Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Amanda J. Crawford
The dress was stiff and boxy, made from that awful faux-suede fabric my mother wore in the 1970s, rubbery on the inside and velveteen on the outside. It was far too large for me. The pressure of my office chair pushed the collar up toward my chin so that the shoulder pads seemed cantilevered from my neck, and the belt, otherwise too low for my waist, found a niche in my short torso to rest. And while the deep merlot color of the dress would have been acceptable on another day, today I was certain it brought out the shadows under my sleepless eyes and the bruises darkening on my upper arms.
I sat at my desk in the sunny ninth-floor newsroom of Phoenix’s daily newspaper with my legs crisscrossed underneath me and my shoulders hunched, folded into myself as if trying to construct a purple faux-suede wall around my heart. I had spent my entire adult life in newsrooms, where there is no escape behind office doors or cubicle walls, and I usually relished the collective energy—the perpetual chatter, collegial banter, ringing phones and occasional shouting—that sucks you into your role as a cog in the daily grind.
The distraction of a busy newsroom, where I could never wallow in my own thoughts for too long, had kept me going for years as my personal life fell into shambles. On this day, though, I struggled to concentrate as I put together simple items for Sunday’s political column. I wanted to disappear. I practiced not looking up, not catching eyes, staring at the flashing cursor on the white screen of my computer. When that didn’t work, I fled one floor down to the brown tweed couch in the small, austere parlor off the women’s bathroom that was set up for nursing moms, locked the door, and cried.
That morning, my friend Sarah, four inches taller and three sizes bigger, had produced this dress from the back of a closet filled with the work clothes she had worn in a former life as a payday-lending executive. Now expecting her second child, she was planning her exit from the business world for good. Sarah offered me the dress and a ride downtown.
The night before, her husband had reluctantly paid the cab that delivered me to their home in the suburbs. I was hysterical and had run into oncoming traffic on the six-lane road by my house. Sarah made me herbal tea in a large, brightly painted mug and listened as I tried to explain what had happened through tears. She dismissed questions from her husband, who was friends with mine, and set me up to sleep for a few fitful hours on their couch.
With no place else to go, I headed into the newsroom early the next morning, wondering if anyone could tell I was wearing someone else’s clothes.
I’d never been good with clothes. I learned to shop cheap and fast from the blue-light special sales at K-Mart. I’d sip a red Icee until my lips, teeth, and tongue were tinted its unnaturally red cherry color, waiting for the cart with the blue light to illuminate the kids’ section and put everything in our price range.
When I was in elementary school, my grandmother made most of my clothes, in cotton prints that matched my mother’s. In middle school, I remember standing at the bus stop with my friends as they bragged about their tee-shirts with prices inflated by the word “Esprit.” My mother was too practical to spend money on brands, so I began supplementing my discount store clothes with items dug out of the back of her closet: a patchwork skirt, a tweed jacket, and a cowl-neck sweater from the 1970s. In high school, as I embraced grunge music and its associated style, I wore my dad’s oversized yellow and gray flannel, smothered under his large Army jacket.
By my young adult years, though, that creative fashion spark was gone, extinguished under the weight of responsibility carried too soon. I married my high school sweetheart at nineteen and began working full-time during college to support us. My clothing, like my life, became almost entirely utilitarian—bland “work clothes” purchased in haste from the clearance racks of department stores or casual items picked up on sale at the outdoor stores he frequented. My wardrobe was as joyless as our marriage, and I spent my twenties trying not to think about either situation too much.
It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I started to pay attention to my clothes again. I made a good salary at the newspaper and could afford to move beyond the clearance racks. I had a cache of stylish professional women friends who counseled me in my shopping. And I was propelled by an internal stirring, the nature and ramifications of which I was not yet fully aware. I started wearing high heels, tight pencil skirts, and clingy blouses. I was never the type of woman to turn heads, but I felt sexy for the first time in my life. People noticed. One day in the newspaper’s breakroom, the photo editor asked why I was dressed so conservatively. I looked down at my outfit, a short-sleeved red sweater and black dress pants, unsure what he meant.
“Most days you look like someone about to get divorced,” he informed me.
The first time I left my husband I had time to pack a duffel bag. I tossed it in the trunk of my friend Emily’s white Honda Civic coupe and put my miniature schnauzer in the backseat. A few hours later, my husband tried to set our house on fire. I stayed with Emily in her small condo for two weeks, living out of that duffel bag, taking my dog on long walks along the nearby desert canal, and seeking solace in the arms of a married coworker.
The second time I left my husband, I left with nothing but my purse. It was sitting in a room on the other side of the house with my cell phone and keys inside when he held me in a room and told me, “You will never leave this house on your own two legs again.” When he wasn’t paying attention, I sprinted across the house, grabbed my purse, and ran into the street to flag the cab that took me to Sarah’s house. I borrowed clothes from Sarah and another friend, Yvonne, before sneaking back into my house for some of my own clothing a few days later. I lived in a friend’s vacant rental house for six weeks.
