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
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...