Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clothing Choices

I've always loved clothing. Many of my early memories are related to apparel, especially what I was wearing on a particular occasion. I can remember standing with my sister in front of the closet each morning when I was in first grade or so, deciding what to wear. I remember how I looked in a cute little red velvet dress. I remember loving a blue sheath with crewelwork at the neckline that my grandmother had made for me. And I remember how much I adored a specific pair of purple corduroys.

As I grew into my teens, my love for clothing was transformed into angst. My family didn't have a lot of money and hand-me-downs were a huge part of my wardrobe. This was unfortunate, since my older sister had to pass down her somewhat limited wardrobe to both my twin sister and me -- meaning that we each owned half of not much to begin with. And although my twin and I were shaped entirely differently than our older sister, there was seemingly nothing my mom wouldn't try to get us to wear (old socks without any elastic left? hand-me-down bras? what's up with that???).

Each year, I received two new outfits: a dress that my great-aunt made for me, which invariably fit poorly, was hopelessly out of style, and was embellished with old-fashioned Germanic touches of rick-rack, buttons, and the like; and an entire outfit of my choosing that my grandmother bought me for my birthday. Going to the mall with her was always a huge outing and I looked forward to it all year long. What bliss to be able to look through the racks of new clothes and choose something just for me!

And once I began to accumulate a bit of money from babysitting and housecleaning, I began to shop for myself. I would guess that from the time I was in 7th grade or so, I bought all of my own clothes, including shoes, undergarments, outerwear and accessories. But since I lived in a small town, my choices were extremely limited.

Even after I graduated from college, money was tight and I had to plan my purchases carefully. I had maybe 5 or 6 carefully coordinated work outfits - and was astounded when, after working with a woman for a month or so, she complained that she had run out of fresh outfits and that I'd have to start seeing some repeats. And even after I'd reached some level of financial security, I can remember being embarrassed upon discovering as I was packing for a work weekend, that my only pair of casual shoes was horribly worn and pathetic-looking and that since I didn't have time to shop for a new pair, I'd once again look poor -- and poorly dressed.

I know that I'm not the only one who was mortified by what I was forced to wear when I was growing up. The father of one of my son's friends recently shared a hilarious story about growing up poor in the UK. His parents weren't well-off either, and to save money, his mother made all of his clothes. Once, she acquired a rather smelly bolt of wool and proceeded to sew him some loose sailor-type trousers. The only problem was that all the other children were wearing peg-legged pants. So not only did he feel that he always smelled bad in his musty pants, but the only time he felt ok about them was when he was standing in a headwind and the breeze blew the fabric back so that it was tight around his legs.

I want things to be different for my boys, so I pretty much buy them whatever they want. My middle-school aged son has very specific ideas about what he wants to wear and I'm ok with all of it. $100 jeans from Quiksilver? A $200 fleece from Patagonia? As long as he makes good use of what I buy for him (I'd hate to spend tons of money to see something languish in the drawer), I'm ok with it all. My younger son isn't quite there yet, but I make sure he knows that he doesn't automatically have to say yes to all hand-me-downs and that what he does choose from his brother's cast-offs will always be supplemented by clothes he chooses himself.

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