Fall shopping, without the guilt

It's OK: Enjoy your clothes. Just don't be dominated by them.

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 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 from advertising.

It's easy enough to take cheap shots at the fashion industry, imagining the marketing wizards who pull our strings to make us shop.

Just take a look at the August issues of women's magazines insisting that "brown is the new black," and "low waists are out." And we can sigh that we are slaves to materialism who base our identities on what we wear.

But the truth is that what we wear is a form of constant and important communication. So if we're going to cover our nakedness as a way to communicate, we may as well have some 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 ashamed when I bought the fall fashion magazines. I believed it was politically incorrect to know the names of designers as well as I knew poets.

And then I remembered why clothes became important for me: What I recall from seventh grade, in addition to Darwin's "The 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 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's 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 an actual fact in other parts of the world? How do we shop and dress conscientiously? 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 enjoying this part of life?

There is an emotional center in which we can enjoy clothes and not be dominated by them.

The answer is in discernment; stilling the internal voices – our own and the ones piped in from ads – and making conscious decisions about what we buy and why.

It would be a great gift to instill in young shoppers. And it's one we can practice with them, too.

We might do this by talking to young people as we watch ads together or asking when we see billboards or print ads: "What do you think they are really saying here?" or "What do you think the person who made this ad wants you to do? And can you tell when one ad or story makes you feel a certain way?"

In these ways, through this kind of conversation, we can begin to teach a kind of image or media literacy.

Our time here is brief; there's more than enough pain to go around; we don't need to dress grimly in determination to get through life.

Go shop; celebrate your awareness of life with something new, colorful, and artful – and enjoy what you wear.

Diane Cameron is a freelance writer living in Guilderland, N.Y.

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