The Dot-Com Millionaire and the $4 Shoes

Not Florsheims but still cool

Not Florsheims but still cool

Fashion is a truly subjective thing. Adorning one’s body with the latest garments from top designers to some may be the be-all and end-all of existence. Others seem quite happy to outfit themselves with simple clothing from local discount stores, oblivious to manufacturer name or lack of pedigree. Some pour over the fashion magazines, eager to get a sense of the trendiest styles and hopefully emulate those able to afford high-priced clothing. Each season’s clothing line from the top fashion houses becomes a sought-after goal; perhaps in a quest to prove one’s intrinsic worth through the wearing of exotic garb. Indeed, a trip to any major city around the world will provide many with inspiration, not only from the historic architecture and fascinating sights, but also from observing the attire chosen by the local residents. From those high-flyers strolling down Broadway in New York, clad in silk suits, patterned dresses, and toasty warm woolen overcoats, to the debonair criss-crossing Michigan Avenue in Chicago, wrapped up in the finest scarves known to man, self-expression can be found in all forms of clothing.

Perhaps one’s preference leans more towards tie-dyed T-shirts and leather sandals; in which case perhaps a visit to Berkeley or San Francisco may prove fruitful in the search for such garb. The farmer or construction worker may find value in a sturdy pair of work boots, while a teenager from Sydney may gravitate towards suede and shearling clogs. As different as each of us is, it seems there is a special style that we can call our own; an identifier of sorts, separating us from our neighbor and establishing our uniqueness in society.

We all strive to cover our nakedness not only out of a sense of modesty but more likely a need for practicality; most of the outdoors can be harsh on our skin and thus clothes and shoes are essential to our very lives. Unless we find ourselves in the outback of Australia or in the rain forests of Brazil, needing mere loincloths or body paint, a more complex array of protection and expression becomes mandatory. In modern Western society, we therefore must seek out and establish a method for adorning ourselves in order to properly interact with others. Thus, the clothing industry is born.

And so we shop.

Notwithstanding the ability of some more affluent of us to travel to Paris or London to attend the annual fashion shows, a more basic requirement for decorating ourselves presents us with a quandary unique to our financial means. Listen, I’d love to go to a fancy department store and plunk down over $5000 in one visit! However, nobody’s subsidizing my shopping trips, so alas I find myself remanded to the more modest venues for my clothes shopping. Of course, having been a lifelong thrifter, I have developed a rather warped view of the value of things and thus perhaps might not possess an accurate perspective on what one should typically pay for garments. I take great umbrage to the thought of parting with more than $10 for a pair of jeans, so a recent visit to Sears on a quest for Christmas presents found me on more than one occasion laughing out loud at the prices displayed on the racks. Avoiding the sidelong glances of the saleslady stacking T-shirts nearby, I muffled an indignant snort or two as I scoffed at the temerity of the store to price a simple hoodie at well over $50. Are they serious, I thought to myself, looking over the cheap plastic zipper, destined for breakage within a month or two. The thing looked no more substantial than an overgrown sweatshirt; the only seeming justification of such an outrageous price being the tiny label stitched in the neckline. Did they expect the wearer to turn the jacket inside-out, so as to impress anyone with sharp enough eyes to see the tag?

I have a confession. I have not always been this cheap. Thrifter or not, during my teenage years, when money poured fairly easily from my poor mother’s purse, for me price was not a concern. I recall many times giving her the “eye,” (my lame attempt at a puppy-dog look) virtually begging her for the latest designer jeans. All my friends had their behinds covered with designer jeans! How could I face the world clad in lowly off-brand dungarees? Perish the thought! More often than not, my indulgent mother would shell out, albeit reluctantly, the money, and before I knew it, I too became a high school fashion diva. I felt ALIVE in my snazzy jeans, worthy of respect and admiration (or at least not the target of teasing for wearing something uncool).

That changed when I moved out of their house and had to pay for things myself. All of a sudden, the luster of such an expense dulled and my high fashion sense took a back seat to survival. Whereas before, money was no object to me, now the thought of parting with my hard-earned cash for such an extravagance as designer jeans seemed abhorrent. Thus, my “cheap” sensibilities resurfaced and once again I found myself scouring the dusty racks at the local thrift store, seeking high fashion wedged amongst the polyester muumuus. A $5 pair of slightly ratty, “worn in” jeans seemed quite suitable when I was faced with paying for my own electricity and rent. And so a thrifter was reborn.

Fast forward many years. A married lady now, with a husband possessing the same frugal mindset, I frequently scanned the shelves at our local resale shops for duds for my dude. He seemed quite happy with his secondhand sweaters and pre-worn pants. These items were easy to find; however, it proved more difficult to shod his feet. Similarly outraged at the exorbitant prices for men’s dress shoes at local department stores, he and I would often return to the thrift stores, looking for suitable substitutes. More often than not, we’d come away empty-handed; it seemed these were the Holy Grail of the secondhand venues. It was as if there’d been a run on fine Italian leather wing tips just prior to our arrival and all that remained were scuffed sneakers and careworn slippers in his size.

This continued to haunt us until one day when on one of our usual thrifting jaunts, I heard a familiar voice calling my name. Whirling about, almost upending a rack of leather belts, I peered over the rows and rows of men’s clothing to see my husband waving me over, his hands clutching something dark and mysterious. Curious, I ventured towards him, smiling at his childlike attempt at a jig in the aisle.

“What’d you find, Elvis?” I laughed. “Better,” he smirked, holding his treasure, “how’s about a size 10 and a half Florsheim Imperials in cordovan?” He plunked himself down on a dented metal lawn chair and proceeded to pull off his sneakers. After a moment of wriggling and tying, he stood up, beaming. “What do you think? Can I wear these to the office?” he asked, pointing at his feet. I had to admit, he was a vision. Clad in his dusty jeans, an old sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and the shiniest dress shoes I had ever seen, he was adorable. “How much?” I asked. Holding one foot aloft, clutching the wall for support, he produced the price tag on the bottom. I was impressed. For a mere $3.99, he could walk the streets of Corporate America with pride. We brought them home and he wore the shoes proudly to work every day, his coworkers never suspecting the source of his fashionable footwear.

A funny thing happened shortly after that day. Attending a party with some of our oldest friends including a pal Alex had known from childhood who had become a “dot-com” millionaire, the dinner conversation turned to shoes. Admiring the thrift store wing tips, our friend Tony exclaimed how similar they were to his own $500 pair. He wanted to know where we had bought them. Sharing a knowing smile with me, Alex turned to Tony and held up his foot. After a bit of confusion, Tony squinted at the tiny, somewhat scuffed but still legible label. He sputtered, red-faced, and snorted, “$4? You’ve gotta be kidding me! I would have had enough left over for a night on the town if I hadn’t plunked down this ransom for mine!” Slapping his back, Alex smiled, “I guess you’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd!”

Rules of the Road for Thrift Store Fashion: Coolness doesn’t always come with a big pricetag.
From: Second Hand Roses: Lessons From the Junktiquing Road, copyright 2009 Dawn Edwards











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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I look upon finds like those $3.99 shoes as my just reward for the countless trips I make to resale stores looking for that one illusive item.

    • Thanks, Cindy.
      I appreciate that comment. It’s true. Sometimes if you have enough patience, you find some diamonds amidst the roughness!

  2. Wow. I never thought about fashion like that. That’s a great post. Funny!

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