Monday, February 25, 2008

Having, Wanting, Shopping . . .

I commented a few posts ago about the imprinting left by my long-ago school uniform and you can see its effects again here. We wore grey wool flannel pleated skirts where I've substituted denim, and we wore red ties (yes, seriously, and I could tie my own!) where I have the scarf. And I'm wearing these boots instead of penny loafers or oxfords, but otherwise, yep, it's my uniform.

Here's a closer view of the scarf, which I love so much that I bought it in blue as well -- both in Paris two years ago, this one in the red that somehow evokes that city for me.
Realizing the influence of this uniform's formula is partly in response to my foray through the spring offerings downtown Vancouver last weekend, especially at Holt Renfrew where I saw new dresses to love (by Vince and Graham & Spencer especially, but also a von Furstenberg wrap in a print I quite liked) and at Tristan where I might have found the skirt I've been waiting for. Somehow, though, I didn't end up trying anything on and I've been thinking about why ever since, and looking through my closet trying to figure out what I do and don't wear, what I might need, and why I shouldn't buy everything I want (!). I suspect my hesitation won't last long (I'll be back in the city next weekend), but I'd like to understand it while it does last, so please be patient while I think through some reasons.

Reason #1: Budget. While many of you will not yet be in a position to understand this, part of my problem is being uncomfortable with more disposable income than I had most of my life. Growing up as the oldest of twelve (yes, really), many, if not most, of my clothes came from rummage sales although I babysat and worked part-time during high school to supplement my wardrobe, and I sewed and knitted to stretch those dollars further. For a few years after university, I exercised the working girl's option to shop during lunch hours, but married young and had my first child at 23 with three more over the next nine years. Paul's always left family finances up to me and rarely questioned any of my purchases, but that only made me more careful about a clothing budget based on one full-time salary. I learned to keep us all well dressed and stylish out of the monthly envelope (we actually used an envelope system for a few years). Now, though, the kids are long gone and I've got full-time, relatively-well-paid work, with a mortgage almost paid (after thirty-plus years of home-owning), so my conscience is the main constraint on my shopping. Unfortunately, my conscience works overtime, yet has few clear parameters when it comes to clothes. (It tends to simply repeat, "Do you really need that?"!) Given my background, I'm not inclined to be considering garments (excepting coats) beyond the $4-500 range (and even that would be a big stretch), so except in ridiculously large quantities, what I'm choosing isn't going to break the bank at this stage. I tend to buy when I find something I love if it seems reasonably priced, decent quantity, with a good chance of fitting my lifestyle, even if I don't necessarily "need" it.

Which brings me to potential reason #2: Ethics. And of course, this is where it gets tricky. First, there are the environmental ethics of buying more when so many serviceable and, frankly, still relatively stylish and attractive, garments already hang in my closet. My environmental profile is, overall, quite decent, I think. Used cloth diapers for all my kids, have always cold-water-washed and used non-phosphate detergents, kept thermostats low, low-consuming cars (which I hardly even drive any more), very moderate consumers of home furnishings, appliances, etc., non-pesticide, xeric gardening since way back. But I buy more clothes than I need. Way more. Unless I completely change the meaning of "need." Which I have to admit I sometimes try to do.

And that's only the environmental ethics. There's also the ethics of me having so much when so many are homeless. We've been fortunate to be able to contribute to friends who travel annually to Cambodia and neighbouring countries, helping build and repair homes, schools, orphanages, and hospitals and, this year, to a neighbour who traveled to Sierra Leone with a gift of computers for work at the university there. And we give to other good causes locally. Still, when you know that the cost of the new dress you long to try on could buy a cow or a couple of goats to provide a family's milk for a year . . .

Finally, there's something that's not exactly ethics, but more like a sensitivity to those colleagues (especially the support staff), friends, and neighbours who aren't able to afford as much for clothes and in front of whom I feel uncomfortable about my own fortunate position (while knowing I've worked hard for it and done without for decades). At the same time, I suspect most of them couldn't care less what I wear, and I also know that my lifestyle, city-straddling as it is, demands a different dress than my Goretex and birkenstock fellow islanders. (See? I told you I tried to re-define "need.")

So reason #1, budget, isn't really enough to stop me shopping. Reason(s) #2, on the contrary, should perhaps stop me completely. Somewhere in between is reason #3, which is the state-of-adequacy, if not plenty, of my closet right now. Finding new dresses I loved last weekend, I paused to remember that I have, within the last few months, purchased several dresses I also loved yet have only worn several times. In fairness to me, I'd say that the occasions that require dresses also often require that the dress be a different one (especially in a small-ish town -- she's wearing THAT again?). But I've also just put in the give-away bag another Banana Republic dress that I loved at the time, tried last week to wear again and ended up admitting that it's a mistake.

Part of the over-purchasing or purchasing errors can be blamed on the insecurities associated with the aging process. Trying to find something that works for a slightly-different body and that will look neither dowdy nor foolish, change room after change room, perky young salesgirl after perky young salesgirl, can often make a dress (or top or skirt) seem just perfect when the home mirror reveals it to be somewhat short of that. As well, the vagaries of fashion often mean that several seasons will pass with scarcely any offerings that suit so that when a season with shapes and colours I love comes along, I tend to grab and hoard in case of future droughts.

Oh dear, I see this has turned into an ever-so-long post, and I'll have lost most of you by now, but if you're still here, I'd love to hear how, or whether, you discipline your own shopping, what parameters you set for yourself and why. I will admit that I did pick up a few things last week (a navy shirtdress on sale at The Gap for $49!) and I will probably try at least one dress and skirt this weekend. But I am going to try to work a bit more with what I already have -- remembering my New Year's resolution to Want What I Have -- and am also going to return more consistently to a practice I used to have of putting some time, at least going out for a coffee, between trying on and buying.


