Getting Cheeky

One day this summer I found myself pretty much loathing a good 50 percent of the population.  Over the course of the 40 minutes it took me to get to work the morning in question, I decided I hated men. That is obviously rather dramatic. Not all men are pigs, and I know only some were the perpetrators of what I saw as an affront to my feminine ideals. However, I couldn’t help my feelings of enmity toward the gender en masse.

When I got dressed that morning, I was feeling my getup. I had just gotten a new pale pink lace top from the thrift store. It seemed tight enough to tuck into my sailor-inspired shorts, and allow them to make their first appearance of the summer. Blush generally doesn’t do wonders for my complexion, so I decided to add some pearls, which would put enough white close to my face to fool the eye into thinking my cheeks had some color. (My Caspar status makes tricks like this a necessity, and I will never be able to pull off oatmeal, but that’s another post.) The whole pearls thing felt rather Blair Waldorf, so I decided to run with it and throw on some knee-highs. That level of Upper East Side didn’t feel quite ‘me’, so I thought a jacket with a bit of edge would complete the look. Grey seemed to work with the color palette, making the tailored-sweater jacket the winner. My outfit was complete, and I had already put far too much mental energy into my outfit, and was ready to expend more on my way to work.

My summer job was at a boutique on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. My commute involves 2 trains and a short walk from the station to Water Tower Place. A bit of a pain, but not particularly arduous. Over the course of this journey my get-up turned from a source of pride to one of resentment. Not because I was questioning my choice of high socks (I have yet to encounter a moment when high socks have been a regrettable decision, and strongly doubt I ever will.) It was the response of the men I encountered that made me question the choices made that morning.

They simply would not stop commenting on my outfit, giving me attention I found to be exhausting and degrading. The man standing next to me on the train platform made it clear it wasn’t the cohesion of my ensemble he was appreciating when he told me he liked my outfit and then winked. (He actually winked.) And, yes, there may have been a little bit of cheek-age, but did that give the man on the escalator the right to call me ‘Baby’ and tell me he liked my shorts?

Maybe these men thought that these degrading comments were somehow compliments. Maybe they thought that the fact that they liked the amount of leg I was showing would somehow make me feel better about myself. But I wasn’t dressing to please them. There’s a reason the word is ‘objectification’. They denied my personhood by taking an outfit I intended to be about expression of ‘self’ and making it an expression of ‘ass’. Their comments negated the careful consideration I put into each element of my outfit, negated my thoughts and made it all about the physical element of my body. (And I am aware that the level of thought I put in was rather ridiculous.) But the way the shorts worked within the context of the outfit was intended as something far more unique than showing something as generic as my thigh. I had fun putting together the various pieces of the look like a little puzzle, finding the way each one fits in context. They took that fun and made it feel dirty.

Obviously women dress to look attractive. Did I have that in mind? Absolutely. I want to dress in a way that will show off my body to its best advantage. I want to highlight the areas I’m proud of, but it’s for my own, and not the creepers on the streets benefit. Through all the thinking I did about what I was wearing, the sexual response of the guys on the street didn’t even enter my mind. I work in a boutique. I’m supposed to dress like I know clothes, so I can sell them to people. I would clearly be lying if I said I didn’t care what people think of the way I dress. I do. I care about what people whose opinions I respect think of my ensemble, and not whether or not strangers find me sexually appealing. I didn’t consider these randos as I was putting on those shorts in the morning, and neither them, nor my ass, was intended to be the focal point of my outfit. I was dressing with customers, with my clothes-horse co-workers and, most importantly, myself in mind. Clothes are about the human being inside of them, and the stares and comments made it clear that I was no longer an individual but a hyper-sexualized display of skin.

I don’t want to have to retire the shorts. I love the fun, sailor vibe, and I feel kind of like I belong at the beach in the 1950’s in them. I don’t want to give that up because the men near the Chicago red line can’t keep their libidos in check. However, I want to feel good about myself in my clothes, and I simply can’t if that’s the way people will respond when I wear them. Regardless, I packed them up for school this year, and maybe if I’m feeling cheeky they’ll make an appearance.

