New Art Project Highlights the Intoxicating Power of an Ex’s Shirt

Sight, sound, and touch can tap into our emotions in remarkable ways. I’m still shocked how quickly middle school comes rushing back every time I open a container for acne wipes. (Oh, the sweet pimply memories.) But nothing compares to the swell of feelings that arise when you dig out an ex’s crumpled old shirt from your closet. It is, to say the least, intense.

In a new picture series appropriately titled “Lovers Shirts,” photographer Carla Richmond Coffing and writer Hanne Steen of HERCLAYHEART explore the power of clothing, specifically, clothing owned by previous boyfriends or girlfriends.

According to their artist’s statement, the purpose of the project was to allow the public to “bear witness to the complexity of the human experience of romantic love through the mundane and universal token of a lover’s shirt, and the unique expression of the person who wears it.”

In order to do this, the pair put their subjects through a very specific process. Rather than jumping right into the photo session, Sheen and Coffing began by prompting the women to recall memories of their past lover, good or bad. Halfway through the reflection process, Hanne started to photograph the subjects, hoping to capture the raw emotion that such stories can produce.

From the looks of it, the project certainly achieved this goal. From tear-soaked cheeks and blank stares to forlorn looks and sly laughter, every person’s expression tells a different story. Some in particular stood out to me as I scrolled through the pages, like this one:

Behind her crooked (and fabulous) orange glasses, I see a mixture of sadness and, more notably, fear. The wide-eyed gaze into the distance paired with the crossed arms highlights the woman’s exposed vulnerability, one that she’s trying to protect.

Others are so wrapped up in their emotions, they reflect that in the way they interact with the shirts themselves. One woman appears to become physically tangled in the shirt, crossing her arms over her chest through the holes in the sides and top.

It’s impressive how much your eyes can change a picture and the meaning behind it, though. In one of the later pictures, a woman strikes the same pose but gazes confidently and inquisitively into the camera, making the kind of face your mother might after you’ve made a cheeky comment, as if to say, “Pick your next words very carefully.”

Not everyone was so bold. Most pictures reflect a lingering sadness, pain even.

But Coffing and Sheen didn’t stop there. Using anonymous statements from the participants, the pair put together a poem to accompany their photo series:

While I haven’t stolen any articles of clothing from my exes quite yet, I know all too well the power of a memory, especially when you unintentionally attach it to something and are forced to relive that moment every time you see the object around the house or on the street. Sometimes, all it takes is a quick whiff of cologne or the taste of a certain pasta dish to transport you back in time. The familiarity of an old shirt across your back, a memory-infused fabric sewn with comfort or pain, can bring you to a place that’s no longer within your reach. (Who needs time machines when you’ve got your brain, right?) Capturing that feeling, the emotional weight of memories, on camera is an ambitious goal, but Sheen and Coffing accomplished it better than I could have ever imagined, and reminded us how universal love and heartbreak can truly be.

To see the full photo series, visit their website