Buying my Personality in a Store

A guest piece by Amanda

Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed as a com­ment to “My Exper­i­ments with Plain­ness”, Amanda’s sto­ry deserves its own post: “I’ve noticed that I’m becom­ing real­ly attached to my clothes. As I was grim­ly and method­i­cal­ly culling my clos­et, a whiny, des­per­ate voice in my head piped up, and I began to have a seri­ous con­ver­sa­tion with myself… [A] 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’.”

Hi there!

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 siants habits I saw in my books, and my friends and I (I grew up in rur­al Cana­da, home­schooled, the old­est of 11 kids, an anar­chon­ism to begin with) tried sewing our own clothes our­selves, praire dress­es and pinafores. 

When I was 14, we moved to the States, to the sub­urbs, away from our über-traditional Catholic enclave, and I began to nor­mal­ize myself out of the “home­school­er uni­form” (its own sort of plain dress — those ter­ri­ble jumpers with ankle socks and can­vas sneak­ers! Ack!) 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 quit smok­ing, and have decid­ed that drink­ing as a recre­ation­al activ­i­ty is out unless it’s an orga­nized event. This may become more strict in time, but I have to ease into it a lit­tle bit. 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 con­cience, 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. I will be so hap­py. So very 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 frol­ic­ing 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 be hap­py. So hap­py. So very hap­py, if I am only thin and rich enough to wear those clothes.”

I real­ly, 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 monolouge at all. 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 (I am a schiz­o­phrenic and so am I) “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?”

The first voice was total­ly backtracking. 

“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!” said the first voice. “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 suden­ly 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 cliché, 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”? (Is there such a thing as 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”. Or, per­haps more pos­i­tive­ly, it might be a mes­sage that is “wit­ness” — a con­cept I am strug­gling with on its own — what if I make mis­takes and my wit­ness is mis­tak­en, etc.

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 poses­sions, it seems extreme­ly wrong that I should mis­treat them the way I’ve been doing. 

Wow. For­get plain dress, plain speech is going to be an even big­ger prob­lem. I’ve writ­ten a novel.

* blush *

Any­how, it is won­der­ful to see it dis­cussed, 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,

  • Claire M. in D.C.

    Amen, Aman­da. I’ve been strug­gling with the same issues. I’m try­ing real­ly hard to train myself so that when I get that impulse, “Ooooh that’s so pret­ty I got­ta have it now every­one will love me if I have it!” I try to 1) think of what I already have that’s like it or sim­i­lar and serves the same pur­pose (very effec­tive); 2) walk around the store with it and see if the nov­el­ty effect wears off, which, 95% of the time, it does; or 3) remem­ber this but­ton I wore in high school that said, “I buy things I don’t need with mon­ey I don’t have to impress peo­ple I don’t like.” I no longer wear cloth­ing with logos or any­thing screen-printed on it because I don’t like to think I’m being asso­ci­at­ed with a brand name; as one of my friends puts it, “Why in the world give them free adver­tis­ing? They should be pay­ing you .” I real­ly only wear one pair of jeans on casu­al Fri­day and week­ends, and all I ever wear are dark pants/dark skirts and sol­id V-neck tops, of dif­fer­ent sleeve lengths and and thick­ness­es and in dif­fer­ent col­ors depend­ing on the sea­son. This is not to say that my clos­et can­not use some improve­ment, but hey, “Par­don my dust!” I’m a work in progress.

  • Emil­ia Melville

    Thanks so much for this post, real­ly inter­est­ing. I’ve been read­ing a lot of psy­chol­o­gy about sus­tain­able con­sump­tion, fru­gal con­sump­tion, and what kind of val­ues moti­vate them, and your sto­ry res­onates so well with a lot of the ques­tions I’ve been ask­ing of myself, inspired by the more aca­d­e­m­ic seek­ing. Thanks.