By Maggie Shui
This photo essay was first published on March 26, 2023. It was republished on December 27, 2023.
You can track the recovery period after a break-up in a variety of ways.
As your ex fades from your life, you might see them dip lower and lower in the list of people watching your Instagram stories.
The notes app entries where you try to capitalise off your raw emotional state and attempt some Rupi Kaur-esque poetry gradually get buried under new notes.
And the clothes they left at your house start to lose their scent and their sanctity.
As part of our docuseries Dating While Asian, Re: News spoke to three people who kept their ex’s clothes about how it was healing, empowering or sometimes, just a solid ‘fit.
One Sunday afternoon, Yawynne found herself sobbing to Julia Jacklin on the motorway.
She’d just had an idyllic day with her boyfriend and was now driving alone across town on an errand.
The night before, she’d gone out with a friend and had a super fun night.
“We stayed out super late. And I was like, ‘holy fuck, I haven't done this in ages.’ It’s a big moment of: oh my god, this is what it's like to live a life without him.”
It struck her that ever since she moved to Tāmaki Makaurau at the age of 19, she’d never been single.
“All of my experiences in Auckland had been shared with a partner. When we moved into [my current flat] I had a psychotic meltdown. I was like, oh my god, I have to do it alone. I don't know how to make a bed.”
While Yawynne and her ex did the customary swapping of boxes of belongings, she kept a brown knit jumper he’d bought second hand for a trip to the South Island with Yawynne’s family.
“I remember putting it on a wire hanger and being like ‘fuck, this just reminds me of my trip to the South Island with someone I really loved.’”
But when she needed something cosy, warm and easy to throw on, it became her go-to.
“This jumper is one of the few chill things that I have in my wardrobe. Everything else is like really beautiful mohair knits that you have to care for and brush. A lot of structured jackets.
“This is the perfect jumper for if you're having a lazy night out and you're going out for takeaways with your friends at the beach. I was on a camping trip with my flatmates and I laid in the sand in this jumper and let the sand sweep all over me.”
She started to accumulate new memories with the jumper, both with her friends and on her own, as she came to terms with how co-dependent she’d become in past relationships.
“It’s there for me in those moments where I’m like, oh, I can look after myself.”
The first month after Louisa broke up with her ex-boyfriend, she used his t-shirt as a pillowcase.
It was comforting, and made her feel like she “still had someone there”.
“I just wanted to hold onto it so hard,” she says, referring to both the relationship and the pink polo.
Raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Louisa came to Aotearoa as a teen and is now studying HR and management.
In the immediate aftermath of the breakup, she was tempted to call him back and tell him she’d made a mistake.
“But I knew that at one point, you just have to let it go. The best way that I can describe it is right person, wrong time.”
Previous to Shirt Guy, however, was Shorts Guy, an ex who she’d gifted a pair of tan shorts.
He would dictate what she wore, wouldn’t let her drink energy drinks and made comments about her wearing too much makeup.
She dated him from the age of 15 to 18 and could track the ways he dimmed her personality through how her clothing changed while she was with him.
“I was young and I was so scared of being alone,” she says.
When she broke up with him, the first thing she did was go to a nearby petrol station and buy an energy drink.
When it came time to return each other’s things, she realised he had a bunch of clothes she bought for him, including the pair of tan shorts. She asked for them all back.
“When we broke up, that's when I was just like, I'm gonna speak my mind. I don't care if he's gonna hate me, if he's not gonna want to see me ever again… It felt so good knowing that at least I could take something back,” Louisa says.
“I needed some sort of power back.”
Now, the pink polo is a reminder of what she deserves, and the shorts are a caution to not compromise herself for a future partner.
“The girlfriend persona that I had was to satisfy his every need. If he needed validation I would give it. If he wanted me to be a really nice church girl for his family, I would do it. And it's not who I am at all. So yeah fuck him. I keep the shorts.”
A month after Quinn and his ex-girlfriend broke up, his friend took him out for a photoshoot in Raglan.
When looking for something to wear, they pulled out a faded band tee that belonged to his ex.
Quinn was hesitant but his photographer friend said “nah, just wear it”.
“And I did. And the photos turned out really cool… Especially after a relationship ending, and not getting that constant validation, it was like, wow, these photos look real cool.”
That was the first time he’d worn the t-shirt since the breakup.
Fresh after the breakup, he was adjusting to life without that constant validation.
“The big thing was words of affirmation. ‘You're great. You smell great.’ Just all of those compliments. It's something that I really feed on. And when you're just getting that all the time, it definitely helps you when you're not feeling that great.”
“I think there was definitely a part of me that was kind of relying on it,” Quinn says.
He’d kept the t-shirt and a quarter-zip jumper that also once belonged to his ex deep in the drawer so he didn’t have to look at them.
“It made me think of all the fun times, and all of a sudden it was like those aren’t supposed to be good memories anymore.”
Over time, however, he started to see the relationship with clearer eyes. He saw how he was leaning on his ex for validation, and that the relationship had caused him to cut off a lot of his friends.
“I saw all the flaws. Actually, that was a really terrible relationship to be in.”
Once he took the relationship off its pedestal, the clothes lost their aura and emotional weight as well.
An object that he once couldn’t bear to look at became an ordinary t-shirt that he happened to look good in.
“If you dissipate that, it can help you move on.”
Where to get help:
- 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
- Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training.
- Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
- OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.
This is a companion article to our docuseries Dating While Asian. Watch the series here or one of the episodes below:
Watch the first episode of Dating While Asian now ❤️?
No more hookups with guys who don’t have bed frames.
How much does wanting external validation factor into who you choose to date?