On a deserted beach in New Zealand, I encountered a pair of shoes abandoned in the sand. The shoes were neatly arranged, as if left temporally by a swimmer who expected to collect them on his return, and yet there was no-one else in sight (neither on the beach, nor in the sea).
Abandoned clothes on beaches have connotations of suicide – real and fake. Labour minister John Stonehouse faked his death in 1974 by leaving a pile of clothes on Miami Beach. In the British TV series The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, Reggie fakes suicide by leaving his clothes and personal effects on Brighton Beach. This scene of “psudocide” has been recreated so many times that “the British refer to it as doing a Reggie Perrin”.
Abandoned clothes attract attention because we know they are not supposed to be there. More precisely, they are not supposed to be alone. Clothes in a public space are meant to be attached to a body. What is notable, therefore, is not the clothes themselves, but the absence of a human form inside them.
The strength of this message comes across in numerous photos of the piles of clothes and shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz and Dachau. The piles of thousands of garments give us a sense of the thousands of victims who once owned them. These empty garments speak of the non-existence of people to wear them. Each pair of shoes represents a life lost.
These clothes take on additional significance because of their worn appearance. The dirt and tears are evidence of the conditions suffered by the wearers before they died. “Not only do these traces evoke the bodies of the people that are now absent, but the wear and tear of abandoned clothes and objects furthermore stir an empathetic flow between the body in the present and the body that is absent”.
In other contexts, abandoned clothes can have send less somber messages. Shoe tossing is a phenomena encountered in many urban environments, in which people tie their shoelaces together and toss them over a power-line or branch. The shoes are abandoned, out of reach, leaving evidence of the individual wearer’s presence in a shared public space. Abandoned shoes on power-lines are a kind of collaborative street art, perhaps equivalent to the palimpsests of graffiti that develop as numerous graffiti artists layer their work on top of each other over many years.
Matthew Smith observes that tossed shoe can sometimes “signify the physical boundaries of gang territory”. Elsewhere too, abandon clothes can be a temporary territorial mark. On cinema seats and restaurant chairs, coats are placeholders. There is an unwritten code, telling us that an empty seat is not really empty if there is a coat draped across it. In this environment, the coat prevents seating disputes. The same territorial behaviour occurs with tourists’ towels on sunbeds beside hotel pools.
Clothes are so regularly abandoned that various businesses have abandoned clothes policies. In most cases, there is a sense that ownership matters: the clothes are assumed to be lost or forgotten rather than discarded as trash. Efforts are made to reunite the clothes and their wearers, like reuniting two halves of a whole.
Though motives for abandoning clothes vary significantly, there is always “personal or cultural meaning” in a garment left behind. An abandoned garment sends a message, not least because we know that the wearer may now be wandering the streets partially naked. Almost always, abandoned clothes will provoke us to ask why. Were these clothes forgotten or left intentionally? If they are left intentionally, what message was intended? What has happened to the unclothed body of the person who left them behind?
 BBC [online], ‘Pseudocide: Doing a Reggie Perrin’ (14 February 2000),
 Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Sorensen, Tim Flohr, An Anthropology of Absence, (London: Springer, 2010), 12-13.
 Smith, Matthew Ryan, ‘The Mysterious Phenomenon of shoe tossing and shoe posting,’ The Silo (2 April, 2013).