Whatever happened to those thrift-store days? I can tell you two things that happened with me: 1. I stopped having the sort of body that would magically fit any goofy outfit; 2. the act of wearing short-sleeved dressed shirts with company names on the right breast and silly first names on the left became untenable when people started thinking that was my name and where I worked … as opposed to being some ironic twentysomething twist on uniforms.
I didn’t really get into thrift stores until college, and that started with a teenage fascination with navy peacoats, which could be found in Army/Navy stores. I don’t even know if Army/Navy stores still even exist in that traditional sense of a dimly-lit, slightly seedy store run by a crusty Korean War vet that specialized in selling surplus/used armed forces equipment and clothing. All the cool kids in high school wore ratty Army field jackets, and some wore Navy peacoats. I went the peacoat route, and could buy these things new in an Army/Navy store for under $50. I’d also buy cool badges and buttons to throw in the mix. A lot of kids did this – army pants, camouflage wear, knit hats. I guess with Vietnam recently over, there was a ton of this stuff floating around, so why not sell it to weird and stoner kids, none of whom looked like army material and weren't wearing the clothes out of any national pride.
In State College, PA, I found an Army/Navy store that also seemed to be part thrift store, which was a pleasant surprise to me, as I’d never go into thrift or Salvation Army stores back home. But I became a steady customer at the Penn State store, my main acquisition, and staple of my college days, being a knee-length, khaki army field coat which I wore through most of my 20s. But I was buying all kinds of shit, including the used civilian clothing the store must have been making a killing on with college kids.
When I got out of school in the late 80s, it was just as much a financial necessity as a hip thing to shop at thrift stores. There was a strange thing about that time, and well into the 90s, in that the timing was just right for a lot of widows to bring their recently-deceased husbands’ clothes into Salvation Army stores as donations. These guys were in their 70s and 80s, and happened to wear some pretty cool shit back when they were young men in the 1920s. Even in rural Pennsylvania, specifically the Salvation Army stores in Pottsville and Shenandoah, I would find the most amazing suits and blazers going for under $20.
People remember me as a clothes horse in my 20s, but I was simply poaching vintage threads from these ratty little stores, often surrounded by welfare folks and the strange assortment of garage-sale types drawn to these kind of places. I owned about five suits back then and looked great in them. Only problem was they often smelled like mothballs, even after having them dry cleaned. I could live with it.
My body was the perfect size to fit many of these suits, sort of an adult-male template: a waist size that hovered between 32 and 34, and a coat size that was around 38 or 40. I have short legs (30 inches), so that could be a bit of a drag with longer pants legs, but my mom didn’t mind hemming these things, as she’d been doing the same thing for years with all the hand-me-down clothes I had worn.
These days, I don’t even own a suit. I got one average looking black blazer that I can wear for any sort of minor formalities. I wear ties all the time due to work and have a pretty solid collection of those (most from that great “Save the Children” campaign in the 90s … ties featuring children’s drawings … cool shit that wins compliments when I wear them). Pants are always khakis of varying colors – don’t own any jeans. (I never liked denim as a fabric – too heavy. Never quite understood why it’s the designated fabric for teenagers to wear. The only teen fashion constant for the past four decades.)
My body got bigger! Partially because I just got heavier in my 30s, but also boxing had a noticeable impact on my body, giving me a much broader back and shoulders, a bigger frame in general – my coat size now is up around 50-52. I don’t have fat on my shoulders – all these years of hitting heavy bags and working out hard have simply made me bigger. People who knew me in my 20s, when they see me now, remember that skinny kid and are a bit shocked that I could now pass for a bouncer. (I’d like to be a bit thinner, but also recognize that being bigger has its benefits, i.e., less goons messing with you on the street and such. There’s a certain quiet confidence you get when you’re not a skinny little rail.)
I’d imagine I could still get lucky with some clothes in thrift stores, but the reality is most of the clothes are geared towards that earlier size I had. Even if I was that size again, I’ve still out-grown those clothes in some sense. As noted in the first paragraph, you can only pull off that irony thing with certain kinds of clothes when you’re a gawky 21-year-old who doesn’t give a shit about anything. To pull a reverse sort of irony would be bad news. In other words, for a grown man to dress like a teenager, as some type of sly commentary on their condition, would be a joke no one would get. People would think “what’s wrong with that guy” as opposed to “oh, I get it.”
I’m trying to think about what all of this says. As I recall, I thought wearing stuff like bowling shirts, Japanese baseball jerseys and fake company shirts was pretty cool. I can even recall wearing a rope for a belt, a la Jethro Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. (Mojo Nixon once saw me wearing this at one of his shows at the old Ritz on 11th Street and worked it into one of his songs that night.) The idea was to both send up and pay tribute to some form of American life – the concept of middle-aged men in bowling leagues, or some guy named Gus working at an air-conditioning company. You didn’t hate these people, but by the same token, in a way you were sneering at them, because you weren’t them and perceived yourself as being much more young, wild and unable to pin down like that in some sense.
The problem, of course, is that you have nothing worthwhile to pin down, haven’t really established a solid identity of your own, particularly one that isn’t based on mimicking or goofing on the set image of older people. You’re a smart-ass kid. And nothing against smart-ass kids – I surely was one, and still am one now, at heart. Another aspect of the whole thrift-store way of life was to take things that people had thrown away and make them useful again. So, on top of the irony, there’d be this half-assed cultural archeology going on, sorting through clothing thought to be garbage by most people and creating your own identity out of it.
I wouldn’t call it noble, because I know it wasn’t, but it was some type of attempt at individuality. The problem came when you recognized you weren’t the only twentysomething smartass rooting through the bins, and you’d go see a band in a club, only to be met by other similarly-aged, skinny-rail guys in postal worker shirts and ancient cardigans. I’m not sure if they still exist downtown, but in the 90s, dozens of vintage clothing stores sprung up, selling for top-dollar what many of us were finding for less than $10 in Salvation Army stores. That’s probably also the point where I checked out mentally, because I could see there was something really wrong with that, with stores designing their own retro bowling shirts and selling them for $150 a piece.
The concept, free of irony, would be a bowling league in 1950 contacting a uniform company, choosing what was then a flashy design, getting the first names of all the guys on a team, and ordering a dozen shirts, so when these guys showed up at the alley, they’d have snazzy team shirts, complete with their names on them. And that somehow seems more cool to me than the concept of a kid in 1989 pulling one of these shirts from the $5 rack at a Salvation Army store and thinking, “Fuckin’ A, nobody’s going to believe me in this shirt!”
I think, in some strange way, if you peeled away the layers of hipness, you’d find a person who would love to be on a bowling team, free of irony, or at least belong to something that inclusive and bonding, with no bullshit, no fronts, just the pure enjoyment of whatever the task at hand is. At that point in life, the person, me for instance, would be incapable of admitting that desire, much less even understanding what it is, or knowing that with passing time, the facades would slowly fade, and it would simply make sense one day to actually be part of a bowling league, or work at a beer distributorship, or any number of adult issues that kids have no concept of, therefore they sneer at the very idea of it. I’m not sneering at the kids here – just trying to see if there’s some unbroken line that leads from one place to the other. From a rebellious kid who doesn’t see himself as being part of anything, to a more experienced adult who has no problem showing his allegiance to a given group, no matter what anyone else thinks.
Does all that make any sense? Or do kids just wear goofy shit because they think it looks cool?