Utility as Virtue: On Clothes That Do Something

I was ten years old when The Mysterious Benedict Society was released and the one thing that sticks with me to this day (besides the titular character having an unbelievably inconvenient, plot-wise, case of narcolepsy) is the fact that one of the protagonists, an overwhelmingly strong twelve-year-old named Kate, carries around a singular accessory: a red bucket “containing various items which she thinks are useful, including an army knife, a flashlight, a pen, a rope, a bag of marbles, a slingshot, a spool of clear fishing twine, a horseshoe magnet and a spyglass disguised as a kaleidoscope.”

The fictionalized perfection of this bucket (it eventually gets an upgrade, if I recall correctly, to have a lid, but even when it does not I don’t remember any of these various items ever falling out or becoming impossibly entangled) enchanted me as a child and still haunts me as a specter of The Perfect Object, one that meets every single need that could conceivably arise in a given situation, whether that involves taking care of a hangnail or setting a trap for your narcoleptic caretaker’s evil twin brother. This bucket cursed me for life with an obsession over always having all the tools at hand to address any potential disasters, no matter how big or small.

This has manifested in a miserable fashion roadblock for me. Wherever I go, I MUST have on hand: my medicine bag (containing a staggering variety of pills, nail clippers, tweezers, hand sanitizer and lotion, toothbrush and paste, floss, sunscreen, and more), a pot of lavender-honey Burt’s Bees balm, an extra layer if it’s anywhere below 67 degrees outside, my planner, a notebook, at LEAST one book (preferably 2, of different genres in case I grow weary of one), my glasses, sunglasses, and glasses wipe, a water bottle, a snack, chewing gum, a phone charger, a lighter… I’m one mysterious note-bearing balloon away from going full Katie and adding a slingshot to my load.

The worst thing is, whenever I try to “pare down” on this ridiculous baggage, I end up regretting it, ending up with a sunburn or dehydration or 2 hours stuck on the train with no phone battery, no book, no writing utensil… Inevitably, I end up the fool, lugging my fifty-pound Topo Designs backpack to and fro, compounding my already-bad skeletal pain but always having the delightful ability to produce whatever I or a friend (or stranger on the subway) may need from the depths of my luggage.

All this to say I have had a fixation with utility and functionality that surpasses or even defines aesthetics in a garment/accessory for as long as I’ve been dressing myself. Some functions that clothing can provide besides the baseline of “covering your genitals so as not to get in legal trouble upon stepping outside” include: insulating, shading, heating, cooling, protecting, storing, organizing, compartmentalizing, cushioning, shielding, informing, warning, entertaining, weaponizing, augmenting range or power of motion, and conversation-starting.

Here are some garments, organized by type, that perform one or more of these functions. If you have any suggestions (especially for the perfect ergonomically sound but still transcendently gorgeous backpack) please drop them in the comments!


Tamiami II Long-Sleeve Shirt

Everyone should own a quick-dry, UV-resistant camp shirt. Look, you can even fasten the sleeves at the elbows. This shit isn’t just for dads and when you avoid your next sunburn or have to wash your clothes in a motel bathtub and hang them to dry, this shirt will make its full glory KNOWN.

Detachable Sleeve Sweater

This… garment (I hesitate to call it a sweater as that would raise some ontological questions about the nature of sweaters that I’m not ready to answer) can be worn as a halter top, bolero, sweater, scarf, probably tied around your head, the possibilities are expansive and exciting.

Construction Vest

You sure as shit won’t need to carry a bag when you’re strapped with THIS guy. “There are twin pockets in the back, four double-bottomed front hanging pockets for nail-screws, and even your smartphone can snuggled up in its own individual sleeping bag-like pocket.” OK, CUTE! And the seams are so reinforced you’ll be able to lose the tic of touching your pockets every 2 seconds to make sure your keys didn’t gouge an escape hole. The silhouette of this vest is unlike any garment I’ve ever seen before, which is exciting. To keep this from looking too uhhh “Columbine-core,” I would pair with loose pants or a skirt and/or a tweed jacket on top. You could also stuff the pockets with flowers and the dirt would not get on your undershirt, guaranteed (probably)!

Poncho Turtleneck

I firmly believe that ponchos are utility items in that they don’t require finagling with sleeves, meaning that if you’re wearing a jumpsuit or some such underneath you don’t have to take off your outer layer and hang it on a grizzly bathroom wall in order to access your crotch, and also because they allow you to wear a blanket in public without making you look like that one kid in eighth grade who always wore cookie monster pajamas to school.


Pleated Pants with Straps

These come with a removable belt (what a steal, haha, just kidding still wildly expensive) but the kicker is those ANKLE STRAPS which not only produce a sick silhouette but are nifty as hell if you’re gonna be biking or doing any other activity that involves pant cuffs + spokes.

Convertible Hiking Pants

Convertible Pants

These are just classics. They make you look like you are ready for anything, even if you’re just ready for a day that starts at 60 degrees and eventually graduates to 75. My third-grade self thought these were the coolest things imaginable, and when it comes to sartorial judgements, my third-grade self was almost always right.

Striped Bloomers

Another case for cinchable pant legs! These are ideal for layering and lounging.


