In the midst of fall shopping frenzy, develop a flair for discernment

This is a big week for the shopping mall. Whether we're sending a kid back to school or just responding to our own internal clock, fall shopping is now. Throughout the stores today we'll complain about prices, and we'll commiserate about what kids insist they "have to have," but the odds are good that adults will also want a new shirt or sweater this time of year.

The pull to shop is powerful; it's that New Year's feeling that's built into us from years of preparing for school, but there is also a strong push that comes from advertising. The August issues of women's magazines insist that "green is the new pink," and "low waists are out."

It's easy enough to take shots at the fashion industry, imagining marketing wizards who pull our strings to make us shop, and we can sigh that we are slaves to materialism who base our identities on what we wear. Yes, all of that may be true. But it's not new.

The truth is that we're all wearing costumes all the time, and what we wear is a form of communication. So if we're going to cover our nakedness and communicate, we may as well have fun.

I didn't always feel this way. For years I bought into the idea that virtue was to be found in the equivalent of wearing sackcloth and ashes. I hid my love of clothes and felt shamed when I bought my fall fashion magazines. I believed it was politically incorrect to know the names of designers as well as I knew poets. But that changed.

I remembered why clothes became important: What I recall from seventh grade, in addition to Darwin's "Voyage of The Beagle," was my obsession with another girl's shoes. My parents allowed only one pair of new school shoes: nice, neutral penny loafers. But that fall I sat near a girl whose shoes matched her clothes. For weeks I stared at her feet and the navy kidskin flats trimmed with bright green piping. The many shoes that tumble out of my closet today are futile attempts at trying, in the present, to fill a hole that exists in the past.

But there is another factor: I stopped believing there is only one way to be a feminist, and I decided it's not politically incorrect to love clothes. Although fashion is commerce and marketing, it is also art. After all, color, shape, line, and texture are the ingredients that sculptors work with, too. Clothes are a form of self-expression and communication, and even stylistically, freedom of speech. Feminists for Fashion? Sign me up.

But where do we draw the line? How do we balance the role of clothing in our own culture against the fact that "I have nothing to wear" is a sad reality in other parts of the world? How do we find the middle ground?

Is there a way to manage desire so that it inspires our creativity and doesn't shame us - or young women who are naturally enjoying this part of life? I believe there's a point at which we can enjoy clothes without being dominated by them.

The answer is discernment, that seemingly religious word. It means stilling the internal voices - our own and the ones piped in from ads - and making conscious decisions about what we buy and why. That would be a great gift to young shoppers and we can practice with them, too.

We don't need to grit our teeth or dress in grim determination just to get through life. So go shop and celebrate with something new, and enjoy what you wear.

Diane Cameron is a writer near Albany, N.Y.

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