Dressed for success

  • Drawing by Malcolm Wells
  • Clothes shoppers illustration

    Drawing by Malcolm Wells

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."

I smiled, but said nothing. I can't afford used clothes in Sun Valley.

"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. Perhaps.

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.

When she remembers, she will despise me, a barbarian at the gates.

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 weight.

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.

Now 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 closets.

We watch and wait, votaresses of a new cargo cult.

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 siecle shrine of the New West to find out.

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, Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds