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From a nice piece in the NYT today about thrift stores in Poland:

Thrift stores here have become impromptu laboratories of the changing mores and attitudes in a country adjusting to newfound wealth. Young Poles here in the capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes that they at last have taken to wearing old ones. Those eking out a living on fixed incomes, especially retirees, still lack the means to do otherwise.

And so the hip and the strapped meet at secondhand stores like Tomitex, on Nowowiejska Street in downtown Warsaw.

The pronounced stigma of buying used clothes in a poor country was once a powerful deterrent for shopping — or at least admitting to shopping — at secondhand stores, known here by the derogative colloquialism lumpex, which translates as something like bum export. That stigma has been replaced among the young by a playful attitude toward vintage clothing and bargain-hunting that would not be out of place among their contemporaries in London or New York.

A subset of early memories drawn from the summerlong visits back to my mother’s home town in very rural Nova Scotia, the fishing village where she grew up focuses on visits to Frenchies, a used clothing store that at that time was a single store or maybe there were a couple but since then has branch out to become a sort of pan-maritimes chain.

(You can only imagine, or perhaps you can’t, how weirded out I was when Calvin Trillin wrote a piece about the store in the New Yorker. Gemein/Gesell gone wild! I’ve never felt so authentique in my life, so townie, organic even….)

I am quite sure that my mother wore mostly used clothing during her childhood and the few stories that I’ve heard about my father’s home growing up and clothing are troubling and not to be gone into here. But these stories happen to be the very sort of stuff that a form of therapy that would be able to work between the traditional registers of psychoanalysis and issues of class and money and ideological drip would make hay with, if such a practice properly existed. At any rate, both of my mother and father come from shitty circumstances, differently inflected but ultimately the same cocktail of alcoholic fathers, overworked mothers, nowhere locales, zero cash, and a fortunate and unlikely escape to university or vocational training in a tiny (large to them at the time!) city.

Anyway, I grew up with very real used clothing antipathy – probably of just the same sort of attitude described in the clipping from today’s NYT up top – and definitely caught from my class-shifting parents. They wore used; their son would wear – and learn to expect nothing less than, actively be disgusted by anything other than – new. I can’t remember exactly how this feeling was transmitted to me, but I am sure – especially now that I’m thinking about it in light of this article – that it was in fact transmitted, and done so by my parents rather than some sort of ambient socio-ideological vapor.

But when my mother and I would go to visit the family up in Nova Scotia, we would always make a trip or two or three to Frenchy’s over the course of the summer. You won’t be surprised to hear that these were horrible experiences for me, filled with a variety of dread that’s close to the fear and anxiety that comes of going to the doctor for an injection or the dentist for a drilling when you’re a child. I didn’t really understand wealth and poverty at that point, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. It was the visceral disgust that came of trying on clothes that had been worn by other people, that had encased other children’s bodies, caught their spills, been inextricably soiled by their skin. And it only got worse when we’d actually bring these items home, and later, perhaps the next day, I would be expected to wear them – not just for five minutes in a fitting room, but all day, straight through to my bath at night. The memories get vague at this point, start to break down, but I think at a certain point my eight or nine year-old self went into revolt, simply refused to wear the items any longer. I think, further, I have a memory of my mother conceding, likely throwing the stuff in a bag that was kept for our own clothing donations.

It felt dirty to wear the clothes. Dirty in a way that was unbearable, visceral. This is, of course, just how I’d been raised to feel.

All of this I’ve thought about, when I’ve thought about Frenchy’s, before. What I’ve never yet thought about – and what the article about Poland has led me to consider – is what exactly my mother was thinking when she took me to this place and put me through the experience of trying on and later wearing the clothes that we found there.

