Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Hand-Me-Down Values

I grew up wearing other people's clothes. Specifically, my older cousin's. Whenever we saw them, I usually ended up with a few paper bags of her outgrown clothing to go through. They sort of fit, at least until I got a lot taller than her, and I suppose they were stylish enough, though from photos it's hard to distinguish awful-because-eighties from awful-during-eighties.

We rarely shopped for new clothes, and when we did, it was just the clearance racks. It wasn't that my family couldn't afford it, I don't think; it was that clothes for the kids weren't a priority to the breadwinner, so they weren't purchased. Our mom went along with it, because that's what you do when you are a young Christian homemaker wife and mother, and we kids didn't know any differently. How was I supposed to know at age eight that being worried about money when our dad bought a new power tool meant that his financial priorities were all fucked up?

I didn't mind about the hand-me-down clothes - it didn't occur to me to mind - until junior high, when I entered public school and had something to compare my clothes with. I realized that mine were all wrong and that other people did things like go to the store in August and buy a new wardrobe for school. Some families designated hundreds - hundreds! - of dollars especially for that purpose, which I swear to god I didn't know was possible.

After my undergraduate degree, when Twelve was little and I had a 'real' job, I went through a stage of buying new clothes for her, in batches, from Gap or another of those generic but 'name brand' shops. That lasted until the credit card debt started piling up and I went to graduate school to become a highly educated person with skills no one wants to actually pay for.

I still don't see the point of paying full price for anything, especially now that I know that the markup on retail clothing is upwards of fifty percent. And then there's the ethical question of apparel production, which makes purchasing new clothes from most brands an absolutely immoral act. So we buy secondhand for the most part, though I do make my own clothes when I can find soft jersey knits in good colors.

Twelve has, I hope, a healthy respect for the fact that our lifestyle includes only occasional purchases of relatively big-ticket items. I don't think that she worries that we won't be able to pay rent because we spent too much on clothes. It's all relative, of course, in that the things that are big-ticket to us are absolutely impossibly astronomically big-ticket to some and business-as-usual to others. We also have a particular value system in that we'll pay more for certain things, like good boot socks, and never dream of spending much on others, like Juicy Couture wallets. (Forty bucks for a wallet? Are you kidding me?)

It helps that her dad buys her things like color-coordinated Beats headphones and Coach bag (THEY FUCKING MATCH), so she fits in just fine at school, but one of the things I really appreciate about my otherwise ridiculous progeny is her sensible approach to buying clothes. She is perfectly satisfied with her thrift store clothing at three and four and five bucks a pop. And why wouldn't she be? She gets way more stuff that way than she would if she insisted that everything come from a mall.

But the thing is, I would buy her new clothes from the mall if that's what it took for her to feel good about what she wore. There wouldn't be as much of it - I'm not ever going to do the credit card debt thing again, thankyouverymuch - but if for some reason she needed that, I'd make it happen. I'd be symbolically rescuing my former self, I'm sure, but what else is parenthood if not the chance to work through one's own issues? Abused children vow not to inflict similar abuse on their own offspring, impoverished children become workaholic adults in the quest of giving their own children a better life, and children of argumentative parents work really hard to achieve harmony in their adult partnerships.

The hand-me-down system remains alive and well in my extended family. I don't get paper bags of my cousin's castoffs anymore, but unwanted clothing is still circulated until ... I don't know what eventually happens to it. I imagine that eventually someone either keeps it or takes it to Goodwill, but whenever I see my mom, she has some sort of hand-me-down bag for us, usually with clothes or some sort of sewing paraphernalia. Once the bag contained a really terrible black velvet button-up shirt that I had gotten rid of several years before. It had made the rounds of my sister and at least two aunts before coming back to me.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great system much of the time. R has inherited quite a few things from my brother, a beneficial partnership because my brother is quite the clothes horse and R is, well, let's just say that I've definitely pondered the ethics of getting rid of certain garments while their owner is out of the country. Twelve also has a variety of t-shirts and sweatshirts that are remnants of my sister's high school and college athletic days. It is a very sweet symbol of the auntie-niece relationship and signifies our as-yet-unfounded expectation that Twelve will become an athlete. The garments lead to some pretty surreal situations that we get a kick out of; her PE teacher recognized a high school track sweatshirt because he had previously taught at a neighboring school. When the orthopedist recognized one of the college basketball t-shirts, I gestured toward it and said 'my little sister' by way of explanation. His expression led me to quickly clarify that the t-shirt, not the wearer, was my sister's. The rusty patio furniture that came with the house R lived in when I met him has since been handed around amongst our friends at least three times. It's currently on the back patio of the house that I helped our friend N pick out, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are really looking forward to that first shiveringly optimistic cookout of the spring.

I love that Twelve has eaten so many times at the same set of crappy-ass patio furniture. I love that hand-me-down clothes mean something different to Twelve than they did to me. She wears her Auntie's old t-shirts and hoodies because her aunt is awesome, not because she has no other options. I love that wearing secondhand clothes is for Twelve a pragmatic way to get more of what she wants, not a resented result of a parent's reluctance to spend money on her.

However, I really hope she doesn't figure out that I'd buy her clothes at the mall if necessary. I really hate malls.

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