  1. Yes, great post, and great blog!

    Your thoughtful writing about the pleasures and problems of fashion, shopping, and dressing is changing my relationship to these. After years of self-imposed student poverty, I am finally getting my first big paycheck at the end of the month. Yay! For months now I've been dreaming about what I'm going to spend my money on, what new clothes I'm going to buy, and your blog is very much influencing my decisions. I realized I, too, have a uniform: dark jeans, flat-soled boots, a black turtleneck sweater, and jewlery or scarves to punch it up. I'm going to invest in some good uniform pieces, rather than buying new dresses and skirts, items I rarely wear.

    But even as I'm planning this shopping trip, I'm conscious that dreaming about it is probably going to be more pleasurable than the actual getting and spending. It's the classic Freudian thing--desire and pleasure exist in the absence of the desired object. I sometimes find that when I actually get to the store, getting the item is disappointing; it was more fun to not have it & want it.


  2. Thanks Gina, and Karina, great to have you commenting. That's a uniform I can relate to as well, and I think upgrading all those items is a smart approach. I think your reference to the Freudian (or Lacanian?) lack or absence is astute. Part of my hesitation is a grudging acknowledgment that my desire for the new garment will never really be satisfied and that I'm better off learning to want what I have. That said, I might nevertheless be flashing my credit card this weekend -- wisdom only arrives in occasional doses, you know?

  3. I resonate to so much of this! Since you live in Canada (I do too) you have the added 'pleasure' of finding something appealing online, then finding they ship to US only. You might want to find out if the marvelous "Clothes" (by Muriel Dombret) has a BC distributor (it will be a boutique.) She is based in Ottawa, and makes the BEST clothes: intersting but not weird, in beautiful fabrics. (prices will be Tristan-sh vs. Holt-ish) Muriel will also make things for you, a few inches longer, for instance. I buy them from her trunk shows when she is in Toronto. And you get to Buy Canadian!

  4. Thanks Duchesse, I'll keep an eye out. Actually, my husband's in Ottawa right now -- I should give him a mission!

  5. Ah, some very interesting thoughts here. I've been going through a "pare down and upgrade" phase, hoping to achieve a minimal yet chic and versatile wardobe. I've become much more picky in recent years, and it seems like so much that's in my price "comfort zone" is made like crap. But even when I'm willing to spend a bit more, I also feel caught in that fashion gap between dowdy and age-inappropriate, so that's keeping me from spending too.

  6. I love the red scarf, BTW! Scarves have become a fixture in my "uniform."

  7. Deja: You're helping me identify what I'm bothered by and it's at least partly waste. I don't mind spending if the value is there but I'm annoyed by my shopping mistakes -- some poorly made garments but also my own errors in trying to negotiate that gap you speak of -- trying to be neither dowdy nor age-inappropriate. Thank goodness for scarves!

  8. I have in my life frittered far too much money away on clothes, living with someone at the opposite end of this spectrum has improved my profligacy, but not altogether. I have also cut back, reducing my access to shops by getting rid of the car. My need to shop can veer on addiction, the 'shop therefore I am' syndrome. Hence so much repetition in my wadrobe. I now make far less mistakes, but really should be old enough not to make any, mistakes made are when I try to buy a lifestyle rather than what I need. You can trace back my addiction to the fact that the only time I did not fight with my mother was when we shopped, so I associated shopping with a sense of calm. Regards #2 I have given up so much to help the environment that I do not worry too much, there are very few cultures in this world that do not like to adorn and decorate, its part of our nature, but I agree we should try to be satisfied with less but aim for a better quality and wear it more often, the draw back of this of course is you end up wearing black all the time, but I am trying.
    As for the mistakes Ebay BNWT!

  9. Ah, learning to want what you have - that old chestnut. Easier said than done, but I am big believer in recycling, especially furniture and art - or trading with friends. In college, my daughter and her friends once had a clothing trade, but it didn't last long as some of the clothes were of better quality than others and didn't last. :) It's hard to resist beautiful things when we see them. These days I do try to buy only rare, unusual things that I'll never see again and I do ask myself do I really need that? Also, since I'm trying to lose weight, I resist buying clothes until I'm back to "normal" for me. But shoes and handbags, now that's another story! :) Most of my clothes are classic, that can be changed with scarves and accessories. Your scarf is gorgeous and looks very French (even the way it's tied)!

  10. Oh, I really like this post. I went to an all-girls school and wore uniforms straight from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I definitely enjoy pleated skirts, tights, flat shoes, and things made out of wool more than the average. What's not to like, really?

    Wanting What I Have. It's so easy to get seduced by the new rather than look at the old closet in a new way. I've been trying much harder to save up and spend less this year, especially on clothes. I have to say, the Victoria Value Village has been a lifesaver in terms of letting me buy new-to-me clothes without breaking into the bank.

  11. Tara: your site is a testimonial to your commitment to reusing and recycling, but especial to recognizing beauty OUTside of the malls and the obvious consumerism.
    And you do realize that you paid me the ultimate comment -- a Parisian who says my scarf looks, and is tied, very French!
    Sm: I've been browsing your site and am really impressed with the looks you can put together on a budget with lashings of creativity. I love the way one can feel like a millionaire in Value Village, with money going so far that you can pile garments high. Have a fabulous sheepskin jacket that I got for $15 (!) and I once got a brand-new Burton suede jacket for my husband (still had the dessicant packet in the pocket!)


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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