The hometown-girl made good in the States amidst relatives, trying to fit in with the people back home, playing along. She never dresses her son in anything but new things, normally, but it is true what the cousins and aunts keep saying, that there are great bargains to be had there, and they always outgrow everything so quickly anyway. Perhaps – probably – it never registered how deeply she’d woven this message into her son. Perhaps it came as a great shock when he refused that morning to wear any of it ever again. Quite likely, almost definitely, there was at least a passing thought that she had spoiled him – that even if she didn’t really want him wearing this sort of stuff, it wasn’t a great sign that he didn’t want to wear it. Her cousins’ kids, of course, didn’t resist. This is where there clothes came from, had always come from, whether by the standards of the village they were rich or poor. (They were all more or less poor and since these days they have only gotten poorer, disasterously so by North American standards…)

Probably she wrote his – my – behavior off as childish temper, a burst of willfulness that was unusual for me. I was a good child, vaguely angelic (but just think of what keeps the good angels good angels), and generally did everything that I was told to do. The clothes at Frenchy’s were crumpled in piles, piles dumped hourly on tables made of 4X4s. I can’t remember now whether you paid by the item or by the weight of the bag that you filled. Or perhaps on another level or even the same level, she understood. She hadn’t wanted to go along anyway. I wonder if she had bought anything for herself. If she did, I wonder what she did with it. I am very sure, absolutely sure, that she’d never have worn it.

Many of my friends, now and before, wear or wore vintage clothing. I could do, but it’s not really me. At this point, I think it’s not even really the childhood anxieties about it. At some point when I was sixteen or seventeen, suddenly this no longer really bothered me anymore. Before then I disliked wearing the handed-down uniforms that we were given on the baseball and basketball and football teams I played for. Then, suddenly, it no longer mattered. Surely it had something to do with the arrival of sex on my scene, and the very different relationship to other people’s bodies that comes of it. But still, today, it’s just not my thing. I’m one of those catholic school boys who never really gets over the uniform. Every single day, working or not working, I wear a variation on the outfit I wore during my first nine years of school. A collared shirt and a sweater, never sneakers, chinoish pants. I skip only the tie – I almost never wear one. Some of the clothes I continue to wear are older than used – shirts I got when I went to university, sweaters that are almost worn through. A long Italian wool coat I bought – my best friend bought the same sort, same day – during the last winter of high school, when I was feeling like a poet. (A colleague stopped me in the hall a month ago when I was wearing it and said that it is a “poet’s coat, you know, the sort of thing that Eliot or Lowell wore.”  (I should use this story as an exemplary anecdote when I teach “The Dead” because it’s so exactly right…) Part of me was ecstatic to hear this; most of me was dreadfully embarrassed. He was, I’m sure, hazing me – I am, after all, the new guy still.

My wife pointed out today that now my mother makes her take her to fancyass but dowdy consignment stores. She’s of limited mobility, and so has to be taken places, and it’s consignment stores that she wants to go to ahead of any other place. It’s something we’ve never really understood, my wife and I, and would laugh off as just another parental absurdity. She has the money to buy what she likes as far as clothes go; why does she does she insist on sifting through the crap at these places? It is interesting and strange to think that my mother, perversely, may finally have learned to occupy the place where she lives – that she has finally forgotten Nova Scotia and Frenchy’s and wherever the clothes came from when she was a girl and before there was a Frenchy’s to visit.

Of late, but really forever though couldn’t articulate it, if I am not feeling like I am walking around in London but my fucked up head and heart are in Shitsville, Canada, I am feeling like I am walking around in Shitsville, Canada but my fucked up head and heart are in London. Either way, wherever head and heart and the rest of me are located absolutely or relatively, I have just now categorically refused to wear the semi-worn shirt from Frenchy’s, stated my refusal in no uncertain terms, even with stamping feet and tears in my eyes, but am wearing the damn thing anyway, feeling the dirt soak in through every tiny little hole.

Ah, well. This is all starting to feel a bit The Best American Essays 2008. And there’s surely a little narrative hiding in plain sight that’s prefitted for The Best American Short Stories 2009, and all that that sort of thing drearily entails. So I’d better stop before I over-epiphanize this shit. No one’s paying for it, anyway, neither by the item nor by the pound.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 15, 2008 at 12:53 am

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  1. […] and Class Aspiration Ads Without Products has an interesting post up about his childhood revulsion at used clothing; Infinite Thought has a […]


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