Where did you get that dress?

I grew up in a small American town on the shores of Lake Michigan, an affluent resort community for the past 150 years. That's how barely 5,000 year-round residents got a Saks and shops that sold Paris-made hats and Scottish cashmere.

My mother waited for sales at "the sum
mer shops" but occasionally bought at full price because my father did not want us labeled as 'sale people'. My parents were native Chicagoans, and would make the long drive back once each year to visit family, shop, and live it up.

I awaited their return, which, wardrobe-wise, was better than Christmas. They'd return hauling garment bags that held a tweed suit, silk party dresses, a peignoir, and four pairs of shoes. Exuberantly flowered hats in their boxes. And always things for me: a dress with a velvet bolero or a pair of leather pants, daring and sophisticated for our town. ("Don't look like a plow-jockey" was one of Mom's fashion credos.)

These sprees were necessary, she thought, because "you don't want to see yourself coming and going". While she saw the necessity of patronizing local businesses, she really preferred something from Marshall Field's.

In the etiquette of the small town, you did not ask where a dress was from. If you hadn't seen it on the rack at one of the stores, it was "from away", and took on much higher status for that. Sometimes a friend would show up wearing the dress you had agonized over and put back. That was hard.

Apparently the Obama inaugural ball included a registry so you could check whether another guest was planning to wear the same dress. If I were to attend a formal function, I hope I'd enjoy seeing two of us in the same gown, but ever since those "Who Wore It Better?" features, I'm not so certain.

My sons' girl friends dress identically, in jeans, hoodies and tees, whose provenance (Hollister, Abercrombie, Gap) is known by all. Only a few (usually art students) sift through Goodwi
ll bins for the '70s high-waisted pants no one else has.

Do you care about exclusivity?

In one office, five of us bought the same Gap techno pant, because we all loved Lisa's pair
. But in another office a co-worker misattributed the maker of an admired sweater so no one could buy the same style. I've also seen some women become deliberately vague about the source ("Somewhere on Bloor Street") or say they "don't remember".

Barbara Amiel, now Baronness Black, told a story about "where the dress came from." In her student days was poor. She found a two-piece Chanel silk dress in a resale store and scraped to buy it. A beau brought her to his impressive home for dinner, and his mother said, "I know that dress", then reached out to deftly turn the sash to show a small burn hole Amiel was hiding by a careful tie.

When I read her anecdote, I felt her embarrassment. Lady Black has been criticized for her extravagance. I wonder if that early incident was formative.

14 comments

Julianne said...

I don't care at all about exclusivity. In fact, if I find something that I think is a great find, I want to tell all my friends about it so they might enjoy having one too.

I too felt a little knot to the gut upon reading the anecdote. I would bet it did have much to do with her shopping habits. I know it would have affected me.

greying pixie said...

Hmm. With regard to the Barbara Amiel story, I don't think dressing in Chanel is a way to exclusivity in the first place. In fact quite the opposite.

I think what is astounding here are the manners of the former owner of the outfit!

Deja Pseu said...

As a kid, I remember feeling a bit out of place, as my mom shopped at one of the more upscale childrens' shops in town (which would probably middling by today's standards), and used to hear how I dressed so "fancy" compared to the other kids. So in reaction, I've tended to veer wildly from wanting to look like everyone else to being defiantly non-conformist.

In my early 20's, during one of my non-conformist phases, I was into vintage bowling shirts, and used to comb the local thrift stores in the small town I lived in at the time. My favorite was a blue number with fuschia pink lettering and the name "Goldie Pokalski" embroidered on the front. One day I was wearing it around town doing some errands, and the guy behind the window at the post office said, "hey, why are you wearing my wife's bowling shirt?!?"

Deja Pseu said...

Also meant to add, when I was growing up it was OK to ask where someone had bought something but NEVER alright to ask how much they'd paid. I'm still uncomfortable when someone asks me outright, though if I've scored a bargain I'm the first to brag.

Duchesse said...

Julianne: I do too and sometimes tell them even if they don't ask (which probably explains why I blog).

GP: In '60s Toronto a young-20s in Chanel was unusual. The former owner wanted to telegraph her judgment that Amiel was not an acceptable match for her son. Ghastly manners.

Pseu: Great story bet you were cute in a bowling shirt!

greying pixie said...

Duchesse, yes, now I see what you mean. Perhaps this woman was doing Ms Amiel a favour after all - who would want a mother-in-law like that!

Anne (in Reno) said...

I like the idea of exclusivity, but have a hard enough figure to fit that I am not willing to spend the time/energy/cashola to hunt down unique items.

Except for accessories. I love me some shoes, bags and scarves and find them in unusual places. I pretty much live in a palette of bland basics so a giant handknit nubbly green scarf can cheer up a winter outfit to no end. And nobody is going to have anything like it ;)

WendyB said...

Ha ha! I say this ALL the time: ""you don't want to see yourself coming and going"." Yet I still ended up in this situation, thank to a vintage seller who rudely did not tell me what the dress had been up to in its recent past: http://wbjewelry.blogspot.com/2007/
08/who-wore-it-best-dont-answer.html

I've never minded people asking me where I got something as long as they don't ask what I paid.

Duchesse said...

WendyB: You look stunning in that greenest of dresses! (And yes they should have told you). Only solution is lending it to all your bodacious GFs so it is seen everywhere.

Anne: Yes! Unique accessories make a generic outfit sing. (Another reason to love vintage.)

materfamilias said...

I once returned to Prince Rupert, (a small (17,000 at the time) city on BC's NW coast, an hour and a half drive to the nearest town) very pleased with a coat I'd bought in Montreal. Imagine how I felt to see someone else arriving at church on Sunday morning wearing the very same model. I laughed, and asked her how far away she'd had to go in order to find an "exclusive." She looked puzzled and said, "Why, I bought it down at Esther's (the local "Ladies' Dress Shop"!)
I tend to be more like Julianne anyway, so finding someone else wearing the same coat or dress or whatever isn't a problem for me -- with any luck, we'll style it quite differently anyway.

neki desu said...

hmm. and i thought being vague about the source of a garment was strictly european.live and learn.

neki desu

Imogen Lamport said...

I tend to recycle clothes on when I see too many of the same garment around, or when a pattern is used very widely.

I think it's more about how you put it together rather than just having the same item. I like to be more individual and creative in the way I dress.

s. said...

What a wonderful story... so, how did you end up living in Toronto the Good?!

Duchesse said...

s.: I moved to Canada (from Michigan) to work in early '70s and liked it so much I never returned.