Lower-Middle Class Preppy

I grew up at a time when the brand of your clothes you wore was a major factor in you determining social status. Polo, Izod, Gant, OP, Jams, Guess, Reebok–it didn’t matter if the off-brand clothing item was identical; without the brand, it was absolute TRASH and you were better off not even trying.

I learned this in my days of middle school in Norman.  I moved from a small farm town in Arkansas where I was aware of name brands, but so many of us were poor and I think we were more forgiving about clothes.  In that town, Lee jeans were the standard. You looked for that genuine cowhide patch with “Lee” branded on it. They weren’t expensive. They didn’t promise any kind of status. We just liked them. But Lee was not cool in 1984 Norman. I was set straight very soon at Whittier Middle School.  In a panic, I begged my mom to buy me a couple pairs of Levis, but I had to wait.

I was already fashion-self-conscience. I knew the brands from early on. I was relieved to receive hand-me-downs from a couple of the well-to-do cool kids back in Lonoke, but when we moved to Norman, that well ran dry. No more alligators or polo ponies on my shirts.

Socially, I was not doing great in middle school–at least that was how I felt. I had a couple of friends, but nothing like my popularity in Lonoke. I thought that if I could just wear the right clothes, I might be able to ease my social discomfort.

So one fall in middle school, when it was time to shop for back-to-school clothes, I asked to do my shopping at the preppiest, coolest clothier in town: Cayman’s. My mother consented but she warned me that my funds wouldn’t go very far there. But I didn’t care. I figured if I could just put one killer ensemble together, it would be enough.

I’d been to Cayman’s before. I just had to have a pair of Lagoons board shorts the summer before. They were a must-have for boys in 1985. I didn’t like the way it felt to shop there. I felt out-of-place and it seemed that the employees felt the same way about me and my mom. This time, I was sure to go by myself on my bike. No embarrassing lower-middle-class parents to contend with. This would be a smooth, upper-class transaction.

I’d seen the look and already had one crucial piece of it: leather Topsider boat shoes. All I needed now were Gant khaki shorts, a leather belt, and a preppy, plaid Gant short-sleeved shirt. The classic preppy look. I’d never bought clothes for myself and wanted it to fit just right. I didn’t want to screw this up. I wouldn’t make the mistake my mom always seemed to make of buying my clothes too big. I spent thirty minutes trying on various pieces until I felt that I had nailed it. When I made my purchase, I wanted to seem like I belonged in that Cayman’s world. I acted as nonchalant as possible; laying the cash out on the counter like it was nothing.

As soon as I arrived home on my carefully repainted Huffy BMX-style bike (painted to look like a much nicer bike), I rushed to my bedroom, pulled off the tags, and put on the clothes. I stood in front of the mirror. If these clothes didn’t do the trick for my social life, I did know what would. I look as if I walked right out of a country club.

It was the weekend before school, but I couldn’t wait for someone to spot me in this outfit. I stood around on the front porch in the August heat, hoping someone from school would see me, but no one was around. There was only one kid from my school on my block and he was lower-middle-class slob like me. What did he know?

In preparation, I asked my mom to wash my clothes. I planned to iron them and lay them out in my bedroom to keep the excitement going. But things did not go according to plan. When my mom brought them to me fresh from the dryer, I decided to try them on once more, but something was wrong. They didn’t fit anymore. They had shrunk in the wash.  It was a moment of deep frustration and defeat.  I may have given my mom some lip about it. I may have pointed out the washing instructions on the tags. But it was done. The clothes were now worthless to me. And what’s more, I had no new clothes for school. I suppose I might have been able to take them back to the store, but I believed I was getting what I deserved.

In retrospect, this was good parenting on my mother’s part. She might have guessed that my plan would go wrong. Yes, she could have said no. She could have insisted on checking the size for me. No. This was an opportunity for me to fail or succeed on my own and take whatever lessons I could from the experience. The stakes were low, but the lesson was valuable.

What did I learn from this? It’s not easy to put my finger on, and it took me a while to learn it. I certainly did my best to handle 100% cotton properly.  My mom remembers that after I’d given her a tongue-lashing, she invited me to wash my own clothes, which I eventually did. I tried several times to elevate my social status with clothes. I so admired upper-class lifestyle. I badly wanted it for myself. But it was useless. We just didn’t have it. We weren’t poor–my parents provided me with all of my needs, my paper route provided me with some of my desires (mostly Pizza Shuttle pizza and Commodore 64 games)–they just couldn’t afford to sufficiently clothe me in the price range of the brands I felt I needed for success. Perhaps they would have if they could; perhaps not.

To this day, I do not buy much of those brands. I buy clothes that suit me and the lifestyle I have chosen to live in. If anyone cares about what my brand of clothes is, they are not the kind of people I choose to spend time with.

I drive by Cayman’s once in a while. I haven’t been there since. I could buy anything I wanted in that store now, but now that I can I have no strong desire to do so. There is no status, if any, shopping at Cayman’s could give me which I care about. No status that a BMW could give me that I care about. No status that a Rolex watch could give me that I care about.

When I look back on those years, it was never my clothes that brought me social wins or failures. It was just me–my humor, my politeness, my talents, my resentments, my self-consciousness, my confidence, my lack of confidence, my showing off, my arrogance, my level of dedication to friends, my striving desperately for peer approval, my kindness–these are what really counted. I wish I would have known that then. I know it now.

Yeah, I still have those impulses when I see someone with the car, the clothes, the lifestyle. But I have what is truly important to me. I live a life luxurious with love.

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