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Background

This question is set in a story where the Yellowstone supervolcano exploded 40 years ago (possibly others, doing research on it) during "The Mining Incident," and following this incident the Midwest and the western edges of Appalachia and the Ozarks are abandoned. A dystopia begins, and citizens are forbidden to enter these regions.

The story begins with a protagonist who escapes into this region, and who will return to challenge the society back home. While here, he finds a partially-buried university, which was evacuated and left as-is at the time of the Mining Incident. Some buildings will be buried under a foot of ash and dirt, some will be partially exposed and the protagonist could climb in through a window.

For the purposes of the question, we're not going to worry about how this amount of ash fell here. We are also going to assume that

  • No windows were broken during the blast (but could break under rain/hail later)
  • No humans have been here since evacuation, with the only possible exception being a guide telling the protagonist to go here (he has taken nothing)
  • Animal life returned about 30 years ago.

Purpose

The character has a particular costume design, and I'm looking at the question of how he comes across the clothing for this costume. There are other possibilities, but like this one in particular as the discovery/donning the clothing is symbolic of later actions in the story.

Question

Given the conditions above, would the protagonist find wearable clothing? He may find a university store, a laboratory supply shop with new clothing in original (plastic wrapped) packaging, and clothing abandoned in offices and dormitories. Among many other goods you would expect to find in this setting.

One other item he may find is a time capsule that, coincidentally, was meant to be opened the year he arrives.

My current thought

My current thought is that wrapped/packaged clothing that isn't in regular direct contact with water would be OK, most anything else would likely have been ruined by humidity and animals.

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    $\begingroup$ Only a foot of ash? Okay, explicitly not worrying about that (simulations I recall suggest most of Appalachia would get at least twice that). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 19 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ It will depend on what the clothing was made of and what the exact conditions were. Wool or cotton in ground water is unlikely to be wearable, for example. Different types of synthetics will age drastically differently. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Jan 19 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ Nylon is essentially immortal. Seventy years old vintage nylon clothing is regularly offered for sale at very moderate prices. (Link goes to a Google search.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 19 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ I have 30-year-old clothing in my closet, unwrapped. Mostly cotton and nylon. Quite wearable. And if I were 10 kilos lighter, they would fit. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 20 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ You might consider researching the concept of "new old stock". Ebay is chock full of ancient clothing still in its original packaging that's been sitting in someone's warehouse since the Eisenhower administration. 40 years is only the 1980s. You can find that in your average Goodwill store! I got a particular kind of necktie on Ebay last year that I think was from the 1940s or 50s. Perfectly wearable and in "like new" condition. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jan 20 at 1:38

8 Answers 8

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All the world's a (dystopian) stage.

If the university happens to run a performing-arts course (I'm assuming), then the theatrical wardrobe - usually a room or set of rooms - might contain considerable clothing (and cloth/thread etc.). Since perfectly (within reason) preserved clothing has been found from Neolithic times, 40 years should be a doddle.

Fire regulations would ensure a good-enough seal to prevent rodents/birds and the like from messing with the stock. And mothballs (naphthalene, replaced in more modern times by camphor) would repel the insects usually associated with eating cloths. Assuming a moderate degree of dryness and stale-air the majority of clothing should be fine. If you decide that the majority isn't, then a minority, fresh from the dry-cleaners in the aftermath of a show, still wrapped in plastic and stored in a theatrical trunk (commercial link, no affiliation) would be fine (the plastic bags may be a bit crumbly and powdery by that time though - plasticisers evaporate).

This would give the writer scope to decide on appropriate styles to fit their taste, from cowboy-outfits through leather-combos to togas and doublet-hose combinations, beautiful. Raising the game a bit you could then get a lucky break with briefs too.

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    $\begingroup$ Beyond the initial discovery by the protagonist, there's a stage where more people start venturing out with him. Since the dystopia engages in cultural destruction, finding costumes and scripts of old plays would be fascinating finds, and something the characters would be wholly unfamiliar with. I may not use it for this question specifically, but your answer is definitely going into the idea bank! $\endgroup$
    – L M
    Jan 20 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ Vacuum storage bags for clothing were also invented in the 80's so some stuff could be stored very well. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 20 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Moth balls work by sublimating, so they work for a short time only. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ "The only clothing that survived is this lot of mankinis that was stored after filming Borat" $\endgroup$
    – Blueriver
    Jan 21 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ Stage costumes are usually stored on hangers, not in plastic bags. Also, stage costumes might not be the best option to wear in a post-apocalyptic setting: They are not durable enough, often made of cheaper materials (especially if we are talking about a university's performance arts faculty), and they are not designed for everyday use. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 21 at 19:24
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I think you could get away with just about anything you would want your character to wear out of this adventure.

