Ever since I read a post on Frances’ blog the other day, the one where she counts up what she bought in 2019, analyzes her purchases, and talks about slow fashion, I’ve been thinking about something she said. About the time in her life when her “buying was indulgent.” That struck a chord with me. And started me thinking about my own “indulgent years.” Namely, the years in between being a poor student, then a student-debt-ridden-poorly-paid young teacher… and now. The years before I retired, before I cared about ethical shopping and the slow fashion movement. When I had enough money to buy what I wanted. And did.
Not that I was ever truly deprived in the wardrobe department. Growing up, even though my mum was a single parent with four of us kids, there always seemed to be enough money. Mostly. I know my mum had to really stretch her pay cheque. She tells of borrowing my older sister’s babysitting money to tide her over until pay day some weeks. Still, like the rest of my friends, I received new clothes at Christmas, and in the fall before school started, and when I really needed something.
If it wasn’t Christmas or my birthday, or I didn’t absolutely need something, it didn’t matter that I might love to have something new, I had to wait. Until it was Christmas or my birthday. That’s how it was for everyone I knew. I wrote a post a while ago about boot nostalgia, and how, growing up, we wore plastic bread bags in our boots if they sprang a leak when it was not feasible to buy new ones. I was amazed at the comments from readers who’d done the same thing growing up. You can read that post here, if you’re interested.
When I finally had a part-time job in high school, I bought many of my own clothes. A new sweater or pair of jeans. Sometimes set aside on lay-away. And paid off little by little with the money I earned while working for my aunt Phyl in the canteen at the Lady Beaverbrook Rink during the International Wrestling Federation matches on Thursday nights. One day I’ll tell you about that part-time job. It was an education, I’ll tell you that.
Like all my friends, when I had money to spend, I bought what I could afford. Well, mostly. There was the odd splash out that I shouldn’t have been able to afford. Especially in university, when I dipped into my bank account and spent money I should have been saving for next semester’s books, or rent. Like the time in second year when I bought a gorgeous coat sweater at the Towne Shoppe in Fredericton.
Oh my. I could not afford to even step into the Towne Shoppe, but I did. And my roommate never, ever let me forget how much I paid for that sweater. In fact, when we had lunch together last November in Fredericton when I was home at Mum’s, we laughed and laughed about that. “Remember how much I always wanted to borrow your seventy-five dollar sweater?” Debbie said. “Ha. Remember how you always remembered how much I paid for that damned sweater?” I chortled.
But, you see, those moments of splurging were just that. Moments of heady, glorious insanity, followed by wracking guilt and fear that I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. Thus they were bracketed by long periods of sanity when I bought only what I could afford. Which was not a lot.
And eventually when the student days were done, and the jobs where I earned not much more than minimum wage were done, and the student loans had been paid, I could afford to be, well, indulgent. More indulgent than I’d ever been able to be before, with less guilt and fear. And this may surprise you… or if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, maybe it won’t surprise you at all. But I clearly remember the day when that all changed.
It was September 1991. My friend Eunice and I had travelled to Montreal for a shopping weekend. The first of many, as it happened. We took the train, and slept on futons on the living room floor of her daughter’s apartment. We ate and shopped and laughed and ate and shopped some more. There may have been wine. Ha.
On Saturday afternoon, I gasped when I entered the Adrienne Vittadini boutique in Ogilvy’s on Saint-Catherine Street. I’d found my spiritual-sartorial home, so to speak. Beautiful, chunky cashmere sweaters, menswear-inspired camel hair jackets, pencil skirts. I ran my hand along the racks, riffling the sleeves of the jackets and coats, patting the sweaters, and tried to decide what to try on first. I’d only recently had my contract increased; finally after six years of teaching, I was making a full-time salary. I had money to blow. Not a lot, but some.
I chose a square-shouldered, camel-hair blazer and matching pencil skirt. The jacket I’d wear with my jeans and boots. Or with the skirt. And I’d get one sweater to go with the skirt when I wasn’t wearing the jacket. A beautiful long, camel cashmere, cable-knit, V-neck sweater. I saw myself in that sweater with a cream cami peeping out underneath, and the camel pencil skirt. Or with my black leather skirt, black tights, and flats. Or with jeans and boots. I was full of plans for that sweater.
