Ladies, do you really need another handbag? Of course you do. Just be sure and get the priciest one. Examine the stitching and the hardware. Think quality over quantity. Consider it an investment. Sure, it’s $7,000, but it’s a classic! You’ll wear it for years.
Frugality advice is, and perhaps always was, aimed at women. During the Golden Age, thrift, culinary and otherwise, was left up to housewives. Men may also have occasion to trade cash for stuff, but when we think “shopping,” we picture a woman in search of a cute new outfit.
With the recession, consumers now fall into two categories: those who can’t afford what they once could, and those who can but are ashamed to admit it. The New Frugality is thus in part what frugality has always been: the search for a good deal. But it has also become a trend, thrift-chic for appearance’s sake. Shoppers from both worlds are thus receptive to marketers who emphasize the value of what they’re selling. Since our primary way of judging value is price, every product must seem to have once cost far more than what its current tag demands.
Perhaps because of its feminine associations, pro-frugality writing resembles diet advice. And like the diet industry—eat whatever you want and still shed pounds with our new miracle diet! or eat nothing at all!—the frugality movement thrives on extremes. The latest shopping diet trend promises to abolish the need for sacrifice. Yes, you can have it all! Paying more for each item is, for this set, the route to saving big and saving the environment and the children. Holding your nose at mass-produced junk is the only decent thing to do.
The pay-more-to-save line satisfies marketers and consumers alike. Just as eco-friendly marketing consists of the same products as before (now dyed green!), the “new thrift” simply means the same full-priced merchandise now presented as a good deal. Luxury goods are now called “investments.” Even some journalists, perhaps better-paid than myself, are swayed, including one Slate blogger who denounced a designer collaboration with Target, suggesting that handmade and for the few is inherently nobler than affordable and mass-oriented.
Meanwhile, for shoppers, the recession has hardly destroyed the urge to buy. It has, however, changed the excuses shoppers provide—for themselves or others—for purchasing non-necessities. The classic—‘it was on sale’—is still with us, but ‘I’ll wear it for years’ is poised to take over. Rather than feeling bad about that five-figure accessory, women can now say they are sticking it to the low-end chains by making a purchase they can pass on to their great-granddaughters.
A more self-oriented way to justify the “investment” is the concept of cost-per-wear, or defining the cost of a garment not by its price tag, but as that amount divided by the times the garment made it out of the closet. This way, a dress can be seen not as $400 down the drain, but rather as a sensible $4 a day. Because, of course, a dress like that—a classic! —will make at least 100 trips outside. If it makes you feel better, think of it as 50 cents, because you never know.
Cheapskates might notice that this is the reverse of a favorite truism: Small purchases add up. If we’re supposed to eliminate the daily latte because of its cost over time, how does it help to think of a dress as 100 lattes all in one go?
Moreover, cost-per-wear is an all-but-impossible assessment to make except after-the-fact. At best, it’s a helpful way of ruling out purchases that are obviously bad ideas. But it’s easy enough, without resorting to division, to see why those snakeskin-print harem pants won’t work out. Most of what we buy, we imagine we’ll wear often enough to make the purchase worthwhile. There is no general rule for what gets worn daily and what migrates to the back of the closet. There are no ‘timeless classics.’ The jeans bought to last forever end up ignored, irreparably stained, noticeably dated, or the wrong size before the year is done. If higher-priced goods sometimes last longer, this is far more about the guilt we feel at having spent that on a sweater than on anything specific to the garment’s construction.
A thread of snobbery runs through the anti-chain movement. After all, only those who can afford Prada treat H&M handbags as trashcan liners. And it’s thanks to H&M and the like that women who are not well-off can look stylish without much effort. By invoking concerns about carbon footprints and labor, the better-off can feel rich and virtuous while choosing higher-end items, just as they do with local and organic food.
