Whenever we come home from shopping, each toting a large, thin-handled bag, my husband immediately removes the shirts and pants he’s bought, snips off the tags, slips the clothes onto hangers, and hangs them in the closet. I, on the other hand, wait weeks before I even take my purchases out of the bag. Tags don’t come off until I’m ready to wear what I’ve bought.
I remember a deep purple cotton jacket I bought that had been marked down several times. When I tried it on, under the glare of the too-bright lights in the dressing room, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the sleeves were far too tight. I wasn’t surprised, since the jacket was one, or maybe two, sizes too small. But the jacket was such a good deal, I couldn’t pass it up.
I’m not sure if I thought I might lose enough weight for the sleeves to fit or would figure out how to stretch them. Whatever the case, no matter how many times I considered wearing the jacket, the sleeves always looked and felt too snug. Eventually, I cut off the tags and dropped the jacket into a garbage bag destined for Goodwill.
My oldest sister, Barbara, died unexpectedly, after her heart started beating irregularly. I flew across country for her funeral, which took place on a cold, gray March day. Among the things we discovered in her closet after the funeral were nearly a dozen dresses, blouses and pants, still containing their price tags.
Finding that array of never worn clothes in my sister’s closet, I couldn’t help but assume that shopping was the point, not a need for something new to wear. For several years before my sister’s death, her only child, a son, had been in prison, serving time for armed robbery. All those price tags provided a window into at least one way my sister attempted to cope.
The summer before I started the ninth grade, I moved with my family to Germany. Women’s clothes available at the time in Frankfurt, the city closest to the Air Force Base where we lived, had no resemblance to what was in style, in the United States. So, rather than shop in Frankfurt, we bought everything at the Post Exchange, or PX, on base.
The PX carried good quality women’s clothes, at prices lower than in civilian stores. But there was a catch. As soon as a rumor surfaced that the PX had gotten a new shipment of women’s clothes, every girl I knew would head over there. If I bought a sweater on Saturday and wore it to school the following Monday, that sweater would pass me all day in the hall.
Years later, I can still recall one I bought. The sweater buttoned up and down and closed in a deep vee at the front. It must have been Spring, because the sweaters came in soft pastel shades – baby blue, pale yellow, chartreuse and pink. I bought the baby blue one.
After we returned to the states and I entered the eleventh grade, my mother started buying me clothes in the bargain basement at Gimbels, a department store in the nearby mall. Because I had grown accustomed to better-quality fabrics from the PX, I hated the cheap Gimbels’ basement clothes. Instead of flimsy polyester that hung unevenly, I preferred thick rich wool sweaters in deep dark colors.
After the gifts had been opened on Christmas, I would dash to my room and try on the new outfits from my mom. As soon as I was done, I would return to the living room and tell my mother, “They didn’t fit,” letting the fib slide easily off my tongue.
When I returned the items, I didn’t bother to slide hangers across racks under the harsh fluorescent lights in the basement. Instead, I headed upstairs to look through the name-brand sweaters and skirts, settling on half of what my mother had bought me for the same price she’d paid.
My senior year of high school I worked on Saturdays at Khoury & Clement Realtors. Like every girl I knew, I had taken a typing class that year and now had a chance to use my skills.
My job consisted of looking through the local paper, The Mount Holly Herald, for notices of engagements and weddings, and cutting them out, along with any accompanying photographs. Then I would type an individual letter to each happy couple, letting them know that we at Khoury & Clement Realtors were ready to help them find their new home.
The job continued into the summer and my small savings account grew. In late August, a few weeks before I planned to head off to college in Washington, D.C., I took my savings and went shopping at the mall. Since I didn’t have a huge amount of money but believed I needed an entirely new wardrobe, appropriate for a young woman attending college in a big city, I had to be smart.
At Gimbels, I picked out several matching sweaters and skirts that could be interchanged, to make it appear that I had more outfits than just a couple. I also bought a tan and brown knit dress I thought I could wear on a dinner date, matching brown shoes, and even a brown suede hat. At the time, I couldn’t have known that slightly more than a year after buying these clothes, I wouldn’t be caught dead in them, preferring faded bellbottom jeans and tee-shirts, my uniform for the next decade.
Ten years after I started college, I landed a job at a small public relations agency in San Francisco. At first, I served as the receptionist, sitting behind a wide desk on the first floor, answering phones, greeting clients, and accomplishing what I thought of as impossible tasks, such as finding one hundred empty Coke bottles for an event or lining up a marching band to arrive at the office on our boss’s birthday.
