The Shelf Life of Expatriate Clothes

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The Shelf Life of Expatriate Clothes

In Djibouti we drink UHT milk. This is milk that can sit on the shelf forever, until it is opened and then it must be refrigerated. We also call it “long-life milk.”

There is no such thing as “long-life clothes” in Djibouti. This is due to:

  • sweat that requires us to change at least once a day six months out of the year
  • salty tap water that wreaks havoc on laundry (and appliances)
  • blistering sun that dries the laundry since we don’t have a dryer
  • dust and crows and fly poop that stains the laundry on the line
  • the fact that we have essentially only two seasons: hot and hotter
  • inexpensive but poorly made clothes available locally that often fall apart after one wash
  • and being worn by a member of the Jones family which means dirt, ketchup, BBQ sauce, or many other types of stains

All these factors conspire against clothes lasting very long IF we count length of time as the way it is traditionally counted, as in, with the passage of time.

(I’d like to see a commercial for a detergent that can handle this:)


IF, however, we count length of clothing time in terms of the numbers of seasons worn, I think I have some incredibly long-wearing clothes.

I’m from Minnesota. In Minnesota there are four seasons and everyone, legitimately, has four sets of clothes. This means if I wear my winter sweaters for a single winter, though I have only worn them for one season, I have gotten a full year’s worth of use from that purchase.

Djibouti has really only one season. Other than blue jeans (which I wear in January, only and only because I insist on blue jeans at least once a year, just to retain the semblance of normality), I wear my clothes all year-round.

If I wear a shirt winter, spring, summer, and fall, which in Djibouti is pretty much all the same, I have worn it for four Minnesota seasons.

Shelf Life of Clothes

Translation: I have gotten four years’ worth of use from that purchase.

Today as I talked clothes with another American friend, I looked down at the tank top I was wearing. Navy blue, so the sweat stains don’t show up easily. Pretty boring, but also timeless. I bought this tank top five years ago and am still wearing it.

Translation: I have gotten twenty years’ worth of use from that tank top.


Great news for that tank top, a wise choice.

There are negatives to this, however. The negatives come in the forms of swimsuits, underwear and bras, and anything that isn’t black or navy blue.

I had a white t-shirt this fall. It lasted about two months before the armpits were stained yellow. That was a single-season/single-year wear.

Swimsuits tend to last less than one calendar year. By Djibouti-clothing-math that does equal four years of Minnesota swim-wear, but it also means we have to plan accordingly and bring more than one or two back, buying swimsuits locally isn’t an option.

Let’s not even talk underwear and bras.

I’m coming to Minnesota this summer. I will be shopping. I will buy things and then will feel sick when I see the piles of swimsuits and shoes and skirts for my family of five laid out to be packed into a suitcase.

Then I will remind myself that I haven’t shopped for a year this time and probably won’t for the next two full years. I am shopping for eight years worth of a warm season. For five people. Translation: Forty years of clothes! And I know, from years of experience now, that two years from now, come mid-April our clothes start to disintegrate, stretch, and become permanently misshapen. When everyone has yellow pits and holes and see-through shorts and unmentionable unmentionables, that’s the sign. That’s how we know it is time for a break.

Like my math? How do you figure clothes-math?

By |June 23rd, 2015|Categories: Djibouti Life, Expat Thoughts|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. yusuf H June 23, 2015 at 6:20 am - Reply

    Now, I understand why Djiboutian females buy new DIRI’IS every few weeks or for every occasion or holiday. I thought they were wasting a fortune on clothes unnecessarily. There is a Somali proverb, which says ‘a person with hump must know how to sleep’, which is similar to the proverb, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’. I think you do not need to shop in MN, and then worry about packing for five people. You most learn how to dress like the Djibouti people, unless they are backward, unclean and tasteless.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones June 23, 2015 at 8:19 am - Reply

      Great point about Djiboutian women – they are certainly not backward, unclean, or tasteless! My friends are usually dressed so well I feel like the one who is tasteless. The thing is, when I dress like a Djiboutian I can’t pull it off very well and trip over the slip or can’t quite get the colors and fashion right. My friends do help me, but not every day! I’ll say though, my favorite pair of trousers ever is a pair I bought here, I would wear them every day if I could. They are starting to wear out and I have been hunting for a replacement…insha allah.

  2. mamahousemouse June 24, 2015 at 3:33 am - Reply

    I love the idea of wearing Djiboutian clothing… it does make sense. Maybe once per week?

    My clothes-math is calculated per wearing. A lot of my clothing is purchased secondhand, but other than a single denim skirt, my skirts are purchased new. I wait for holiday sales, and pick them up at 40-50% off. A $15 skirt, when I wear it every 6 days, (yes, I own 6 “bottoms”) wears out in about two years… which by my math, means that it has cost me about 12 cents per wearing. In comparison, I have a dozen shirts that cost anywhere from $2-5 from thrift stores. Because they’re secondhand, they tend to last about the same two years before they are too worn, BUT because I have twice as many – they’re each worn half as often. Because I saved so much in purchasing them however, the average per-day cost for my shirts tends to be about 4 cents.

    Just at the moment, I find myself losing weight far faster than I am wearing my clothes out… so RIGHT now I am taking advantage of the short-term relationship with each item of clothing to explore styles & cuts from the thrift store I have never worn before. But usually… yep, it’s per wearing.

  3. Gamaliel Ortiz June 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    Living in Haiti, we relate very well to this!! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jil Christiansen June 29, 2015 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this article! Though I lived in a 4 seasons spot overseas, because the local clothes didn’t fit me, I knew what it was like to go through clothes way faster than I would in the U.S. My work pants have massive holes after 6 months? Well, I did wear them 5 times a week for 6 months, and in American time that is years! The blouse has noticeable pit stains after 3 years? During the summer months it was worn at least once a week in high humidity sans air conditioning. It felt strange to throw a lot of my clothes away before I left, but I knew it was with good reason.

  5. Anna July 4, 2015 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    We have 2 seasons- rainy & slightly less rainy, always hot! It’s nice that we just need one season of clothes, but they do wear out fast! Most things last 9-12 months, but it sounds better to think of that as 3-4 years in terms of seasons.

  6. Bethany July 8, 2015 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    So do you experience the bizarre phenomena we experience in Central America…the mysterious small holes in your shirts around the bellybutton area?? And THANKS for sharing…i totally agree with this math!!!!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 9, 2015 at 3:56 am - Reply

      Ah! Too funny. No, we don’t. But we do have mysterious small holes other places and faded colors and strange designs that appear on shirts…

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