During the pandemic, I’m not buying many things. I’ve been working from home and not driving much either. I wear little makeup, cut my hair less, and my jewelry rarely makes it out of its velvet-lined walnut box.
I have however just traveled for the first time in a year. Besides forgetting how to pack, I forgot how visually bewitching an airport can be. Ours in Salt Lake City has been enlarged, renovated, and filled with new stores and restaurants. While strolling over moving sidewalks flanked by colorful artwork and advertising, my eyes bounced from images to ads, to storefronts and restaurants. I wondered if I should buy a cocktail at a new bar, or English toffee at the chocolate shop. I spied shiny electronics, handmade soaps, European perfumes, expensive fleece jackets, and luxury handbags.
The visual smorgasbord of food, drink, and objects kept me so occupied that I hardly noticed the six football fields I’d traveled to my gate. Until I saw a backlit billboard of a gorgeous woman pulling a designer suitcase more expensive than my son’s used car, I hadn’t thought of my own slightly beat-up rolling suitcase. Had I packed anything truly stylish?
It happened that fast. Let me rewind.
My first collision with fashion happened in the fifth grade. My father took me school shopping and unwittingly bought me a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Brooke Shields had not yet become the brand’s prepubescent poster model and neither of us knew that a pair of jeans could be anything but ordinary. My first hint that the jeans were unusual was my mother’s expression when my dad handed her the receipt.
Kathy, my classmate who’d started wearing bras and curling her hair, spied the label on my back pocket. “Lisa! Calvin Klein!” I shyly nodded. This impressed Kathy, who looked like she belonged in junior high with her shiny lip gloss and clogs. She couldn’t believe my father had bought them for me. I couldn’t believe my luck in winning her approval.
At that age, I couldn’t pick cool from a lineup. Fifth grade was just the beginning, but seventh grade was around the corner and I got better at identifying it. I wanted the brand-name sneakers and golf shirts. I saved babysitting money and allowance to buy them.
This is my fashion origin story.
And now I’m a woman who has lived more than five decades—how many fashion cycles is that?—who is emerging from a pandemic in which expensive clothes (shoes, handbags, electronics, cosmetics, suitcases) seem utterly useless. Maybe you’ve had a similar reckoning.
I like nice things mind you. But advertisers who use words like “aspirational” to describe a wardrobe, car, or house grate on my sense of truthfulness. There is nothing in the root word—aspire means to breathe upon—that infuses inanimate objects with life. Life is unfurling flowers in the spring, snow melting into rivers, joy in your daughter’s eyes, the arms of your lover.
My husband once designed briefcases for men. He was involved in every facet of their making—from early sketches, to selecting the leather, to sewing the bags. He lived in China at times to set up manufacturing lines and oversee production. In those factories, he saw other lines of production too—premium handbags sold by luxury retailers from Europe. The bags would be sewed mostly in China and then flown to France or Italy before final stitching (to claim that the item had been made domestically).
What was the difference between my husband’s bags and top designers’? Not the leather. He purchased it from the same places too. Not the construction. The same hands sewed and assembled them. The difference was the brand. A label. Advertising. And the price of course.
If suddenly advertising changed, its imagery promoting simple pleasures like music, nature, or baking, would our attention go there too? If we saw the image of our communities and loved ones on billboards, would we volunteer more and arrange to spend more time together?
I want fashionable items to take their rightful place in my life, behind family and friends. Behind creativity and good work. Behind books, ideas, and conversations that grow my mind and heart. That’s how the pandemic has clarified my view of fashion. Has it altered yours? I’d love to hear. Drop a comment below.
Lisa Groen is an author, part-time mountain monk, and instructor of Figuring Out What’s Next, a course that helps you find your next simple step toward change.