Clothing & Class

yellow flats

Yesterday I combed through my closet and did a quick sourcing count: 50% used; 30% me-made; 20% purchased new. After talking myself down from my smugness, I had a think.

Why do I buy used clothing? I wish that I could say my reasons were noble, like Ariana’s. But my habits are fueled by a cocktail of privilege and something murkier.

I’m privileged to be able to buy all of what I need and a lot of what I want. My “wants” reflect my resources and priorities: Part-time work, parenting, traveling to visit my elderly parents, sewing and knitting, and who am I kidding, high-end concealer.

It wasn’t always this way. I grew up with a sense of scarcity as I watched my parents negotiate the bizarre nuances of social and economic class. My mother came from a line of high WASPs who had slid into “genteel poverty” by the time she was born. She was disowned when she married my father, the son of blue-collar immigrants and the first person in his family to get a university education. He was a science teacher who painted houses during his summers “off.”

To keep up appearances we sought out Pappagallo flats and  Fair Isle sweaters at yard sales, avoiding eye contact with the owners and crowing over our bargains on the ride home. My parents silently mocked our neighbors, whose factory jobs paid more than my father’s but whose children carried combs in the back pockets of their Jordache jeans.

sweater
Preferred.
not done
Not done.

Take-aways:

  1. “Tackiness” is a moral failing.
  2.  Wear-quality-don’t-be-frivolous-expensive-things-are-not-for-us-stick-it-to-the-man-conform-don’t-talk-about-money-be-proud-of-thriftiness (I said it was murky).

How does this play out now? I can spot “acceptability” at 100 yards, on the street and on the rack. It’s not lost on me that I could ultimately afford a brand-new version of the Eileen Fisher jacket in my Savers cart. I justify my purchases with restraint (leave some for others dear) and once, with the appalling rationalization that my Taste is probably different from that of the Other shoppers. (Yes, I realize that I typed that out loud.)

My daughter has far more than I or my husband did at her age and is aware of her privilege. Galvanized by watching “The Life Cycle of a T Shirt,” she shops at thrift stores. She rolls her eyes at my admonitions suggestions about Taste.

Not bad progress for a single generation.

What messages do you carry about clothing and class?

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