Some years ago, a skillful, impeccably dressed saleswoman at a good department store talked me into buying a thong.
“You can’t ruin the look of those great trousers with panty lines,” she insisted.
I submitted to her authority, because I am ignorant and vulnerable in clothes shopping situations. She wrapped the thong in my sales receipt, whereupon I tucked it into my wallet for safekeeping until arriving home.
I wore the thong for exactly the length of time it took me to brush my teeth while dressing for a business event. Then I threw it away, replacing it with a garment more humane — although I later regretted my rashness because the thong would have been ideal for tying up tomato plants.
Of all the things I worry about, panty lines do not make the list. I say this not out of false modesty, moral superiority or monastic leanings. I admire people with personal style, and it pleases me to no end to slip into clothing that fits well and flatters me. I have just never learned how to be a good shopper.
This lack of retail expertise could be related to the fact that I wore school uniforms for 12 years. But the uniform theory quickly loses its legs when I look at my brother, always handsome in his sherbet-colored polo shirts, knife-pressed pants and Italian leather loafers. He wore uniforms all his life, too, and still matured into a thoroughbred clotheshorse.
Although I chafed literally and figuratively against the scratchy wool sameness of my formative years’ wardrobe, I secretly appreciated our uniforms for effectively eliminating competitive dressing drama, at least during school hours. I also never had to think about what to wear each morning.
Still, the power of “plumage,” as a friend calls it, was never lost on me. I remember my yearning as a young girl accompanying my mother on rare non-uniform shopping days. Visits to the Young Misses section — rack upon rack of delicious outfits out of my reach — elicited in me a longing so deep and wide that my Orange Julius smoothie turned somersaults in my stomach. With no occasion to wear such clothes, it seemed easier to shut down my penchant for plumage like a valve. Somewhere along the line, I forgot to turn it back on.
Consequently, as an adult, I tend to put off clothes shopping until some important occasion arises for which I must appear decently dressed. Inevitably I am racing to the mall at the eleventh hour to assemble an outfit that will not humiliate me for being outdated, frayed or sporting previously unnoticed stains.
Shopping in these situations resembles Little House on the Prairie Goes to the Big Town. My frantic purchases pile up as if I’ll be too busy tanning hides and putting up salt pork to shop for the next year or so.
I’d like to find a middle ground between shopping like Ma Ingalls and a woman I met who owned a two-story closet complete with a winding staircase. She told me she had not worn the same outfit twice to work for an entire year.
But I am fooling myself if I believe I am not attached to clothing. Last winter as I was winnowing out pieces that were attractive 10 years ago, I took a good hard look at one section of my closet, hung with garments saved for no reason other than their sentimental value. They spanned almost every decade of my life.
There were tiny pinafores (white eyelet cotton) my mother saved for me and the fuzzy robe (red, with a hood) I snuggled in as a 10-year-old one Christmas while curled up with a book by the lighted tree. The green plaid dress (with sequined-lined black collar and yoke) I wore with black-strapped heels to a particularly fun high school dance. The dress I chose (candy pink, swing skirt, wide black patent leather belt) for the night my future husband and I first talked. An investment-dressing suit (subtle dark plaid wool, still handsome) I bought for my first “real” job. A classic linen Jackie Kennedy-style dress (navy with cream-colored trim and fabric-covered buttons) I splurged on when that job fattened my checking account. A cute maternity jacket (blue denim) given to me by a friend who’d finished her childbearing years.
I had looked at these garments every day of my adult life. They had given me deep pleasure for different reasons.
At times, I’d taken them out just to reflect on them, revisiting the milestones they represented. They had no earthly value, and one day my children would look at them in puzzlement, wondering what to do with them.
Perhaps it is my age or the need to make space in my life for new possibilities. But that day in front of my closet, I knew it was time to let them go.
I took pictures of each item. I folded them carefully into a bag and donated them — destinations unknown. Someone’s costume for a play or theme party, perhaps. A woman with a penchant for vintage wear. A quilter in search of fabric. That’s the thing about letting go of something: You don’t get to decide its future.
The lovely surprise for me is that as I type this, I remember each garment in tender, vivid detail. Which tells me something important: You don’t need the object to hold its memory secure.