Top: Thrifted, Pearls: No idea, courtesy of my jewelry box, Jacket: Nollie, Shorts: Zara, Socks: Stolen from my Mother, Shoes: Thrifted

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Looking for a Come-Up

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Growing up in Chicago, going to thrift stores was common practice among my friends and I. We have always found a certain level of pride in responding to a clothing-related compliment with the information that said item cost less than CTA bus fare. We love the thrill of the hunt and the luck involved in potentially finding something fabulous. When faced with a free day with a friend and a question of how to kill the time, the answer is often hitting up our neighborhood Village Discount. One such summer afternoon found a friend and I combing the racks, and we struck gold. Literally. As in gold floral pants. I paused for a moment, drinking in their effulgence. They were bold, different, and unlike any pants I had ever owned before. The tag even said they were my size. It seemed like fate.

However, despite my instant attraction to their lustrous fabric, I hesitated. Would I really ever wear them? Would I be so bold? Were they actually ugly, and I was just too enraptured by their iridescent swirls to notice? How did I feel about wearing what looked like upholstery which would potentially give me the appearance of a shinier, sluttier von Trapp child? These pants clearly required further contemplation. But, at 3 bucks I deemed them intriguing enough to be worth the cost of froyo, so they were added to my cart.

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The lack of fitting rooms makes ascertaining the true fit of an item a bit difficult, but once I got home and was able to put them on without pants on underneath, I saw that my prediction of a perfect fit had miraculously come true. I was officially in love. They seemed to be well-constructed and the material seemed to be high quality. The tag said Etcetera, a brand I was not familiar with, so some Google investigation seemed in order. Turns out, my three-dollar beauties would probably retail for a good 150.

Those pants had essentially entered the list of items I would take with me if my house caught fire, but would I have paid 150 bucks for them? They weren’t exactly everyday wear, and my status as a college student makes impractical 150 dollar clothing purchases a little unrealistic.

And this is where we find the true beauty of the thrift store. Obviously no one wants a closet cluttered with heaps of old, crappy clothing you never wear, but you also want to have options. Taking risks in fashion is what keeps it fresh, and what keeps people excited about the industry.  However, not everyone can afford to take an expensive risk in clothing. A good thrift store certainly has some of the most curious assemblages of fabric ever crafted by a sewing machine, but there are also hidden gems. And sometimes things you aren’t quite sure which category it falls into. A 3 dollar price tag makes it a bit more feasible to take it home and play around with it, and see which side you decide it falls on.

The ability to dress well shouldn’t just be reserved for those with wads of cash to drop on clothes. Believe you me, I have seen some hideous, and some extremely dull ensembles that cost as much as a car. Having money certainly doesn’t mean you have style and having style doesn’t mean you have cash to drop on clothes. Thrift stores help reconcile this disparity by granting those with lower credit limits access to some interesting and some quality pieces.

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Despite the obvious financial benefits, thrifting is not an admission of poverty. It can be a conscious choice. Thrift stores reduce the environmental impact of adding new items to ones wardrobe by recycling previously made goods. They also open up an array of clothing that you just can’t get in malls (for better or worse). Sure, it’s a mission to look at every skirt in the aisle hoping to find even one that you would consider wearing. But when you do find that one skirt, it’s not going to be one from Zara that everyone has and everyone thinks is so unique. You’ll find a garment imbibed with personality because it has a story beyond just your own. The work is often worth the reward. And just maybe, if you’re lucky, you could find some gold paisley pants of your own.

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PS-there’s a TED talk on this very notion. She goes to more extremes than do, and dresses in a way I never would, but she makes some interesting points. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYwvyjIDk80

Top: Thrifted, Pants(!): Thrifted, Sandals: Cole Haan, Necklace: No idea