Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dressing for Success

Working on the Upper East Side is like being trapped in a high-end shopping mall. There's nowhere affordable to eat lunch, and I often feel like I'm not dressed for the occasion.

Growing up in Laramie, Wyoming, I had a kind of reverse snobbery about expensive clothes. We made fun of the one girl in high school with nice clothes and a fancy car. "Oh, Abby," we said. "She's the one who leaves all the price tags on so we'll know how much she spent." My grandparents are cattle ranchers from western South Dakota, and while I was a "town kid" (my parents taught at the University) I had a kind of rural pride about sewing my own clothes when I wanted something, buying cheap underwear from the JC Penney and tank tops from the local Kmart, having fun with clothing but not really feeling the need to impress anyone with the way I dressed.

But now... I sometimes find myself struggling with a kind of materialism that up until a few years ago was more or less foreign to me. Part of it is walking up Madison Avenue and knowing better than to even look at the price tags, even in the most deceptively casual stores. ("Wow, $55 for a cotton tank top. Really?") Part of it is the fact that most of my college friends are making big bucks (or at least medium bucks) and I'm still deferring my student loan payments. Part of it is that most of my college friends are married with two kids and a house and a dog, and I'm still alternately amused and angered by online dating websites and struggling to keep my one houseplant alive.

Sometimes I find myself admiring expensive logo bags or overtly expensive clothing worn by other women, and then end up silently chastising myself for wanting such trivial things, even for a moment. In my heart I know that I will not necessarily find true love even if I have the perfect first-date outfit. In my heart I know that the people who care about labels on clothes are not ultimately the people that I want to care about me. In my heart I know that part of the reason I don't have a high-powered job is that I have chosen to devote my energy elsewhere, and that most of the time, I am happy about that. But still I find myself wanting these things, not wanting to want them, but still wanting them, in spite of myself. Perhaps it's because owning and wearing these status objects seem to guarantee their wearers a membership badge in some kind of secret club. They command any room they walk into. They feel entitled, and because they act entitled, they more often then not get what they want-- at least in the venues in which I see them.

I think New York may be unusually taxing psychologically-- would I feel quite so dumpy if I lived in a different city and wasn't constantly comparing myself to the socialites and model-wannabes getting out of taxis on Park Avenue South? Maybe. Maybe not. I see these women, often on dates with older men, teetering in their stilettos... and part of me, in a kind of perverse homage to my Suzuki teacher Ellen Lauren, wants to sneak up behind them and just give them a little push on the shoulder to see if they can keep their balance. I feel a bizarre and powerful combination of envy, and hatred, and pity, and then I walk past them with my groceries and make my way back home.

--Erika Iverson

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