Today is my son Oliver’s high school orientation. As it happens, he will be attending my alma mater, a giant public high school that’s home to some of my favorite memories. This afternoon is therefore inducing in me a curious mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. There should be a word for that; it’s a mood that characterizes a lot of my parenting.
For his part, Oliver is mostly calm in the face of this change. He will not drown in the enormity of his school. He is only a text away from locating everyone he knows. Gavin’s locker is on X floor, Harrison and Nick have lunch in Y cafeteria. He may not ever see them, but he’ll know they are there. Oliver is also just a non-anxious kid, not prone to overthinking moments like this. Thus it has not been Oliver, but rather other adults, who have wanted to know if our year of no buying (AYNOB) will apply to Oliver’s high school launch. Of utmost concern: will we be buying him new clothes for the start of school?
Some of this intense questioning is brought on by Oliver’s uncommon height. He hit 6’2 while still 13 and is working his way toward 6’3. The vertical growth has slowed in recent months, and some filling out has taken its place, which means that Oliver can now wear his father’s clothes. This news does not thrill John. Did I mention that Oliver is left-handed and prone to spilling? When John hands a piece of clothing over to Oliver there is no guarantee how it will look upon return, but chances are high that we will be able to identify at least one of his last three meals. John is appropriately wary of Oliver’s gradual encroachment on his closet.
The concern over whether Oliver’s clothes will fit him is one reason people are curious about our plans, but there is another reason. Implicit in the question is the notion that one is supposed to mark the start of the school year by buying new clothes. And as I type the sentence I am surprised to discover how strongly I believe this.
Back-to-school shopping was an annual childhood event for me. To be sure, it involved negotiating with a mother who had no time for brand names (oh, for a pair of Guess? Jeans…), but I usually came home with at least one new sweater and skirt that I absolutely loved. The first day of school would invariably dawn sunny and 85 degrees in Chicago. It would nevertheless find me at the bus stop, sweaty and uncomfortable in my new sweater.
Despite the compelling reasons to get Oliver new school clothes, and our longstanding ritual of doing so, this year we skipped our regular end-of-summer trip to the outlet mall. The decision went virtually unnoticed by my family, causing me to question how back-to-school shopping ever became a tradition to begin with. I have wondered if its origins might rest in the days when uniforms were more prevalent and fast-fashion had yet to overtake the clothing industry. My Catholic-school-educated father was fond of telling us how he received only one pair of pants and two shirts for the school year. Upon returning from school he had to hang up the shirt and pants and change into “play clothes” so that his uniform would last the duration of the year. I don’t think this story was exaggeration. I have seen springtime childhood photos of my both my father and his brother (who eventually topped out at 6’8”), the cuffs of their uniform pants well above their ankles.
For my father, the start of school was a natural moment for acquisition. Old items were worn through or outgrown, and school attire had an expected formality. There was an actual need for new clothes. My own children, however, have plenty of clothes that still fit, are suitable for school, and have lots of wear left in them. If school weren’t starting next week, no one would be inquiring about the state of Oliver’s wardrobe.
In the same way that an extended summer break from school is no longer a necessity, but rather a vestige of our agrarian past, I am beginning to think the notion of new school clothes might also be a relic of a different time—a time when clothes were fewer, more functional, and more formal. Despite this no longer being the case, like summer vacation, entire cultural norms are still built around it. A quick scan of late August advertising reveals pervasive back-to-school sales featuring “hot deals” and “latest trends.” The message is clear: our kids need those new clothes.
It would be comforting to think that I have merely been swept up in the cultural tide of back-to-school marketing and just need to get my wits about me, but there’s another, more embarrassing truth at work here. If I am honest, I would have to admit that my desire to get Oliver new clothes is tied up in a problematic belief that his high school success—social, academic, or otherwise—somehow hinges on how he looks or, more accurately, what he owns. There is a part of me that thinks nice, new clothes say something about who we are.
Oh, what a sentence to put down in print! We all know better than to judge books by their covers. Yet where would the fashion industry be if multitudes of us didn’t buy into the idea at some level? Who among us hasn’t bought clothes to become a certain version of ourselves we want others to see? Who among us hasn’t felt more confident in a great outfit? There are real psychological benefits to liking the way we are dressed. In the best-case scenario our clothes allow us to not only feel good, but to express something essential about ourselves.
Thus, the AYNOB parenting question for me isn’t whether or not to buy Oliver new clothes because school is starting, but rather what can Oliver choose to say about himself with the clothes he already has?
If he were asked to put together an outfit that really captures him, (and most 14-year-old boys require very few), my guess is that he’d wear the dancing bear hoodie he bought this summer with his own money . I think he would pair this navy sweatshirt with his preferred pair of grey shorts—one of a few pairs that feel long enough to him. As a fellow tall person, I get this. There’s always too much of us sticking out somewhere. When we find the rare item that runs a little long, we seize on our chance to look just like everyone else.
Isn’t this what we want out of our clothing—to telegraph that we fit in, are comfortable, and yet simultaneously our own beautiful self? This combination may, in fact, lie at the root of what it means to feel that we “look good.” My clothes do their best work for me when they fit me so well that I can think beyond them, and when, at the same time. they hint at, or highlight, what is special about me.
This standard for evaluating a wardrobe does not prohibit buying new items. In fact, it’s almost implied. For clothes to fit I need things that work on the body I currently have, plus or minus the five pounds that come and go. We also want clothes that reflect our changing preferences—Grateful Dead or otherwise.
But if newness is implied, so is specificity. And here, at last, is the change that AYNOB may have wrought. Between the ease of online shopping and the relative affordability of regular discount shopping, it is possible to quickly acquire a LOT of clothes. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, on average, Americans consume 66 items of clothing per person, per year. In 2015 we put 16 million tons of textiles in municipal waste streams. That’s the behavior I need to change. Filling our closets with clothes we only sort of love means we’re not just buying cheap goods that will shortly end up in the waste stream, we are not even scratching the itch that led us to go shopping in the first place. We aren’t buying clothes that we really need or clothes that make us feel great because they are distinctly us. Because they fit, in every sense of the word.
I am taking a cue from my 14-year-old son: fewer outfits comprised only of clothes I love. On repeat. And as for Oliver? Well (two days later) it turns out I wasn’t far off. He wore the gray shorts but forewent the sweatshirt. It was ninety degrees here on the first day of school.
Here is Susannah's final installment of the series: A Fourth Quarter Report
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