A few months into the job, I got a chance to do what I most wanted, which was to write. After several of my articles got published in local papers, I was promoted to the position of Account Executive. The promotion moved me up the spiral staircase to a cubicle on the second floor. Not only did I now have my own accounts to manage but I occasionally needed to meet with clients, all of whom were men.
Appearances were everything to my boss, Art Blum. The office was splashed with an unforgettable palette of complementary colors, including purple and chartreuse. Art wore pricey Italian suits, tailored to make his five-foot-five frame appear taller, along with shiny Italian loafers boasting slightly raised heels. He also cared deeply how “his girls,” as he referred to the all-female staff, appeared.
Since this was my first real professional job, I went out and bought outfits that seemed to fit the part. While I hoped to appear serious, I didn’t want to look boring, in a dark suit, more appropriate for an attorney or accountant than someone in PR. I opted for color, a rich emerald green silk blouse paired with a pale blue suede skirt. I chose heels with softer and wider soles, that I hoped wouldn’t be too punishing on my feet.
Before I went to meet with clients, Art always gave me the once-over, checking that my chosen outfit matched the occasion. Sometimes he scolded me for what he felt wasn’t quite right. My response was to ignore him.
In my forties after another failed relationship ended as so many others had before, I decided to go to therapy. I was determined to change a life that wasn’t working. To do so, I soon discovered, meant going deep. For months, I found myself sobbing nearly uncontrollably during those weekly sessions, a relief to finally be letting go of long-buried pain, but also exhausting.
And so, I shopped. Or rather, I treated myself, not every week after therapy, because I would have gone broke. But at least once a month, I hit the mall downtown on Market Street, my spirits rising the moment I heard the first notes of the piano, played on the second floor outside Nordstrom. The rules were simple – only one item or outfit, and it had to be on sale.
Sometimes, instead of hitting the mall, I would wander a few blocks west, almost to Geary Street, and step into Emporium Capwell. What I loved about that store, which was eventually replaced by Macy’s, was that items could be marked down three or four times, dragging the price low enough to almost be free. I once snagged a gorgeous purple wool gabardine coat that brushed my calves, marked down seventy-five percent. I wore the coat for years, until it grew shiny, even then getting compliments on it from strangers.
Every so often, I watched and waited for an item to be marked down, enough so it landed in my price range. I picked up this practice years before, from my father’s second wife, Val, the only advice she ever deigned to give me. Unlike my mother who at a certain point in her life appeared not to care how she looked, Val was always impeccably turned out, usually with a matching silk scarf around her neck, even on days she didn’t leave the house.
Val bought her clothes at one of a handful of small expensive shops in San Antonio, where she and my father retired. Her advice to me was simple. Buy expensive clothes, she said, but only at the one or two annual sales. Her theory was that when pricey clothes got marked down, they ended up being about what you’d pay for cheaper items at regular price.
One day, I spotted a jacket at Ann Taylor, located in Embarcadero Center, a sprawling shopping mall and office complex, a few blocks from the Ferry Building and San Francisco Bay. I knew I had to have the jacket, but I couldn’t pay the price. So, once a week, I stopped in to check on the lovely mustard-colored jacket that fit me perfectly, to see if it had been marked down. Finally, at the end of the month, the price had fallen enough and the jacket became mine.
As with the purple coat, I wore the mustard jacket long past the point I should have, until the back grew thin. Walking with my husband one day in the Richmond District, we ran into Mayor Willie Brown, out campaigning for reelection. After shaking my hand and giving me one of his characteristic wide grins, the famously stylish Brown, whose annual donation of barely-worn Italian suits to a thrift store in Pacific Heights drew a line of eager buyers down the block, said, “I love your jacket.”
After the gorgeous film version of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, came out, loose linen pants, dresses and shirts in pale earth tones began appearing in the stores. I drooled over a pair of olive-green linen Bermuda shorts that a shop in Embarcadero Center had paired with a gray-blue silk blouse. As with the mustard jacket, I stopped in the store periodically to check the prices. As soon as they’d fallen into my range, the outfit became mine.
I wore those shorts and that sleeveless silk shirt for years, until the shorts grew stiff and faded from too much dry cleaning. In fact, the outfit became a sort of seasonal barometer for me. In the two decades I lived in San Francisco, I cherished days in which the fog retreated and it was possible to wear shorts. The outfit felt like a metaphor for freedom, the feeling of summer in that city famous for tourists shivering on the Golden Gate Bridge in August, because they didn’t know to pack long pants and a warm jacket.
