One wintery day I settled into my seat to enjoy a snack at a Finagle a Bagel not far from my office. The shop happens to be in a wealthy suburban neighborhood just outside of a major city, and there is an interesting mix of patrons there on any given day. On this particular afternoon, a subtle drama unfolded in front of me while I munched on my bagel:
Two mothers were sitting at an adjacent table, each with a little girl around the age of 10 or 11 in tow. The moms chatted mostly with each other, but something was clearly going on between their daughters. One had moved herself to a nearby table, determinedly “reading,” while the other made increasingly impatient pleas for forgiveness. The offender had, from what I could glean, called her friend’s boots “fuggs.”
Uggs, a suede winter boot, were the “it” fashion item for tweens and teen girls at that time. (I had watched my own niece squeal with delight the Christmas morning she opened hers.) Identifying her friend’s footwear as knock-offs had offended her deeply, and the girl was trying with little success to make amends. “I said I was sorry!” The injured party was having none of it, and held her ground, and onto her book. Fugg off.
Witnessing this little episode reminded me of moments when my clothing, or someone else’s, had signaled lower socioeconomic status. There was the time I was riding the bus to school – in a different, but nearby, wealthy suburb – and heard a girl critique another girl’s paltry wardrobe: “She just mixes and matches everything.”
There was the moment in class, when I felt suddenly conscious and embarrassed by my very worn shoes while discussing with a pal the fancy new lace knee-highs I had paired with them. Or the winter day another classmate pointed out that those same shoes really were not winter-weather appropriate. (Surely my parents had bought me winter boots, but perhaps not the brand the kids were wearing? In any case, I wore those shoes a lot!)
Our clothing, regardless of our intentions, communicates much about our social and class location.”
My most memorable sartorial humiliation happened in my first professional environment. At 16, I had secured a job as a clerk at a large department store in the men’s department. My teen years occurred during an era when clerks were required to dress professionally. For women this usually meant a skirt, blouse, nylons and dress shoes, or some approximation of this outfit.
I was lucky, in a way. My mother and I wore the same shirt size, and she always graciously opened her closet to me. She would also occasionally buy me dress shirts for just a few dollars each at a deep discount store she frequented. But professional pants, skirts and shoes were a bigger problem. I didn’t have too many, but I did have one basic black skirt I simply loved.
The skirt fit well and comfortably and paired with many tops, and I felt sharp and put-together when I wore it. Apparently, the skirt featured too prominently in my rotation, and a coworker took notice. His name was Tim.
Tim was a few years my senior and impeccably dressed. He once cracked wise about taking donations to the “Timmy Fund” so that he could buy more clothes. But in reality, Tim probably thought I was the one who needed donations, because one day he commented on how often I wore that skirt in a way that deeply shamed me. I no longer remember how I handled the situation, just the flower he brought in for me the next day in apology.
Fashion changes quickly. Uggs, though still around, have fallen out of favor as a must-have winter accessory in the few years since the bagel shop drama. Professional mores with regard to attire change, too. Retail clerks at the mall where I once worked now dress very casually. But some things remain constant. Our clothing, regardless of our intentions, communicates much about our social and class location. We tune into these messages from a very young age in ways that shape our understanding of whether we belong, or not. This is particularly tricky terrain for children who rely on their parents, and by extension their parent’s earning power, for clothes.
What messages did you receive – or give – about clothing and social class growing up? Please share your story in the comments.