I remember the first full-price clothing item I ever bought. No discounts. No coupon. It was my first semester at Wesleyan, and I had to get a black dress for my WesWinds concert. My mom and I had gone to Zara to check their overwhelmingly black aesthetic, and I found a black dress with a lace top. I thought it was the perfect dress until I checked the price tag. $50. We both knew that we would have to wait forever for that dress to go on sale, and I didn’t own an appropriate dress for my concert, which was quickly approaching.
My mom gave me a look and said hadi, which translates into a bunch of things in English. It can mean come on, let’s, but in this situation, it meant, we’re going to ignore the price because this is a pretty dress. Screw it, let’s buy it. It also meant, let’s do this quickly before my wallet changes its mind.
For most of my life, I’ve been much more accustomed to hand-me-downs and clearance rack finds than full-price fashions and expensive trends. Growing up, my favorite outfit was a sequined denim jumpsuit that had been passed down to me. This was, in retrospect, absolutely ridiculous and marginally over-the-top for a pre-teen to wear, but it was special to me. Our hand-me-down system was cross-continental: my friend’s mom would pass down her daughter’s clothes to me, where I would get some use out of it, and then those clothes were packed away to be brought to my cousins in Turkey, where the cascade of hand-me-downs began again: starting with one of the middle cousins, to the one slightly younger, to the second-cousin-twice-removed-or-what-we-just-call-cousin down the line. As long as it was in wearable condition, it was passed down.
Upon one of my visits back home, I saw one of my cousins wearing a dress that I remember wearing in elementary school: white, with some red, orange, and yellow flowers scattered along the hem and waistline. It was one of my favorite dresses; now, it had been passed down two bodies before reaching my cousin’s closet.
The topic of clothing within a low-income family is complex: a web of societal standards of dress combined with financial barriers. I had learned quickly that my mom and I could not afford regular-priced clothing, so our trips to the Gap consisted of darting toward the sale section, calculating sales tax on each item, never crossing the line between clearance and regular-priced, avoiding lusting over a dress that we couldn’t afford. My wardrobe’s guiding logic was out of season: we bought summer clothes in the winter when it went on sale and winter clothes at the beginning of summer, estimating how much I would grow in the meantime. On the few occasions my mom and I went through the in-season section, we would take a mental note on the clothes we would wait to go on clearance, eventually buying them a few months later. This was our process; we waited for coupons, for credit card rewards, for the hand-me-downs supplementing my needs in the meantime.
One rule was clear under every circumstance: we both had to look presentable. Even if we couldn’t afford to look nice, my mom made sure that we would fit in as much as possible. She was already aware that she was treated differently for being an accented immigrant, and figured that if she looked the part, then maybe people would treat her better. I was labeled as “girl with a dead dad” since I was in elementary school, where I would get looks of pity from the teachers and staff, but at least I was decently well-dressed. This became a central theme in my life: if I didn’t look the part, I would pretend I did.
For us, the thrift store wasn’t glorified; it wasn’t an aesthetic, it was the last option. I could call myself privileged because the combination of hand-me-downs and clearance clothing were enough that I didn’t have to thrift.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when I was packing for my first year at Wesleyan. I didn’t quite know what I was getting into; I had a conception of college that was along the lines of “I am going to school with rich kids, and because I was taught to avoid conversations about my socioeconomic status (which itself needs to be unpacked at a different time), I have to dress well.” The concept of “dress to impress” was so ingrained within me that I thought professors would take me less seriously because I didn’t look the part––I had seen how horrible my peers were towards both myself and my peers when we couldn’t keep up on the fashion scale; I remembered how one of my friends corrected my usage of “suede boots” with “fuggs” (fake uggs) because she knew I couldn’t afford real uggs; I saw how teachers looked at me strangely because I was wearing a blazer with shoulder pads from the ‘90’s that I borrowed from my mom for speech and debate tournaments; I had seen college movies, with students well-dressed, succeeding to the ranks.
And I had to avoid the former things, and achieve the latter.
The summer before Wesleyan, I had gone on a well-needed closet rehaul; the most recent additions to my wardrobe were a few button-ups, the rest of my drawers screaming 8th-grade-Hollister-chic. To Wesleyan, I came, equipped with blouses that had to be ironed, skirts that could be paired with heels, everything that I could have only hoped to be wearing in college.
As you can imagine, I was in for an awakening when I walked into my first class: button-down shirt, tucked into some jeans, probably wearing my new (first pair of) keds. I saw seas of sweats, tattered shirts, and maybe one or two other buttoned shirts. Slowly, I caught on that the Wesleyan aesthetic was to come off as poor; thrift culture was appropriated from poor bodies, becoming an aesthetic. Suddenly, clothes that were too big were a trend; clothes that were ripped were a trend; faded black items were now cool, vintage.
I didn’t know how to process this culture, and to be honest, I still don’t know how to process it. Rich students, on one hand, brag about the fact that they thrifted their outfit for $20, and on the other hand, pair it with Cartier bracelets and a Canada Goose Jacket. For some reason, rich kids don’t want to show off that they’re rich, which is fine, but that doesn’t––and shouldn’t––mean that thrifting is the method to somehow apologize for your privilege. You can’t dress like you’ve experienced socio-economic oppression when you’ve never felt it; by appropriating thrifting, you’re making it inaccessible to low-income folks. It wasn’t until late high school when I saw the words like vintage appropriate thrift culture, with white people picking out pieces and upselling them to transform thrifting into a rich subculture, gentrifying yet another space from poor communities.
And we need to talk about how Wes students make it a point to never talk about their financial privilege, that richness comes out in only certain conversations, but otherwise, it’s taboo to admit wealth. Growing up, I experienced the opposite: rich kids showed off their wealth, poor kids tried to blend in as much as possible; rich kids at my high school talking about their weekend boat trips, each year boasting a new designer watch, with kids like me too scared to admit that our parents cleaned the offices their parents worked for. There’s a cultural shift at Wesleyan, putting forth that it’s somehow embarrassing to be rich is especially rich (ha) when most of this school is considerably well-off.
This falls within a greater conversation of the insidious ways classism plays an integral role in the low-income student’s experience at Wesleyan, where it is demanded that we talk about classism for crowds who refuse to acknowledge their own contributions to the problem. Thrifting culture is one of the more visible aspects of classism. And, to be completely honest, I get it. Having to be “well-dressed” is exhausting, involves ironing, and is a general pain in the ass. It reeks of (pseudo) elitism, which is what Wes isn’t about. But regardless of how much I deconstruct this mindset, it’s difficult to let go of this lesson that I was taught from so long ago. I have been conditioned to make up for my lack of socioeconomic, sociodemographic, socio-whatever privileges by dressing well. Covering “poor” with “well-dressed,” my mom covering “accent” with “put together.” It’s complex, much more than this post can handle, and I’m still learning how to piece this all together.