I have a friend who often admits that she hates to shop, especially for clothes. Years ago, during the sixties, I pretended for a brief time not to fall prey to the consumerism that fuels our economy. Now that I’m older and able to be more honest about myself, I can admit that unlike my friend, I love everything about shopping, except, of course, having to pay the bills. Walking into a store, I am filled with anticipation of what treasures I might find, and the enjoyment just goes on from there. I can also say that I live pretty modestly, in part, because I love bargains, as much as I like to shop.
Clothes are still the item that makes me happiest to buy. Over the years, and even now, shopping for a new dress, blouse or pair of shoes can lift me out of a low mood, or give me a brief respite from a rough stretch I can’t do anything about but endure.
Part of the fun stems from the unknown. As a child, one of my favorite games, played outdoors with other neighborhood kids on long summer evenings, was Treasure Hunt. One of the kids would hide the prize, a hard candy sucker or Milky Way bar, and the rest of us would dash off to find it. I loved the game, mostly because of the element of surprise.
Another aspect of clothes shopping that attracts me is the opportunity for instant transformation. Slipping on a sweater and checking my reflection in the mirror, I can feel as if a new me has taken over, in place of the old.
That’s also where the tags come in. When I return home with my shopping bag, I’m able to relive the experience I had in the store. With tags still hanging from my wrist, the promise remains that this new outfit just might change my life.
Decades after putting outfits into plastic bags, to donate to Goodwill, I can still recall some of my favorites. Often, they’re clothes I went a bit over my budget to own. There was a deep pink wool cardigan I nabbed in a small expensive boutique I had no right to walk into. Even when a moth hole appeared on the right side, I refused to give the sweater up.
And there was the silver mini-skirt and matching belted top I only put on a handful of times but kept for years, just in case. The rich mother of my college roommate, Alice, bought me the outfit, along with pale gray pantyhose and matching silver shoes, to wear on an unforgettable night out, dancing at Studio 54 in New York. Back at school in Washington, D.C., I wore the outfit to a fraternity party with my boyfriend, Bruce. Someone snapped a photo of us, with Bruce looking handsome in a matching pale gray suit.
Decades after that party, Bruce contacted me and asked me to send copies of any photos I had of him from that time. Along with a later photo of us sitting on the ground at a concert, with Bruce’s wild black curls having grown past his chin and me wearing a floppy brown suede hat and oversized tan jacket bought at the Army-Navy Store, I sent him the one where we looked like we were going to a fancy dinner party, the sort of people who wouldn’t have been caught dead sitting on the ground stoned out of their minds, as the couple we’d become a year later were more than happy to do.
Every year on the third Sunday in May, thousands of people gather early in the morning blocks from San Francisco Bay, while fog still blankets the sky. Some are dressed in sleek shorts and quick-dry tee-shirts, while others wear elaborate, and often hilarious, costumes. All are there for the start of the Bay to Breakers, a footrace that takes runners – and walkers – across town, eventually landing at the Great Highway, feet from Ocean Beach.
The last year I ran in the Bay to Breakers, a team of runners jogged past me, carrying a small tiki bar. Further up the hill, they stopped, set the bar down in the middle of the street, and proceeded to mix and serve drinks. I also saw runners pushing a float boasting a paper-mache wave with a guy surfing on top. Also, several naked guys jogged past, not looking the least bit embarrassed or shy.
My favorite team of runners was a group of women dressed in off-the-shoulder, ankle-length tan dresses, that looked like they’d come right off the set of Gone with the Wind. When I got closer, I realized that the dresses had been made from the plastic Nordstrom hanging bags given customers whenever they bought a suit or dress. In addition, each of the women was carrying a thin-handled, Nordstrom paper shopping bag. Best of all, hanging from their lobes were earrings made from Nordstrom’s colored shopping tags.
As a regular Nordstrom shopper, I was familiar with the plastic bags and the shopping tags. I also knew that for my size clothes, the tags were always a sparkling green.
I felt the women were signaling to all of us Nordstrom regulars that we were part of a secret society. If you didn’t shop at Nordstrom, the outfits wouldn’t have even been funny. You might not have realized that the dresses were made from the plastic salespeople stretched over just-bought outfits or that the earrings were made from price tags. You also probably wouldn’t have been transported off the street to that moment when you hear the notes from the piano, playing It Had to Be You, and you enter the store’s front door, look around, and wonder what treasures you might be lucky enough to find that afternoon, before your money runs out.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.