February 21, 2011

Buying My Personality in a Store

The following is by a young woman who, while attending Friends (Quaker) meetings, struggled with “a strong call towards plain dress.” I have edited it only minimally.

I am 21, and the only member of my family who attends meetings of Friends. I am not a Friend yet, being young to the whole experience, and an ex-catholic, and having wandered for several years in strange paths!!  However, I am taking it very seriously, and reading all I can get my hands on. I feel a strong call towards plain dress, and have gone through fits and starts of it spontaneously, even as a Catholic child. At 12, I decided I would no longer wear colours, in imitation of all the saints’ habits I saw in my books, and my friends and I (I grew up in rural Canada, homeschooled, the oldest of 11 kids, an anachronism to begin with) tried sewing our own clothes ourselves, prairie dresses and pinafores.

When I was 14, we moved to the States, to the suburbs, away from our uber-traditional Catholic enclave, and I began to normalize myself out of the “homeschooler uniform”…and into mainstream fashion, where I’ve been solidly entrenched ever since, especially since moving to NYC.

I am now in the process of purging a lot of my stuff, and seeking a simpler way of living…I got rid of several bags of clothes and a bunch of household items I was hoarding “just in case I might need them someday”. Classic. A lot of things have precipitated this, but one of them is my absolute horror at how I’ve gone from making $12,000 a year to nearly $30,000, and I still am saving no money at all, nor am I making any lasting purchase/investments, etc…I’m just spending it on vain and useless things.

I’ve noticed as well that I’m starting to have more and more big-salary fantasises, and recreationally go to stare in shop windows at clothes, not just to appreciate the asthetic value of some of the most gorgeous garments in the world (after all, this is Manhattan) but also to drool and covet. I found, while examining my conscience, that it wasn’t even the thing – the piece of clothing– that I wanted, and it wasn’t a simple desire to have something pretty. I saw myself linking these clothes and things to my self worth and future happiness. You know:

Once I am thin and rich enough to wear this, I will be happy…Everything will be perfect, and my hair will always be straight, and I will have my teeth veneered, and I will have a handsome man who worships the ground I walk on, and three bright-eyed children who appear only on Sunday mornings to snuggle with me in my California-king-sized bed with the white crisp sheets, while I languidly smile at their frolicking and plan to buy them a golden retriever puppy later that afternoon as I stroll through an antique fair and buy a vintage wicker bird cage, which I will fill with finches and hang from my sun-drenched porch in my second house in the south of France, and I will be happy, if I am only thin and rich enough to wear those clothes.

I really woke up one afternoon to find myself standing on 5th Ave and 59th street, on my lunch break, staring in a window, and having that fantasy with absolutely no internal ironic monologue at all.

It completley panicked me.

I’ve noticied that I’m becoming really attatched to my clothes. As I was grimly and methodically culling my closet, a whiney, desperate voice in my head piped up, and I began to have a serious conversation with myself.

You can’t get rid of so many of your cool clothes. The clothes are you, they’re a huge part of who you are.

“Wait,” the other voice in my head, the stern one, said. “You are saying that I am what I wear. That’s supposed to make me want to keep them? Do you even hear what you’re saying?”

No, no, no, I didn’t mean you were your clothes, or that you were only worth as much as your clothes, why do you always have to be so literal? I meant that your clothes tell people about you, about who you are and what you believe in. They’re an outside sign of who you are.

“Ah.” said the second voice, rather sarcastically, I thought, “So we’d rather have people learn everything they need to know about us by our clothes, instead of having them take the time to get to know us from experience of us.”

Well, that’s all very well! That’s nice in an ideal world. But the truth is, the sad truth is, most people won’t take the time to get to know you if you don’t seem cool.

“Wow.” said the second voice. “Wow. This has nothing to do with fashion, does it? This totally has to do with your inferiority complex, dating back to about second grade, doesn’t it?”

At this point the first voice began to suck its thumb, and I realized to my horror that the second voice was right. It’s always right.

Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.” ~Quentin Crisp

I’ve actually begun buying my personality in a store, and telling myself that it’s okay because I’m buying it in a thrift store. I know from personal experience that the right headscarf or pair of vintage shoes, or funny t-shirt will suddenly raise the value of my social currency off the charts. And I’m becoming really dependent on that, to the point where I’ve started to actually feel anxiety around my “style” and my clothes. I ironically played the role of fashion police for a boy at a party who was mocking me for being from Williamsburg, and although I was kidding around when I excoriated him for his American-Eagle shorts and surfer-boy hair, it struck me, I’m spouting all these “rules” as if I’m mocking them, but I actually live by them, don’t I?

And I’ve increasingly begun to obey them out of fear instead of out of a love of neat clothes or a sense of aesthetic. I have cooler clothes than ever, and suddenly I have a need to make more money so that I can keep looking cool, and keep fitting in, and keep proving to everyone, most of all myself, that I should be invited to Angelica’s birthday party because the whole rest of the class is and it’s not fair…oh wait. That was second grade.

Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of its filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and trebles that want another way.

This seems like a huge cliche, but you know, the more I think about it, the more it seems that the modern horror of cliches may have less to do with a love of originality than with a fear of the truth.

So those are the motivations – that much is worked out. But the practice of it is hard. Was I experienceing a genuine calling to plain dress as a child, or did I just read too much “Little House”?…And now, am I just a costume-loving poser?

I feel a bizarre attraction to head-covering as well, though I recoil with my whole post-feminist self from those passages in the bible. I don’t think I believe in submission to anybody. In fact, I’m not sure even God wants me submissive -I feel he wants my co-operation.

“I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.” John 15:15

Another reservation I have is that plain dressing may just be another way of telegraphing the image I want the world to have of me. Only instead of that message being

I am cool and worthy of your attention and envy,

the message might be,

I’m so hoooooly.

My compromise was to get rid of all the clothes I’d bought just for attention, all the clothes I was keeping for purely sentimental reasons, everything that didn’t fit, or match with anything else, etc. And to be honest, that just pared it down to where I can actually fit all my clothes in my 1 closet and dresser, a feat heretofore unknown to me.

Also, a big part of this move was to start taking care of my clothes, something I’ve never done. I’ve made an active dicipline of something as simple as hanging up my clothes each night, as an act of respect and gratitude. It occured to me that when I am so fortunate as to have many possessions, it seems extremely wrong that I should mistreat them the way I’ve been doing.

Anyhow…sometimes I feel like I’m just nuts. I mean, I know I’m nuts, but I don’t like feeling that way.

In friendship,


(See the complete version of this post at The Quaker Ranter.)

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