I recently had to clear out a grandparent's old mobile home. It is made about as well as a tuff shed. As in, not very well made at all. It had significant ruin in itself, and was located in one of the hottest, most weather worn areas in this region, but the contents within were all in completely normal condition. I even took a cotton shirt from a department store that went out of business in the 50's. Brand new, no signs of wear or insect damage. There was even a stamp collection with stamps in perfect condition from world war 2. So I would say 40 years is completely within the boundaries of reasonable, even if there was a ruination level event that coated the land, but didn't wipe out the buildings.

Don't forget that it's your story. If you need the character to find a silk robe you could do it with minimal explanation and probably be better off than if you tried to overly explain why the garments are in wearable condition.

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In addition to the other answers, I have coats, trousers and some old shirts that are at least 40 years old - doubt I would wear them (due to fashion crime) but they remain wearable. Temperate climate (equivalent to US Oregon coast) but no special care taken to protect the cloths - they just hang in a wardrobe in a spare room.

If the clothing is polymer rather than wool or cotton (poly-pro, rayon, nylon etcc.) then it doesn't hold much interest for bugs or rodents so is unlikely to be spoiled.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course stuff will keep (+1 as you beat me to saying it). Examples: My mother in law had saved some dresses she made for her daughter (my ex) cotton or poly-cotton mainly. They were as good as new 35 years later and did another generation. And vintage stores will happily sell original 70s stuff now. I've even got a 30-year-old T shirt that's wearable (pity I no longer listen to that band). $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jan 20 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ My mother (who hasn't changed size since she was in high school in the 60s) still wears clothing she owned in high school, fashion crimes and all! She has lived in the high, inter-mountain west desert, so humidity is low, but these things get worn on a reasonably regular basis, so they've been laundered for many decades, too. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jan 21 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ My dad was an elementary school (primary/grammar school, depending on where you live) administrator from the mid-1970's until he retired in 2010. He had a very loud polyester leisure suit and all the accessories (wide-collar shirt, etc.) that he purchase new in the late 70's and wore several times a year for special occasions at school (his students loved it). He didn't take any special precautions - just hung it in the closet. That suit is now nearly 45 years old and still in wearable condition. He's also got my grandfather's tux in his closet IIRC. It's ~70 years old and still wearable. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Jan 21 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ They have probably been back in fashion at least once, and will be back again in a couple more years... $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 20:16
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Several items can be found by your protagonist

Raincoats

Headgear

Belts

Footgear

Habit

Leather Jacket

Pyjamas

Stage wear (see above answer ! mostly preserved well)

Neckties (not really useful, but they last)

Wedding dress (just in case)

Rarely worn, good quality, sturdy fabric .. an uncle of mine claimed he still wore his 45 years old Ski socks. He took them for his 2 weeks vacation to Switzerland, nearly every year in that period.

In times of need..

It depends on the circumstances, what you're prepared to accept. In the old days, clothes lasted much longer. They would be repaired again and again. In times of need, your protagonist could try to put on a blue jeans, a T-shirt, or a sweater.. Footwear won't be an issue. Dutch farmers early 20th century were known for wearing clogs or wooden shoes and they had many pairs, which could be passed over for generations..

Preservation

Q: "My current thought is that wrapped/packaged clothing that isn't in regular direct contact with water would be OK, most anything else would likely have been ruined by humidity and animals."

No moist indeed ! it should be extra dry.. and cool.. and be careful.. cite

Storing: Store textiles in a cool, dry location. Avoid using trunks or boxes in hot attics or in damp basements or garages. Damp conditions can encourage the growth of mold as well as attract insects. An environment comfortable for people is suitable for textiles.

Handling: To avoid causing stress, especially on older textiles, handle all textiles gently with two hands. Large items, such as antique quilts, often cannot bear their own weight safely, so support them with a box or a support board if they have to be lifted. The two-hands approach will help to keep items from becoming distorted and misshapen. Make sure your hands are clean. While unfolding items, stop if your actions seem to be causing damage.

Textile preservation is a profession. Info about it,

https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/summer/preserve-textiles.html

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Suit. In a garment bag.

suit bag

Your protagonist finds some offices. One has some pictures of a guy who looks like him and who is about his size. There is a picture of him receiving an award. There is a bag hanging in the corner and in it is the Italian suit the guy was wearing to receive the award. The rest of the ensemble in in the bag too, including dress shoes.

It fits your character perfectly. He looks in the mirror and combs his hair.