Bu-ut. There’s always a but when one is shopping away from home. They only had the V-neck sweater in cream. And the camel in a turtleneck. I took them both into the dressing room. I tried on one. Then the other. The first one again. Then the other again. I could not decide. I enlisted the aid of the sales staff. They were no help. “They both look beautiful, madame.” Eunice arrived; we’d separated earlier in the day and had arranged to meet here later. I tried them both on again for her. Then I took them off, and did it again.
I was flushed and my hair stuck up on end. I had to decide. The sweaters were pricey, and I didn’t want to get home to Ottawa and realize I’d made a mistake and wish I’d bought the other one. Then Eunice said, “Why not get them both?”
Gasp. Can I do that? I was already splashing out on the jacket and skirt. But… two sweaters? “Well, it IS your money, Susan,” Eunice giggled. Right. I could buy two sweaters if I wanted. So I did.
That was a light-bulb moment for me. Seriously. For years afterward, if someone made a crack about my shopping habits, I’d always laugh and say, “Blame Eunice.”
I mean, I’d never been a penny pincher when I saw something I wanted. Although I was pretty good at buying pieces that went with what I already had in my closet, pretty good at planning what I wanted, I’d never been good at waiting for sales. Even when I should have done. If I had the money, I bought the item I wanted. But I always, always believed that I had to choose the ONE thing I wanted. That I had to choose which one perfect piece to buy. That rule had been my ceiling, sort of. And with that one comment, Eunice blew my ceiling all to hell. Ha.
I guess I could call the years following that momentous epiphany my indulgent years.
Eventually, I started shopping at Holt Renfrew. I could afford it now. Not that I went for the super high end Armani or Prada or St. John stuff… I wasn’t that flush. But Holts was the place, I learned, to buy good quality, mid-priced designer pieces. Many of them Holts own brand. And I discovered Max Mara. Elie Tahari. Theory and Lida Baday. I bought what worked with what I already had in my closet, with an eye for the trends, and what I loved.
I started keeping my little book of lists. Mostly because when I did shop, I often bought two or three outfits for the season. Maybe a skirt and jacket, a pair of pants and a sweater, a tee shirt and jeans, boots or flats. I needed to be able to check what I owned, so I didn’t buy something already in my closet. And to give me ideas for combinations.
When my friend Liz became the personal shopper at Holts… those were fun shopping days. I’d call her from work and we’d book a day. I’d tell her what I was looking for: a new suit, boots, a spring coat, and something pink. When I’d arrive she would have done what she calls “a pull.” I’d stash my coat and purse in her dressing room and, even before I looked at her choices, I’d do my own “reconnaissance mission” as I called it. We’d laugh when we’d pulled the same item, as we often did.
Then when I’d tried everything on with everything else, I’d sit down and try to make some choices. Liz would leave me alone to do this. No matter how much I loved everything, and sometimes I did, I knew I could not afford everything I loved. I may have been indulgent, but I wasn’t stupid. Besides, even though my original ceiling had been blown years ago, I knew I had to be able to justify my purchases to myself, if to no one else.
I still have all my Adrienne Vittadini pieces from that fateful Montreal trip: the camel jacket, the pencil skirt, and the two very indulgent sweaters. The skirt is buried in the storage closet. I mean… 1991 was a long time (and several inches around the waist) ago. But I kept it in case I ever give away the suit, so that it will still BE a suit. This afternoon I hauled out the camel turtleneck to venture outside into the snow. It still looks pretty good after twenty-eight years. Gad. That long ago. Turns out it was a quality piece well worth the price after all.
You know, I remember chatting with a young member of my department one day at work in the early 2000s. And when we were done talking about work, she asked me where I’d bought my new top. “Holt Renfrew,” I said. She sighed, “I wish I could afford to shop at Holt Renfrew.” “You’re twenty-seven,” I snapped. “You’ve been teaching for like ten minutes. You just bought a new car. It’s not your turn yet. I couldn’t afford to shop there when I was twenty-seven either.”
In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have bitten her head off. I could have been kinder. I could have assured her that down the road she’d have her own indulgent years. But, all in good time. All in good time.
So what say you, my fashionable friends? Did you have your own indulgent years? I remember my mum didn’t have hers until we were all mostly grown up. I recall one shopping trip Mum and I made to buy her outfit for my sister’s wedding. We may have ever so slightly under reported to my step-father how much she paid for that pink suit. Ha. Good times, eh Mum?
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