The rampant materialism all right-thinking educated types hope to shield their children from is understood, paradoxically, as best avoided by buying one-of-a-kind items that have meaning. As though, if you really love your Birkin bag, that’s somehow evidence that you’re not one for stuff.
Technically, clothing is not an investment in the sense of increasing in value over time. But if the only result of luxury-as-investment marketing were to confirm heiresses in the purchasing decisions they would make anyway, why should we care?
The problem is that luxury-as-the-only-moral-choice is being marketed across the board. All women are being urged to see chain stores as wasteful: the junk food version of clothing. Women without infinite means who were already overspending can now feel good about themselves for spending more on individual items.
“Fast fashion”—a term used to describe stores like H&M and Forever 21 that sell cheap, hyper-trendy designer knock-offs—conflates the approach of some with that of all shoppers. If on the whole, cheap impulse buys are turning our landfills into giant heaps of jeggings, nothing forces the individual to use scarves like paper towels. And there are some of us out there who consider it fabulous that corduroys are $30—not because this leaves an implicit $30 to spend on a second pair, but because it means less money wasted on pants. That clothing and food are so cheap these days may facilitate over-consumption, but it could just as well allow us to put more of our money towards things that aren’t clothes or food. Savings, even.
At its other, ascetic extreme, today’s thrift models itself once again on our society’s hopeless approach to food. If to some dieters, every calorie is cause for alarm, to some would-be savers, every penny spent demands self-flagellation.
The Great American Apparel Diet—unrelated to the clothing store whose name is conspicuously wedged in the middle—takes the thrift-as-diet metaphor all kinds of interesting places. The GAAD is a much publicized collective vow not to buy new clothes for a year. The participants? Women (and a token man) who find spending an entire afternoon not shopping for clothes a great sacrifice. Their only option is to go cold turkey.
So it’s no surprise when one by one, the participants slip up, and confess to having bought a little something. There are excuses. One woman simply couldn’t resist a coat listed at 39 percent off its original price. Another went on a spree, which she recounts in a post titled, all-caps in the original, “Bless me Father for I have sinned!” But rest assured, she’ll be wearing these acquisitions for years: “All of [my new] items can be worn dressed up, down, inside out—you get the point. Wear the jacket with jeans, black pants, white jeans, etc.”
For these women, shopping is the apple in the Garden—both temptation and sin. Already accustomed to thinking of food in terms of decadence, they adopt the same terminology and fervor to Old Navy tank tops. They cheat, they confess, and all that’s at stake are some lousy t-shirts.
Which is not to say that food’s only influence on the GAAD is analogical. If, as Mary Eberstadt writes, the new morality about nutrition has taken the form of more traditional religious taboos, the shopping diet adopts the same logic, not only rhetorically but in practice as well. One ambitious dieter takes it to the meta level, combining apparel and food diets with observing Lent. For this set, the popular dieting tip to splurge on something other than food won’t do.
Aside from the proven futility of its model, shopping-as-dieting grates because of its gender-specificity. Men, too, overeat, but The Dieter remains thigh-obsessed, chocolate-craving, and female. If we as a society can’t resist Doritos, it’s because feminism taught women that they have better things to do than cook. In the GAAD universe, as in traditional society, a woman is a creature whose main purpose in life is to resist temptation—only now instead of sex, it comes in the forms of ice cream and ready-to-wear.
Ideally, the GAAD would allow participants to forget about shopping and weight control and focus on some pursuit they consider more worthy. Occasional nods to problems greater than themselves, such as the earthquake in Haiti, hint at what might have been. Instead, the experiment provides a forum to discuss all the shopping they wish they were doing. Participants share their incessant apparel cravings, even dreams. And the clothes they crave are dull. One might imagine the temptations to be $200 jeans or sequined dresses. Instead, they pine for Land’s End.