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    $\begingroup$ The intended costume is that of a mad scientist in black pants, button-up shirt, and tie with a lab coat. This seems like a pretty reasonable find in university lab offices. $\endgroup$
    – L M
    Jan 20 at 4:50
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    $\begingroup$ @LM Actually, what makes a mad scientist uniform are tall black rubber, boots, black rubber gloves, and a lab coat. If you wear these three things most everything else is irrelevant. I looked normal at work wearing a lab coat until I started wearing black rubber boots or black glove. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 20 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen - your own idiosyncratic style was best characterized not by the excess of rubber but by the lack of pants. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 20 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk Sometimes less is more. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 20 at 22:23
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Must the clothing come from the university? In the process of wandering across the landscape, the protagonist would no doubt pass by partially buried Walmarts and the highways littered with hundreds of cargo trucks loaded with shipping containers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great Question. The university will have special narrative significance (i.e. it represents something a Wal-Mart or random house would not), but yes, later on in the story that question will be explored. $\endgroup$
    – L M
    Jan 20 at 17:52
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One small detail. While fabric will last in a sealed warehouse/store, the elastic will likely not (especially if there are significant seasonal temperature changes). Some poor quality zippers may also not last. Metal zippers should be fine if not exposed to moisture. The condition of leather will depend on the environment (leather may become too stiff, for example). But it is not impossible to find well-preserved belts, shoes, etc. Your character might need to get some saddle soap, though.

Likely, the best choice would be clothes with buttons or no notions at all (simple T-shirts, trousers with buttons, etc.). That would help to avoid sudden wardrobe malfunctions.

There is one more consideration. The 1980s is the time when fast fashion started. This led to a much lower quality of clothing in terms of both materials and craftsmanship1. While the materials contain much more synthetic fibres and may be preserved better (especially knits), this clothing was not meant to last for more than a season (several wears, a couple of washes) and lacks durability. This kind of clothing is likely to be prevalent in a university town, where the shops target students who lack money and consume fashion faster.

It might be a good idea to look for higher-quality clothing in professors' homes and dry cleaner shops.

Underwear might be a problem. In my memory about the 1980s, almost all male underwear had some kind of elastic. However, gentlemen in the comments pointed out some alternatives. I would suggest checking underwear fashion trends and sales for the year of eruption if underwear appears in the story.

I think that in general, it would be a good idea to check fashion trends for the specific location at the time of the eruption. Stores stock different clothes depending on location. And, while some styles and brands may exist in principle, they might not be available at your location. For example, it is very unlikely that a small university town has a store selling haute couture.

There is also a seasonality factor. While the houses will have clothes for all seasons, the stores will most likely carry clothes that are appropriate for the current season. This is especially the case for fast fashion brands.


1 This does not mean that all clothing is of poor quality. Some clothing, especially expensive and work clothing, should be relatively durable and well-made.

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    $\begingroup$ latex free draw string boxers do exist so underwear may not be impossible. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 20 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @John Thank you for this detail. I am not very familiar with men's underwear. How common was this design in the 1980s? I do not remember seeing it in the stores. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 20 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure, but drawstring underwear was more common. and of course you have the one piece underwear that was far more common back then. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 20 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Similar to @John's suggestion - boxer-style pyjama shorts sometimes have drawstrings and would serve as underwear. Then there's Lycra/Spandex. Or just gloss over the issue and don't mention anything that's part of the appearance $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jan 21 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I've got plastic zips on stuff that's 25+ years old, but chunky ones on good quality garments (remember when fleece was only found in specialist outdoors shops and cost quite a bit?). I reckon zip are more likely to fail through use than anything else, unlike elastic, which is a good point $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jan 21 at 15:56
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The dorms of your university could reasonably contain many textile time capsules in the form of cedar chests.

Traditionally, these large chests were owned by unmarried women and used to store linens, etc. that they'd need once married. These chests haven't really been used for that purpose in several generations, but they're frequently still passed down to younger family members, particularly in the American South and Midwest. They're large, sturdy storage containers that frequently double as a piece of furniture. I know a number of people (male and female) who used such a chest in college. It transported their wardrobe, and could be called into service as a coffee table as needed. They would have been even more popular 40 years ago.

These chests are frequently lined with cedar, which repels moths and other insects. Their heavy lid closes tightly and latches shut. They're designed to protect their contents from the home environment, from exposure to weather, and from time itself. You could probably even dig one out of a pile of ash and find that the contents of the chest were undamaged.

My family has an old cedar chest that originally belonged to (I believe) my great-grandmother. It has blankets and quilts in it that my my great-aunts made when they were relatively young. The chest is probably a century old, and the quilts are at least 60 years old. I checked the contents after reading this question, and even the blankets at the very bottom are (aside from the musty smell) still in more or less the same condition that they were in when they were stored in the chest back in the mid 1980's.

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  • $\begingroup$ This university will be visited multiple times and some characters may found a little village here, so this could be an interesting find in a house or apartment building in the abandoned "college town" nearby. $\endgroup$
    – L M
    Jan 28 at 11:02

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