The third and final time I left my husband, I had just changed out of my pajamas. As I poured our morning coffee, I sensed it: a tingling in the air foreshadowing violence. I put on a coral tank top, jeans, and a simple necklace I had made out of a circle of marble and hemp twine. If you had told me to pick just one ensemble from my wardrobe that I would get to keep, that would not have been it. But that night, as I sat in that same vacant house I had stayed in a few months before, staring at my disheveled reflection in the mirrored closet doors and trying to decide what to do with my life, my husband packed up almost everything I owned—clothes, shoes, jewelry, photos, keepsakes, and even my writing. Stolen, dumped, sold, set on fire—I don’t know. By the next day, nearly all of it was gone.
I didn’t know how to start putting my life back together again, but I knew I needed things to wear. I remember walking listlessly through Target with Yvonne just before the store closed, dejectedly checking the price tags of items on the clearance racks. Yvonne lingered a few feet behind me, alternating between perky chatter and croons of empathy. I bought underwear, sweat pants, capris, a tee-shirt and a short-sleeved green knit blouse I found on sale. It was all I could afford.
It was the summer before I turned thirty-one. I was homeless, single for the first time since I was fifteen, and broke. A few months earlier, partially in a bid to save my marriage, I had put in notice at the newspaper to teach at the state university and complete my graduate degree. The move would mean less hours at the office but also less than half the pay. I was sure now that my marriage was over, and I made the move anyway with virtually nothing to my name.
After our shopping trip to Target, Yvonne and I returned to the house she shared with her boyfriend in a neighborhood along one of Phoenix’s desert mountain preserves. She had moved in with him a few months earlier, despite being uncertain about their future. She took me upstairs to a spare bedroom, taken over by the things that she had still never put away. There was a metal rack overflowing with clothing, and she began going through it, pulling out things she thought would fit me and throwing them in a pile on the bed.
I was petite, but Yvonne was even smaller, not even five-feet-tall, and her style was flamboyant in comparison to mine. Yvonne was born in Mexico but adopted and raised by Anglos in Idaho. In the Southwest now, she had been reconnecting with her Latin American roots and attending a lot of cocktail parties with her boyfriend, who was in politics. Her clothing reflected both. The rack was filled with brightly colored silk and bejeweled dresses. I sifted through the pile, holding clothing up before me in the mirror and trying on things that didn’t seem too small or ostentatious. I took a plain red blouse and a sleeveless brown dress. Yvonne insisted I also take a strapless silk cocktail dress with ruffles and a bright tropical flower print that she thought was perfect for newly single me.
As the word spread that I needed clothes, other friends culled their closets for things that might work for me, too. For some reason, it seemed we were all going through major transformations in our lives around that time—an epoch in our collective history—and my friends empathized with my predicament. (In the years since, I’ve wondered what it was about that time. Maybe it was hormonal, since we were all, more or less, around the age of thirty—a biological pull to reinvent, rejuvenate, redo or reproduce. Or maybe there was, for some reason at that point in our world, a collective metamorphosis, radiating from one of Arizona’s desert vortexes and sucking all of us in.)
My friend Emily, a cutesy blonde who I stayed with the first time I left my husband a year earlier, had recently left the newspaper to work in politics. Despite all of our grave concerns, she was marrying a religious conservative from far across the aisle. She cleaned out her closet so he could move in and gave me a black A-line skirt.
My friend Megan, a brash cocktail writer raised in a family of park rangers, was trading in her hiking boots for sequins and a personal brand. She gave me a green terrycloth hoodie and a couple of tee-shirts.
And Sarah, the former payday lending executive adept at reinvention, was taking massage classes, seeking out a more natural lifestyle, and trying to figure out what was missing in her comfortable family life. She gave me a black linen wrap-around blouse and pink pajama pants.
As I wore each of the items from my friends, I felt like I was trying on pieces of their current or former lives. My existence was so pliable at that moment, with no structure, definition, mementos, or even a set address, that I wondered if a blouse or a skirt could set a new course, one that might turn out better than the one I was on before. I allowed each piece to shape a part of the new me: The new professor wore Emily’s A-line skirt, and the newly single party girl wore Yvonne’s ruffled silk cocktail dress. I tried to get in shape in Megan’s green hoodie, and I tried to prove I was strong and independent in Sarah’s black linen blouse. But more than anything else, what my new wardrobe changed in me was my thinking about clothes.
I can’t remember how long it was—if it could be counted in months or merely weeks —before I returned home for the first time. There, I found a pile of shoes in the corner of my closet. I sat on the floor hopefully sorting through them only to discover that not a single one had a match.
