I’m working class and I always have been.
Raised by a single mother in Detroit, I grew to know the value of money and the values our culture places on having it early. When a family is trying to make it—to have enough food and quality shelter, to do well in school, to get a promotion—the necessities of life are also the luxuries.
Nowhere is this more visible than in what we wear; it is how we show our status and our values to the world, in the most personal way.
Now, at 31 years old, I’m facing familiar feelings of not having enough or being enough in the eyes of my peers—and it’s all about a winter coat.
There’s a half-off sale at a designer outdoor lifestyle store, which means that the coat I want for around town has a sale sticker of $250.00. For me, this is more than a garment. It’s the chance to feel comfortable at dinners and birthday parties—going to anyplace where I wouldn’t wear sneakers. It means wearing my coat all the way to the table instead of disrobing just inside the door to keep anyone from seeing that I only have one warm coat and it’s made for the bike commute. This coat is the opportunity to have a well-fitting, functional and fashionable jacket in a color that suits me.
In short, it is the item I have always wished was in my closet.
As I’ve been working through the decision regarding this coat—and its value versus cost—I’ve come face-to-face with attitudes and coping mechanisms that people have about expensive things and the basic conflict of needs-versus-wants. Some people are content with the practical and less expensive choice or make a plan to save for the expensive thing. Others denigrate the expensive thing.
Still, others show signs of shame about the practical alternative as indicative of their state of have-not. Some go ahead and buy both and in doing so, exercise a level of privilege—but, also of desire to belong to the group of folks who have. I’m wondering in all of this: where is the line between what we need and what we are convinced we need, to belong?
Our culture says we need to have a few different sets of outfits, especially if we’re on the border of two classes. That’s where I am.
I recently married and with both of our incomes, we’re still below the median in this town. But, for all good intents and purposes, that’s what the middle class looks like these days. Thus, we not only need to have all casual clothes for work and social events—we also need to have a set of clothing, shoes and coats for middle class events—like birthday parties, dinners out, concerts and holidays. And yet another, of outdoor clothing, because Boulder’s a big hiking, biking, extreme sport town.
Who knew it would be so expensive to play outside?
As I wrestle with the weight of shame for being lower-income, the cost of things I think I need to fit in and the childhood where even needed things were not forthcoming, I am finding compassion. Why would I believe I was less than the others at the table because my coat is for biking, not for dinners’ out?
Am I less human, intelligent, capable than anyone else because I prioritize spending on other things than clothes? Of course not. When I consider the level of privilege I have to even engage in this discussion, I realize another layer of absurdity. Am I poor or pitiable because I have a sweater, a warmth layer, a wind layer and a homemade hat from locally spun wool? Not by a long shot.
My warm boots may not be suitable for dinner at The Kitchen but I am going to survive every interaction I have with the outdoors.
We need to rethink the way we use things to make ourselves feel enough; we are enough simply because we are. It has nothing to do with our clothing.
The way our clothing impacts our value as humans is when we genuinely do not have enough. People freeze to death living on the streets every year. Children go to school with frozen hands and feet here in Boulder. Broadening the scope, in Bolivia or Bangladesh, some families may not have animals to yield wool for clothing or income, let alone milk.
My search for a well-fitting blue jacket is strikingly deluxe compared to having an unmet need for wool to weave blankets for one’s children. The relation between what we have and our worth is simple: we are all worth having our needs met. When they are not met, we wonder if we are worth it—if we are worth simply living. What a heavy burden to carry and a hard truth to recognize from the comfortable perspective of practical-luxury good or luxury-luxury good.
The way I am addressing this may not be the way you do when you choose your winter gear or holiday gifts for those you love. I’m choosing to redirect the money I would have spent on a jacket to wear to dinners and parties to buy alpacas, ducks and sheep for people who need milk and wool. Then, I’ll take the time I spent debating fleece-or-down and double it organizing a winter clothing drive in my neighborhood.
I have enough, albeit out of style, and I’m questioning whether I really need more when some people don’t yet have enough. It’s worth it to me to be in solidarity with others through working together and to reconsider belonging through buying the right things.
For dinners out, I’ll wear my gratitude to have leisure time and money—because it truly is a privilege. If you want to join me, contact me at [email protected]
Julia Wingert is a Scorpio writer, educator and volunteer devoted to honest communication focused on compassion and integrity. When not coming to grips with reality, she can be found dancing, cutting and pasting, sewing washable lady supplies and doing hair. She lives in Boulder with her husband, Kevin.
Editor: Nikki Di Virgilio