Convertible Chore Coat and Double Knee Pants

Admin reveal

One of the few *luxury purchases* I’ve made for myself when my workplace purchased my laptop from me a few months ago was this glorious set. I can’t watch porn or buy drugs anymore, but it was TOTALLY WORTH IT. The sleeves unzip at the elbows and you can remove the panel of pockets on each pant leg (and there are so many pockets that, for a recent event, I transferred most of my aforementioned *necessary items* to various segments of my legs and was able to make it through a few hours without my backpack). This set is so incredibly easy to wear, looks cool as hell, and has an outrageous amount of storage potential (though you might find you need a belt reinforcement when things get heavy).

Lighterleash Longsleeve and Sweats

This brand, Foo and Foo, has an excellent sense of both humor and motion in their garments. This tee and sweat combo exemplifies both–they look cool as hell, are hilarious, but are ultimately very practical if you are always the “lighter friend” and seem to shed them recklessly. You can also bunch up these garments in interesting ways using the lighters and strategic snap closures, which I think is extremely entertaining and gives you infinity looks for the price of one.

Gardening Bib Overalls

These have a goddamn CROUCH GUSSET. I thiiiink that means the crotch is reinforced, which rocks. They have UV protection, ripstop fabric that repels water and dirt, and are machine washable. I cannot see anything wrong with this garment.


Leather ID Wallet Necklace/Crossbody

If I were ever going to ditch my egregiously heavy luggage, I would require this crossbody. I love the carabiner detail.

Tilley Wanderer Hat

This hat can be snapped into 4 different positions, has UV protection and a cord for safekeeping, comes in a few different lovely colors, and makes you look like an Australian bushwhacking hottie.

Scarfy Straw Bucket Hat and Warmy Ear Muff

Misu A Barbe creates the most darling (possibly the only time I will ever use that adjective on this blog) headgear, these are my favorites! I tend to wear a hat/scarf combo very often (the hat keeps the scarf securely on one’s head while the scarf provides ear and neck coverage) and the idea of combining them into one hat is pure brilliance, while the earmuffs are just shockingly gorgeous and perfect if you have a hat-hair phobia or habitually wear your hair up.

Hebrew York Hat

If you’re a Jew and are tired of making Jewish jokes on the subway and feeling like you have to turn to everyone around you and say “IT”S OK, I’M ALLOWED, I’M JEWISH,” this hat is a very useful tool.

Canister Hoops Silver

I love storing things in unexpected places. You could keep your lunch money in rolled-up bills, a smoke, a tiny vial of your loved one’s blood, sprigs of lavender… the possibilities are enormous.

Phone Holder

This looks like it could hold not only a phone but a notebook or recording device as well if you’ve gotten weird like me and started carrying a recorder around wherever you go, hoping to catch something inspiring. The chains could also be super useful, stick a carabiner on them and you can pretty much have your PKW (phone, keys, wallet) situation taken care of in one accessory.

Gathering Bag

This is just a paean to my bucket fetish (but also there really is something that feels useful about having a bag you don’t have to root around in looking for things, you can just see everything in it plain as day). Obviously not a bag for long travels/expensive, irreplaceable objects but for collecting (flowers, mushrooms, phone numbers? And then you can just pick one out of the bucket at random like a schoolteacher picking the next kid who gets to be the official class pencil sharpener or what have you. I don’t know where this is going anymore, I’m high on the idea of a BUCKET BAG).

Mountain Hip Pack

You can wear this across your chest, back, around your hips, attach a bajillion things to the bungee cords and loops, stuff it full of M&Ms or explosives… It comes in a bunch of cool colors, including plain black which looks nice, but I liked this shade of blue (and realize it’s kind of a throughline in this post–it IS my favorite color).

Chase Bike Vest

I think Camelbaks will and should come to the fashion scene. We are all fucking dehydrated husks and could use the easily accessible water, not to mention this pack makes you look like you are about to journey to the center of the earth, not just a different borough. I like these colors, too.

Leather Gloves

Leather gloves saved my ass when I used to be a barista and would bike to work at 5 AM in the dead of winter, and they make you look like you’re capable of crime. Won’t leave fingerprints, either!

Key Hanger Belt

This is OSTENSIBLY a key hanging belt but it’s just a belt with a nice slick looking clip on it, you could hang an entire tailored suit on your way back from the dry cleaner’s on it, or a sun catcher, or a metal tea strainer, or an EXTRA BELT, ok I’ll shut up now.

Raptor Steel Toe Boots

Waterproof Steel Toe Boots

I think steel toe boots are a great investment. You are guaranteed not to stub your toe, you can easily hold a door open or kick an aggressor’s jaw in, and these pairs look cool.

Thanks for reading, let me know if you end up making any utilitarian investments in any of these garments or if you just find a godforsaken red bucket and start carrying all your proverbial or literal marbles around in it. That would be such a power move.

<3 HR

One response to “Utility as Virtue: On Clothes That Do Something”

  1. […] to me, you could say, and I’m all the better for it), I am typically a big proponent of utilitarian fashion. I like feeling protected and armed by my garments. But recently, I’ve come around to the […]

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