I had been stuck in agonizing paralysis about my future, but had finally settled on a new place to live when my estranged husband called and told me he couldn’t make the mortgage. He moved out, and I returned home that day and immediately changed the locks.
It was 2008, in the throes of the Great Recession, and every indicator of Phoenix’s bursting housing bubble told me I should run away from the house, too. Still, here was something I could own at a moment when so much else familiar in my life was gone. I threw away all the matchless shoes and any other reminders of what had been, cleansed every square inch with disinfectant and burning sage, and posted an ad for a roommate. A nineteen-year-old college student moved in and, almost immediately, so did Yvonne.
Yvonne had met someone new at a conference. She told her boyfriend she was moving out, packed her car with clothes still on the hangers and stuffed it all into the small closet in the back bedroom of my house. I learned to be single living with these two women – one of them new to adulthood, the other my own age but newly in love. I also learned the secret to Yvonne’s expansive wardrobe: a local chain of name-brand consignment shops. We shopped there together, sorting through the designer racks, experimenting with our fashion and inexpensively figuring out what the new “us” would wear.
Yvonne didn’t live with me long. In a few months she got pregnant and moved out to begin a new life as a wife and mother. Megan introduced me to her ex-boyfriend, Marcus, who moved in. Marcus was a buyer for a trendy recycled fashion boutique. He picked out clothes for me at his store and patiently helped me figure out my style in front of a heavy full-length mirror in the hallway. He also began taking me on thrift-store hunts throughout the city.
Before I lost everything, I had done very little second-hand shopping. Raised on the blue-collar edge of middle class, I realized that new clothes—even from K-mart—were a mark of something I had always been reluctant to concede. Now, headed into my thirties, I rebuilt my wardrobe almost entirely with second-hand clothes, from friends or consignment and thrift stores. The process made me conscious of the waste of fast-fashion and clearance-rack junk—cheap clothing that I had, for so many years, bought and thrown away without ever really looking or feeling good in it anyway. At the same time, I began to marvel at how people (including me for a while) could spend so much money on a few items at a boutique or an upscale department store.
Learning to shop second-hand allowed me to live out my ethics, recycling and repurposing more fully in my life. I began shopping for other things second hand: furniture, dishes, silverware, curtains, a bicycle. It became my nature to think first about Goodwill or Craigslist. I continued to exchange things with my friends, too.
Soon after my divorce, Sarah left her husband and became a single mom as she finished massage school. I was searching for myself, but Sarah’s quest was more specific. “I want to experience passion—real passion—before it’s too late,” she told me. As I cycled through my new wardrobe, deciding who I would be, what I wanted and what that new person would wear, I passed on dresses to Sarah.
After my grandfather died a few years ago, I followed my mother down the creaky wooden steps into the musty basement of my grandparents’ house where decades’ worth of flannel shirts hung on a metal rack.
“We’re just going to get rid of them all,” my mother told me.
She remembered my penchant for my dad’s old flannels when I was a teenager.
“I thought Toby and Beck might want some, too,” she offered.
My second husband and stepson are Goodwill pros. Toby is a musician and had been a single dad on a budget, with a punk aesthetic crafted by thrift-store finds. All three of us took flannel shirts that belonged to my grandfather.
When we got back to my parents’ house, my dad saw the Army shirt Beck brought home and went to the basement for a special hand-me-down of his own. He brought up his Army jacket that I had worn throughout my teenage years and gave it to his new step-grandson.
I was back at my grandparents’ house last year after my grandmother died, helping my mom sort through things. My mom pulled out a thick beige sweater of my grandmother’s that she said suited me perfectly, and I picked out some costume jewelry. When we got back to her house, my mom brought out the trench coat that she had worn throughout my childhood from a wardrobe in the basement where it had been covered in plastic for decades and had me try it on.
“I think the eighties are back in style,” she told me, approvingly.
In the winter in Kentucky, where I moved with my husband and stepson a few years ago, you can find us all in layers of other people’s clothes. My whole family is donned in the flannels of a gentle Maryland man, who wore them as he went fishing or watched Westerns, and my stepson is wrapped in my father’s Army jacket, which had been a staple of my own teenage years. When I’m feeling lonely, I put on the taupe trench coat that I remember my mother wearing to church on the rainy Sundays of my youth and swear I can still smell her perfume after several washings.
As I write this essay, I fondle the large wooden triangle on a necklace that had been my grandmother’s and think of Betty Jane, the stylish woman who pulled herself out of poverty and gave me my middle name. I ponder how my world has changed in the years since I began wearing other people’s clothes, and I find beauty in the cycle, the threads of which are intrinsically mine.
AMANDA J. CRAWFORD is a recovering political reporter whose literary work has previously appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Hippocampus. She is a journalism professor at Western Kentucky University and performs with the Americana gothic band Former Friends of Young Americans. www.amandajcrawford.com