When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
The shirt is a gauzy, lime green halter top, covered in hot pink and yellow flowers, and is just slightly ill-fitting. It looks nothing like my regular going-out uniform of high-necked black shirts, and a lot like something teen me would’ve worn in a game of Flirty Adult Dress-Up—just an absolute mid-life crisis of a top. I’ve only worn it once, on one of those delusional, optimistic nights that you overgroom and overdress for, despite knowing in your gut that nothing special is going to happen. But that’s fine, because this is a breakup shirt; it being just slightly wrong is a feature, not a glitch.
We all have our own personal heartache rituals, ranging in levels of irresponsibility; one of mine is to buy an absolutely bad-news top. A breakup top is always purchased within about a week of a relationship ending, when you’re still in that disgusting and invigorating skin-shedding phase, and are equally thrilled and terrified to discover your new single-person personality. It’s a shirt you’d normally never buy; a clear departure from the rest of your closet. It doesn’t necessarily scream “cry for help,” but is definitely slightly unhinged. And—this is the most crucial rule—it’s something you’ll absolutely only wear once.
I make this same $30-ish mistake after every breakup, knowing each time that I won’t like the shirt or wear it again after its debut outing. Each of my breakup tops is distinctly different from the others. The one I bought at the beginning of 2017 was an American Apparel bodysuit I got on clearance, as the last store was closing in Brooklyn. My ex was someone who hated going out (frankly, I hate it too) and I imagined this was the sort of flimsy thing you were supposed to wear at “a club.” Later that year, right after another, brief relationship ended, I bought a breakup shirt that’s technically a blazer, and which would’ve been cool if it didn’t have cartoonishly oversized shoulder pads and lapels. I remember seeing it in the thrift store and thinking my ex, who’d always felt like the bigger personality between us, would’ve hated it. I imagined chaotic, glam nights smoking cigarettes from its tiny pockets. In reality, I only wore it once and donated it a few months later, sick of seeing my uncharacteristic decision staring at me from my closet.
No one is of sound mind when they buy a breakup shirt, and the shirt reflects that. Buying a flamboyant top (or blazer) is like the low-risk version of getting emotional distress bangs; it’s a projection of what was maybe missing in the relationship, or of the sort of person I Imagine myself to be, now that I’m single. It’s a stroke of optimism, a souvenir from the denial phase of grieving the lost relationship. Before the pain sets in, before doing the actual work of sorting through my feelings, I buy and wear a kooky shirt and have fun in it.
In no way does the shirt heal me. Under no circumstances will anything remarkable happen to me while wearing the shirt. But neither of those things are the shirt’s responsibility. This is ultimately an emotional tax write-off, the price of the toll bridge every newly single person must cross on their journey from the land of just dumped to feeling better.
Do you have breakup shirts of your own? Rather than leaving them sitting in the back of your drawers and closets, feeling neglected and gathering dust, let’s celebrate them. Send a picture of one (or several) of your breakup shirts to email@example.com.
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