A Life Lived in Overalls

· Memory, imprint, and a grandpa’s aesthetic ·

Papa, Dwayne “Captain Padge” Padgett, in his trademark overalls

My grandpa was a fashion icon.

Okay, so maybe he didn’t wear the most fashionable suits and no, he wasn’t known outside of his close friends and family. But he was a fashion icon to our family in his own right.

Papa, as we called him, had one of the most deeply rooted and strongest aesthetics of anyone I’ve known of or met. Except for the occasions when he needed to dress up a little, Papa could always be found in denim overalls and (often) a white t-shirt. For literally his entire life, this was his favored attire and his closet had rows of these utilitarian garments: solid and pinstriped, light blue and dark blue, Roundhouse being a favored brand.

Dwayne, Collins, WA 08_10_1939 done
Papa in 1939, already wearing those overalls

I realized this recently as my mom and I were going through old slides. There he was, in the sixties on Christmas morning, in a pair of pinstriped overalls and a white t-shirt trying on his new Captain’s hat. It was then that I realized my grandpa, the grandpa who fished and gardened all day, who built model airplanes and ships and had a “School Bus Yellow” 1925 Ford Model TT truck, had developed a distinct and recognizable style and brand over the years that today’s Instagram stars would be jealous of.

That’s why when he passed away last year, those overalls took on almost supernatural meaning. Clothes can already have such a significant connection to our loved ones. In “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” Peter Stallybrass writes:

The magic of cloth, I came to believe, is that it receives us: receives our smells, our sweat, our shape even. And when our parents, our friends, our lovers die, the clothes in their closets still hang there, holding their gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead…. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive (36-37).

Those overalls were a physical embodiment of Papa. They had gone everywhere he had gone, they had done everything he had done, and, most of all, they were exactly how we remember him. They had received Papa’s imprint in the strongest way possible and these overalls became a physical example of the memory of Papa (Stallybrass 37-38).

Papa with great-grandson Whalen on Christmas morning. Whalen was given a pair of overalls to match Papa, a tradition shared by all of Papa’s grandkids – boy and girl alike

What to do with these overalls was an early question after he passed away, so strong was the association between the man and the clothes. Different ideas were floated before my grandma, a master quilter, decided she would fashion (pun intended) a quilt out of them. In the first winter after he’d passed away, she lovingly repurposed cloth that held Papa’s smell, gestures, and imprint into a beautiful quilt incorporating stains, pockets and a gradient of denim blues. And when she finished, she could literally be hugged by the memory of Papa. She also made pillows so we could all keep a piece of Papa with us, as well. Receiving these gifts was a profound moment, a mixture of grief, love, and contentment.

Papa quilt
The quilt, beautifully sewn by my grandma

Because his overalls may not look like a fashion statement to many, but to us, they represented him. And in this way, through this “style” and these garments turned pillows, he can live on with us forever.

Great-grandson Raleigh spontaneously demonstrating how much love the Papa pillows represent

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