March 21, 2002
I enjoy shopping for clothes. I also enjoy returning clothes. Sometimes I like the returning even more than the shopping. Does that sound sick to you? Well, maybe it is. But I don't think I'm alone. In fact, I'll bet there are thousands of women out there who ruin the days of salespeople just as often as they make them.
For me, it all started a few years ago, when I moved from Washington, D.C., to a studio apartment in Manhattan. I went on a buying spree of Imelda proportions. Please don't misunderstand. I didn't buy indiscriminately; I simply purchased anything and everything I liked.
Within a couple of months, my one-and-a-half closets were about to implode. I began to purge my closets and drawers of all clothes I no longer wore or liked. Most of these rejects were sent to friends in Washington. I felt I was doing a good deed: my rejects were far superior to anything they could purchase within a 20-mile radius.
Meanwhile, I had not stopped buying clothes. I began to discover amazing stores that my fashionista friends had never heard of, and developed intimate relationships with the salespeople and owners. Indeed, my wardrobe had become not just a hobby, but a huge part of my social life. I pored over old fashion magazines with friends, lunched with young designers, and spent hours in my tailor's loft, redesigning both old and new items.
Not surprisingly, despite weekly boxes to Washington, clothes were still not going out as quickly as they were coming in. Moreover, a debt of $10,000 had somehow accumulated on my credit card.
My morning fittings expanded to two hours. I began to talk to my clothes: "You are fabulous, awesome!" "You, on the other hand, are too gimmicky -- you try too hard." The goal was to create art in the mirror. Clothes with even the slightest aesthetic flaw -- a waistline a half-inch too long, sleeves a quarter-inch too short -- had to leave immediately; their imperfect presence began to bother me.
By this time, I had acquired a reputation among my friends for having an enormous wardrobe -- the joke was that no one ever saw me wear the same thing twice. But it often wasn't a joke. I'd wear something, realize it wasn't exceptional, and then get rid of it the next day.
Efficiently "getting rid" of items entailed developing a skill that my mother had long ago perfected: I became an expert returner. Which basically means a good liar. Before, each lunch hour was filled with the excitement of new purchases; now, at least half were filled with the anxiety of new confrontations.
I didn't know much about "designer" consignment shops, having grown up in a culture (suburbia) where wearing "used" clothing was akin to failing to keep a tidy lawn. I soon learned, though, that there are uptown shops and downtown shops, and each affects an attitude that (presumably) reflects the character of the neighborhood. After a couple of weeks of schlepping huge shopping bags from one end of the city to the other, I finally figured out where each of my items belonged.
That turned out to be the easy part. Getting all of my rejects "accepted" turned out to be the real challenge. At one point I had clothes trying to sell themselves in five different consignment shops.
Meanwhile, I was still not content with my wardrobe. Though packed with great items, it lacked, I thought, a certain cohesive style that fit the woman I was (or, at least, wanted to be). Trying to correct this problem became tricky because, well, I saw myself as a different woman each week. When I was in my sleek, jet-setty sophisticate mode, I would toss aside all arty boho things. When I would allow my romantic side some space, all high-tech or minimalist items were dispensed with. Several times I had to sheepishly go back to consignments shops to retrieve clothing that I loved but hadn't fit the persona of the moment.
Those little trips gave me pause: could I have gotten a little too involved in this process? In hindsight, it was probably the baby blue '60s jacket that made me realize that aspects of my little hobby may have gotten out of hand. I had excitedly bought the jacket from a flea market vendor. But one day it was decided that the jacket, though extremely funky, lacked sophistication. When I took it to a consignment shop, the owner loved it so much she put it on the floor immediately. Within maybe five minutes, a very sophisticated woman tried it on, looked fabulous, had her gorgeous beau pay for it, and walked out happy as a clam.
Suddenly, I realized that my wardrobe pruning project had gone beyond achieving sartorial perfection. You've heard of impulse buys. There are also impulse returns, or more definitively, impulse sells. Call it shopping bulimia if you must.
I can now happily report, though, that I've moved my clothes fetish back into the healthier realm of passion. I will never be the type of person who wears clothes merely to live. But I now try to scrutinize purchases before they end up in my apartment. Perhaps more important, I am now devoting myself to learning the fine art of appreciating clothes without having to own them (i.e., window shopping).