Once shopping is banned, all of a sudden a trip to the mall is a forbidden pleasure, and the sale-rack Ann Taylor cardigan might as well be haute couture. GAAD leader Sally Bjornsen’s response to two “dieters” quitting is not to question the wisdom of the project, but to ask what mystical item lured them away. “Was it a sexy night gown? A kelly green, lulu lemon [sic] hoodie?”
The lust one finds on the site for chains not typically assumed to inspire such passion leads some to suspect the GAAD is a “viral marketing campaign” for these retailers. The many Google ads for apparel related to what’s discussed in each post suggest this isn’t so far off. And a true conspiracy theorist might question why the project sneaks the name of a popular label into its own. But the brand specificity at least feels natural, because the cravings are brand-specific. These women want Lululemon, not any old stretchy material.
The GAAD begins from the assumption that cheap, well-marketed clothes magically turn otherwise sensible women into shopaholics. Clearly, for some, clothes-shopping is a real problem, debt-wise, time-wise, or both. But what benefit is this project to them? Why gather to salivate collectively over their brands of choice?
Ultimately, the extreme “dieters” and the “investment purchase” adherents end up in the same place. Both, in their attempts at cheapness strategizing, make shopping for clothes seem more appealing, not less.
The third way, it seems, is a middle ground, something between a cycle of deprivation and binge-shopping and a capitulation to high-end. In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin Press, 2009), Ellen Ruppel Shell points out the lack of moderately priced, well-made goods, particularly when it comes to clothes. Why are our only options discount and luxury? Perhaps if a sensible mid-range existed, clothes-related neurosis could end once and for all, binging and purging alike.
Shell makes a convincing case that bargain shopping has, to the detriment of frugality, become our national pastime, and to her credit, she acknowledges that if we care for pricier items better, they will last longer, regardless of construction. Yet she also believes we should care that they don’t make things like they used to. If her argument is in part about the morality of knowing the conditions of tank-top production, it’s also about urging us to notice that the stripes on that H&M shirt don’t line up right. I’ve noticed, but I remain unconvinced that I should care. Unlike the quality of the food we put into our bodies, the way our clothes are stitched together only impacts our well-being if we choose to agonize over about such details.
Although she does not suggest we’re all fools for shunning haute couture, it’s easy to see how some would read Cheap as legitimizing the spend-more-to-save approach. If sales and outlets are a myth, the only noble thing to do before the mid-range reappears is, what, to shop full-price?
Shell alludes in her book to Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Ladies’ Paradise, which vividly describes the manipulations big stores use to move merchandise. Zola’s novel offers an ambiguous message about department stores and the small stores they run out of business, favoring economic progress, so long as conditions for workers are decent and as we acknowledge that some women—yes, even in the 19th century—are bound to go into debt buying frivolous nonsense. Shell, however, is part of a wave of nostalgia for the small shop manned by an artisan.
Different rationales can fuel a yearning for craftsmanship. For some writers, like Shell, it’s about ethics and aesthetics. Other arguments bear a xenophobic tinge, albeit one that’s tough to prove. What does it mean to boycott Chinese goods but celebrate the purchase of Danish ones? Is the comparison shorthand for quality, labor, or environmental concerns, or part of a collective American fantasy about Nice Things coming from Europe and being produced by (native) Europeans?
The anti-bargain movement has a dark history, one Lauren Weber discusses in her book, In Cheap We Trust (Little, Brown, and Company, 2009). Discount shopping was long associated with foreigners and, in particular, Asians and Jews. Praise of small shops has, historically, been code for nativism, in the U.S. and beyond.
Racism, conscious or otherwise, may motivate some to pick Swedish goods over Chinese, or to see a shtetl peddler in the manager at Filenes. But I suspect that more still reject mass-produced out of a desire to own something expensive. Just as there’s a rapt audience for every lecture urging us to spend twice what we currently do on food in order to get only the most locally, sustainably, lovingly harvested bounty, so too will many delight in the chance to not only pay more for clothes, but to feel good about it.
Phoebe Maltz is a cheapskate living in New York.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire