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Tattered to Perfection

Editor’s Note:  Tad Clark gave us Boat Shoes, and Lynn McElfresh provides another favorite fashion statement!

Labor Day weekend, I went to a Grenell gathering wearing a nametag that read, “Ask me about River Shirts.” That led to each person I encountered asking me, “What’s a River Shirt?

Here’s how I usually described it:

A River Shirt is that special work shirt that is tattered, torn or splattered with paint, but it goes way beyond that. A true River Shirt seems to have a magical quality to make the project you are working on go smoothly. It is your favorite shirt to wear while doing island projects. 

Typically, the guys nod knowingly and women might say something like, “My husband’s entire wardrobe up here is made of River Shirts.” One wife responded that she didn’t allow her husband’s work wardrobe in the cottage. He keeps his work clothes in the boathouse.

Another guy said, “You can tell what I’m going to do by what I have on that day.” He has one shirt for painting and his “crib shirt”-- an old Hawaiian shirt—he wears when working on the boathouse cribs. (For those of you who might not know, cribs are timber piers filled with rocks that form the foundation for a boathouse or a dock.)

But to be fair, many of the women had their own “work wardrobe.” Though I did notice that women were more likely to have a work ensemble—a top and shorts that went together.

Make no mistake, shirts are not the only cherished work wardrobe items. Several guys told me that they didn’t have river shirts, but rather river shorts. One wife nodded.  The shorts, she told me, had so many rips and tears and things dangling off the bottom that she always wanted to rip off the dangling fringe. But I got the distinct idea that altering or repairing cherished river work clothes is strictly verboten.

I heard stories about sweatshirts, hats and even shoes. My mother-in-law had a pair of jeans—dungarees as she called them—that she wore for at least 40 years. She wore them when she gardened, painted and worked on other island projects. I remembered she was wearing them when she shingled the peak of the big cottage.

When I asked if I could have these items for a photo shoot, I could see the panic in my neighbors’ eyes. “Will I get it back?” they’d asked like a two-year old being asked to surrender their blankie to be washed. It was very clear that as tattered and torn as this collection was, they were very secial to the owners.

But no one could out do Steve Sweetapple in his devotion to riverwear. I met Anne Sweetapple when she was the chair of the Gardening committee. It was almost a year later when I met Steve. We had each volunteered our husbands to help install a new flagpole in front of the Community House.

Not that my husband was dressed much better, but Steve’s shirt was almost vaporwear. He was wearing a backless t-shirt. It had a hole so big, it looked like it had designed to show off the back of a starlet on the red carpet. But the front looked more like something a homeless man on Hollywood Avenue might wear. It was stained, dirty and laced with Swiss cheese-like holes.

Anne winced and asked why he hadn’t worn something a little nicer to work here at the Community House. Steve was not at all ashamed of his tattered appearance. On the contrary he seemed quite proud. He raved about how comfortable and soft his River Shirts were. They may look like hell, but were so comfortable.

Steve makes a ritual of burning one River Shirt a year. Usually when it can no longer function as a work shirt. I surmised that the ritual grew out of not only his desire to pay homage to his river shirts, but also to impress upon his wife how important his river shirts were to him, but at the same time placate her by pruning his sacred work wardrobe by one each year.

Every great river man has at least one river shirt that he holds near and dear—tattered to perfection. As I’ve already expressed in my article titled, Cottage Life isn’t for Sissies, the life of an islander requires one to be a jack of all trades: plumber, carpenter, painter, landscaper and day laborer. River shirts are often shirts that have been a part of someone’s summer wardrobe for a decade or more. Sometimes more than a few decades. These tattered shirts are badges of honor, relics of hours of loving maintenance and emblems of devotion to our cottages and island property. Sometimes I wonder if they aren’t really work shirts, but more like superman capes.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Once again we  thank Lynn McElfresh for her special story.  Lynn is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. Lynn has been researching many new stories this summer for our winter issues – we will learn a great deal more in the coming months.      See all of Lynn’s 60+ articles here.

  • A clothesline of dedication

    A clothesline of dedication

  • A river shirt is a badge of honor.

    A river shirt is a badge of honor.

  • Tattered to perfection

    Tattered to perfection


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Dave Lucas
Comment by: Dave Lucas ( )
Left at: 11:31 AM Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Alas, The tan shorts in the above pictures did not survive the Columbus Day closing. In moving porch furniture a corner caught the freyed holes ripped the entire front off. I could continue to wear them, much like Steve Sweetapple, however I would be turned in for indecent exposure. For those who are concerned a proper burial was done.
Siobhan Creem
Comment by: Siobhan Creem ( )
Left at: 12:25 PM Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Great article ! I have my own River work clothes as well. I can name what projects I wore them to do because of distinctive "stains and spots"
Rae Grenell-Fournier
Comment by: Rae Grenell-Fournier ( )
Left at: 10:06 PM Monday, November 4, 2013
Interesting, quirky article. Par for the course, Lynn!