I can count on the fingers of one hand the new clothes I've bought in the past five years: insulated coveralls, underwear, felt liners for my snow boots, gloves. All the rest came from yard sales and the kind of thrift shops where you walk past the eight-track tapes and mismatched plastic plates on your way to the clothes racks.
I visited my favorite shop
last fall during its semiannual bag sale. The crowd was small and
genteel: two California emigrés looking for campy Halloween
costumes. Discovering a taffeta formal in a blinding shade of pink,
they fell shrieking into each other's arms while I dug resolutely
through racks of polyester pantsuits. I uncovered a plaid Pendleton
wool jacket in the classic double-breasted style, just like the one
my grandmother bought in 1953. It had all the original buttons and
no apparent moth holes. The prom queens stopped squealing and
looked at me.
"That," one of
them purred, "would be worth a lot of money at this vintage
clothing place I know over in Sun Valley."
smiled, but said nothing. I can't afford used clothes in Sun
"If you want to sell
that, I work over at "XYZ" Realty," she caroled as she left. She
and her companion were, I noticed, still wearing their California
office clothes. Perhaps a few years of living three hours from even
the nearest Sears would teach them humility and send those tasteful
gray suits into the closet for funerals.
But it's hard to hate people whose
cast-offs keep me clad above my station in life. Thanks to their
donations to this shop, run by the local humane society, I sport
brands I couldn't otherwise afford. I run into my friends here,
too, and we are not ashamed.
I wear the surplus
wealth of sunbelt refugees, the gleanings of a thousand malls. At
an annual wine-tasting benefit, I sip merlot and feel trés
chic in a second-hand Shetland sweater. As a string quartet wails,
I feel eyes boring into my back, and turn as someone thin and tan
tries to decide where she's seen it before.
she remembers, she will despise me, a barbarian at the
Go back to Palm Springs if you don't like
it, I sneer silently, gobbling more brie, and wishing I'd worn my
yard sale Bay-to-Breakers T-shirt. Not that I ever actually ran a
marathon, you understand. It just happens to look good on me since
I got the flu during lambing season and lost all that
Something weird has happened here. While
sales of retail clothing are flat, thrift shops sell almost new
sweaters for pennies. Raised by a mother and grandmother who
avoided used clothing even in the Depression, and brought up in the
prosperous mid-century decades, I virtually stopped buying new
clothes in the late 1970s. Wages and farm prices stagnated in the
West; the cost of everything else didn't.
every week brings newcomers to this land of low wages, depressed
cattle prices, a dying timber industry and a nervous mining
climate. A dollar goes further here, if you have the dollar to
begin with. Fleeing the dense air and dark peoples of California or
Denver or Phoenix, the immigrants arrive flush with real estate
cash, and celebrate by cleaning out their
We watch and wait, votaresses of a new
Sometimes when I leave the thrift
shop, I see a van, bearing the mantra "We Buy Levis' parked a
couple of blocks away on Main Street. Remembering a denim jacket at
home, I wonder how much it's worth, and consider returning to this
fin de siÅcle shrine of the New West to find
It's just a work jacket to me, not a
fashion statement or an American icon. It's a little frayed, and
stained, and I ripped the pocket out on a fencepost one day. But
when I bought it, it was new, and the world held more of
everything. If I sell it now, I'm afraid, I'll never see it again,
at least not in a thrift shop.
Louise Wagenknecht lives and writes in Leadore,