nieces, when I came across a book called "Worn Stories" by Emily Spivack. It contains a series of essays by writers including Susan Orlean, Piper Kerman, Greta Gerwig and Simon Doonan, each of whom chose a significant piece of clothing from their wardrobe and told its backstory. Each essay appears with a simple picture of the clothing in question.

Reading the book -- and subsequently buying it, for £4.99 -- made me think immediately of my fish shirt.

So here's my own Worn Story.

I bought my fish shirt in early October, 1994. Well, I say I bought it, but actually, I had it made. I was traveling through West Africa with some friends from the Peace Corps, and we'd stopped for a few days in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. I'd been on the lookout for some colorful African cloth to get a garment made, and in the market there, I found this crazy fabric decorated with big, wild-eyed carp. I loved how silly it was. There was no pretension to good taste.

I bought a segment -- I don't remember how much cloth or what I paid -- and I took it to a tailor. He measured me and in short order produced this simple shirt, with a V-neck and two little vents at the sides. I took his picture afterwards, and promised to mail him a copy.

(Which I did, once I got back to the states and got the film developed -- but then I discarded his name and address, so I can no longer give him credit.)

In my journal at the time, I wrote:
"I got a shirt made in Bobo – it’s really HIDEOUS. It’s made from a pagne fabric with big fish all over it. I don’t know what possessed me – I can’t believe I’ll ever wear it unless I’m at the beach or something. Now I have TWO outfits I’ll never wear. I need to get a nice shirt made sometime – maybe in Ghana."
The other outfit I was sure I'd never wear was a Grand Boubou, or African robe-and-pants set, that I bought in Mali. I definitely never wore that, and wound up selling it ten years later on eBay to someone in Australia, of all places. And although I did have a "nice" shirt made in Ghana, of a streaky blue and black batik fabric, I wore it for a few years before it faded and I gave it away to Goodwill.

I still have the fish shirt, though. It's actually pretty fun to wear. I've worn it several times to barbecues or parties, like a gathering of bloggers I attended in 2008 in Washington, D.C. where we celebrated May Day with a maypole (above). I still take it out now and then and wear it when I'm walking around town on a warm summer day. It never fails to attract attention!


  1. I don't think your shirt is silly at all. I think it's fabulous. And I would have bought the book too.
    I have some prehistoric clothing in my wardrobe but none with a back story like yours.

  2. Jennifer's husband Gregg in Florence SC could do with a shirt just like that as he is known locally as "The Fish Guy".

    1. I had not seen your comment when I wrote mine! Haha. Gregg would wear that with great pride!

  3. I love that fish shirt! I would wear that. Unfortunately, I have no good backstories about my current wardrobe but the book sounds like fun.

  4. I love that shirt! Terrific! Funny how some things actually please you years and years after you got them.

  5. I still have pagne fabric from my West African Peace Corps days from 38 years ago, but I don't have any of the clothes that I had made by those genius tailors. Those fabrics were all so weird and bright. They make lovely souvenirs.

    Um, maybe you should explain that "pagne" is a word to describe fabric used in making the long dresses that West African women wear. The way those ladies walked, or glided, in their beautiful narrow-skirted frocks made them look like mermaids to me.

  6. The shirt actually looks much better on and how often can you say that?

  7. I think your fish shirt is super! I love the photo of you all dancing at the May Pole. It looks like such fun. I once bought a blouse because I loved how it looked. It basically had two sleeves, a tiny bit of material and a band across the back. I loved it! I couldn't wear it anywhere, but it was fun to have it. Silly! You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

  8. I love that shirt and I'm so glad you wear it every now and then. It has to be a great conversation piece and the story that goes with it is wonderful. What a great idea for a book. Everyone has something in their wardrobe that has a great story behind it.

  9. That is such a great shirt and what a grand story to go with it. I love this. Now I'm going to look in my closet for a story.

  10. I love that shirt! The colors are right down my alley.

  11. there's something about that pattern that attracts my attention. I think you made a good choice.

  12. I echo everyone else. it is a great shirt and you wear it well.

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  14. I think it is forgiveably Floridian.

  15. Lovely story and wonderful shirt it looks good on you Steve.

  16. My husband would LOVE that fish shirt!

  17. Fabulous shirt, don't ever give it away.

  18. That is a great shirt! It must bring back so many good memories of that time in your life.

  19. That shirt has great colours, and you look good in it :)

    Everybody needs at least one piece of clothing that can start a conversation!

  20. It looks good on you! The fit is spot on.

  21. Alphie: I bet if you think about it you'd be surprised how much backstory some of that prehistoric clothing has!

    YP: True! It would be perfect for him!

    E: It is a cool book. I liked the idea of taking a close look at the stories behind objects we use frequently and take for granted.

    Ms Moon: Yeah, it's like you have to grow into them.

    Vivian: Thanks for explaining "pagne"! I have a couple of pieces of African wax cloth that I use on tables and such, but I find that most of the cloth looks much better on Africans than it does on me.

    LilyCedar: Ha! It's been hanging in my closet for a while so it's looking a bit rumpled in that top photo.

    Edna: It IS funny how sometimes we buy things we can't even use. I've bought some clothes like that too.

    Sharon: It IS a great book idea. Why didn't I think of it?! LOL

    Robin: You've got 'em, I'm sure!

    Bug: With your African experiences you can appreciate it, I'm sure!

    Red: Well, that big ol' fish eye is definitely eye-catching!

    Ellen: Thank you!

    Padre: Done! She has been treated. :)

    Catalyst: It IS Floridian, in a way. I always liked bright clothes when I was younger. I guess growing up in Florida helped me develop that palette.

    Comox: Thanks!

    Jennifer: If I'd known, I'd have had TWO made! LOL

    Sabine: Nope, this one I'm keeping for the long haul.

    Penelope: Absolutely. I don't have a lot of my souvenirs from that time period because they just weren't very practical or useful, but this is a favorite.

    Jenny-O: That's true! Maybe that's why it's a good party shirt. It leads to interaction!

    37P: The tailor did a great job! (As so many of those West African tailors do!)