The Reason Clothes Matter: The First Day of School

Another outfit that undoubtedly requires contemplation is what to wear on the first day of school. Obviously, second year of college the outfit isn’t as big of a deal, and you’re only making a genuine first impression on a fraction of the people in your class (especially at a small liberal arts type of school). So, no, first day of classes outfit does not require the same level of deliberation as other outfits, it’s also not a day people tend to just roll out of bed either. Even my male friends have admitted to putting slightly more thought into their apparel than they ordinarily would, as they are fully cognizant of the fact that there will be some type of impression made.

The question of what to wear on the first day of school encapsulates the entire idea of why we wear what we wear. It’s another outfit that requires balance—the level of blank slate versus exhibition of personality. Obviously you want to make some type of statement about who you are as an individual, but not make so strong a statement that people don’t feel a need to get to know you beyond your clothes. You know that in this moment, in this outfit you are saying something about yourself, and you are the master of your own first impression, able to make people think that you are any type of person.

For my freshman year of high school, I remember this same debate running through my mind. I remember thinking back to High School movies and the stereotypes that every single individual portrayed in them seemed to adhere to, and not wanting to be thought of as strictly any of them. I wanted my peers to think of me as a blank slate, someone who they would have to get to know in order to think they knew me at all. With the desire to be a tabula rasa in mind, I opted for a white tee-shirt, Converse low-tops and blue jeans. I didn’t know who I was at 15, so I wasn’t about to make a strong statement about it. You can’t make an argument if you don’t know what to say, so I opted to keep quiet.

This time around, I didn’t labor over things as much. I am still obviously over-analytical, but I’m slightly less anal ie give a few less fucks than I did back then. It was only somewhat serendipitous, therefore that my first day of school outfit this year was reminiscent of what I had worn back then. The same principle of not wanting to be judged too much still held true, but I also did want people to be somewhat more aware of who I was as an individual, because I was more aware of who I was as well.

I had been feeling the skirt from the get-go, but finding a top to balance out the volume without being too skanky or too flowy was the mission of the morning. The winner ended up being this nicely long Victoria’s Secret crop I got from the thrift store. The basic-ness of such an ensemble was amended by the addition of the sandals. Not the boldest of outfits, but still exhibiting some form of communication. Studded bright orange Steve Maddens to me say “I’m really fun and sturdy enough to be relied upon, but also don’t fuck with me. Also I’m cute.” Or at least that’s what the shoes were saying to me. There’s something I find very true about this statement in regards to myself, so I let my sandals do some of the talking for me.

Clearly there’s a lot more that goes into a first impression than just the outfit. (Interestingly enough everyone I met on the first day of high school thought I was a bitch, so my attempt to transcend judgment was clearly unsuccessful.) However, the part clothing plays in the first moment of meeting someone is undeniable, and balancing the first impression is essential.

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In Which I Make it Abundantly Clear I go to a Liberal Arts School

Sorry for getting preachy and wordy and not posting pictures with this one, but I just needed to get a little bit of a rant out of my system. You see, I have one mall-going quirk that consistently frustrates those I shop with: I refuse to go into Forever 21. I know I sound like a snob (remember: thrifting is my thing), but I have zero desire to give that store my patronage. The store lacks the organization necessitated by something that size and the racks are simply un-shoppable. Also, it’s destroying the environment.

Let’s focus on that last statement (I doubt I have to convince anyone of how overwhelming walking into that store can be—do it and you’ll see what I mean). I knew I didn’t enjoy the experience of going there, but I wasn’t able to validate my dislike until I did a bit more research on their manufacturing practices. Forever 21 and stores of its ilk (Zara, Charlotte Russe) are low-profit margin, high sales volume retailers. In other words they sell clothes at low prices, make a small amount of each individual item, but sell enough to still make massive amounts of money.

And this business model works. I can certainly testify to the dire reality of the closet-full of nothing to wear issue, one that can seemingly only be solved through wearing down ones credit card a bit more. Trends are constantly changing, which seems to necessitate a constant flow of new items into ones wardrobe. These retailers capitalize on this need, giving women access to trendy items being sold for low prices. This sounds like heaven, why is it an issue?

Well, for one, it’s the environment. When a woman buys a something she knows is big for that season, she only anticipates wearing it for a short period of time. She didn’t buy her high-low for its practicality, she bought it because she felt dramatic and maybe a little bit like a fairy when she wore it with that adorable crop top she got last week. Once she’s over it she’ll get rid of it.

Consumers don’t buy these things with the intention of wearing them every day, and the manufacturers don’t make them to allow them to do so. In order to have high enough sales-volumes for these chain stores to make a profit, their factories need to churn out a huge amount of clothing. When their concern is speed of production, quality inevitably suffers. We think about it every time we throw away a candy wrapper, but we don’t consider the waste created when throwing away a piece of clothing.  We try to recycle plastic bottles, and re-use materials, but these poorly made garments are made to fall apart before they can be re-used. People aren’t about to go to a tailor to have their 10-dollar skirt fixed. It just ain’t gonna happen.

These factories are creating waste and smog along with the acid-wash cutoffs (I knew they looked evil), creating further environmental degradation. To meet the high demand (and to keep the price of the item low) the factories also pay their workers next to nothing and make them work insane hours.

Obviously I’m not the first person to mention human rights violations in the same breath as the manufacture of clothing, and excess in manufacture is clearly not so good for the health of things like forests. I get why these stores flourish. I don’t go to Forever 21, but I somehow find myself in Zara on the weekly, and I will admit they are perpetrators of the same problem (the Spanish retail giant only takes 2 weeks to get a design from the drawing board to the store). For those of us interested in fashion, being cognizant of the effect our habits have on more than just our bank account is essential.

The more consumers are made aware of the issues surrounding the impact of what they buy and wear the more retailers will be forced to respond, and maybe change their ways. Consumers can attempt to buy clothes considering the potential for further use, and make sure they at least have that in mind. We gotta stay current, obvi, but maybe using some methods to make our clothes last a little longer is just what we gotta do.

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

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