11 January 2011

Link: Girl with a Satchel

AVOIDING TEMPTATION: I recently found this vintage wool coat in an op shop, and it brought back a lot of memories for me. Not because I’m of a similar vintage to the coat, but because I used to buy a lot of vintage clothing. I once had such an extensive collection of vintage clothing that my sister, who is an actor, would raid my wardrobe whenever she needed costumes for a show.

But my love of vintage clothing once stopped me from making friends. Or it didn’t -  who can say for sure? – but what happened was this: For about four years I worked as an usher in the city. Between the matinee and the evening performances, I would try to get to as many city vintage clothing stores as I could. One night, as I made my way back to work for the evening shift, I noticed my fellow ushers sitting in assorted configurations at  various cafés and restaurants near the theatre. It suddenly occurred to me that in four years, I hadn’t once whiled away the hours between shifts  with a colleague. I hadn’t once had dinner with a colleague. For four years I’d been so determined to get to all my favourite shops before the start of the next shift I’d failed to get to know anyone.

Another downside was loving the clothes too much. Revering the clothes, even. Every time I’ve moved house, a box has gone missing. Don’t ask me how, but it seems I can’t move house without losing a box. One time, the box I lost was the one containing three vintage coats and a dress. Oh, how I mourned the loss of those clothes! You’d think  I’d lost an arm or a leg.

It would be very easy to replace those clothes. There are vintage clothing stores everywhere, and while vintage clothing can be expensive, it’s still generally cheaper than good-quality new clothing. But where would I draw the line? If I were to walk into a vintage clothing store, it would be all too easy to walk out with armloads of purchases. Cumulatively, it’d send me to the poorhouse. Not unlike a teenager at Supré, perhaps? So the only solution for me is not to walk into vintage clothing stores at all. A vintage piece once in a blue moon - which is about how often a vintage piece that fits me and suits me might turn up in an op shop - will have to do. And if I lose it? Well, easy come easy go.  

RICH ENOUGH: I used to dream about being able to afford designer clothing, gemstone jewellery, antique furniture and an Italianate mansion in a hip, inner-city suburb. I used to dream about being rich, but I honestly don’t do that anymore. This is not to say that if a windfall came my way I wouldn’t live it up, but I’m not chasing that windfall in any meaningful way.

The dream of expensive clothing, jewellery and furniture went first. When I made the switch from buying new to buying (mostly) second-hand, I stopped coveting things and merely rejoiced in what I found when I went shopping.

Then the dream of living in a hip, inner-city suburb went. This came about because my boyfriend’s new job meant a move to a rented house in a country town. As it turned out, it wasn’t just any country town, but a country town where I managed to make good friends. I was as surprised as anyone that I should suddenly have a host of new friends as I approached my mid-thirties.

Then the dream of the Italianate mansion went. My boyfriend and I recently purchased a fibro house in said country town. The house is very basic, but the garden is rambling and beautiful, and we have good friends in the area. So the quality of the house itself hardly even matters.

During the tense, week-long negotiation with the real estate agent over the price, I remember thinking, “We won’t get it. Nobody gets everything they want.” And I was as surprised as anyone that I should be thinking this way about a very basic house; that it was all I wanted after a lifetime of aspiring to an Italianate mansion.

Generally, the richer you are, the bigger your impact on the environment (the likes of Allen Ginsberg aside). Movie stars and old-money heiresses are often dubbed environmental activists when they plant organic vegetable gardens or purchase hybrid cars. But those same people can be seen living in extravagant homes, holidaying all over the world, and wearing new outfits to every event. The trappings of the good life don’t come at no environmental cost.

BEHIND THE TIMES: Recently, while reading about Mischa Barton causing upheaval on the set of The Beautiful Life, I thought to myself, “Why on earth are they still going on about this?” Then it hit me, and I turned to the front of the magazine. Ah, it was a year old.

Yes, I’ll confess: I sometimes read year-old magazines. And the reason for this is because I buy my magazines at op shops. Normally, I’m quite careful about buying only relatively recent issues that are also in pretty pristine condition, but this one must have slipped through the cracks.

Once upon a time, I thought there was nothing more thrilling that the sight of a latest-issue magazine, and nothing more deflating than the sight of an old one - especially the ones languishing in waiting rooms or take-away shops. Is there something to be said about a product that dates so absolutely?

I generally have a favourite high-end cover girl for years at a time (Winona Ryder in my teens, Gwyneth Paltrow in my twenties, Eva Green in my thirties). But I understand that the pleasure of a magazine, like my fixation with my favourite cover girls, is skin-deep.

I once visited an acquaintance at her home and was surprised to discover that she bought at least four different gossip magazines each and every week. This meant there were so many of them they were piled up on chairs and tables in every room of the house.

This acquaintance had never given any indication that she was so well-versed in the lives of celebrities, and my overriding thought was not that she was having a jolly old time reading about the lives of the rich and famous. My overriding thought was that maybe she was a little bit lonely.

A HISTORY OF EVERYDAY LIFE: For a long time, the cheese grater I owned and which everyone I knew owned was the box grater or the handheld flat grater. Then IKEA came out with its “chosigt” grater, which fits snugly over a plastic container and is interchangeable with a plastic lid for storage.

It’s a nifty idea, but it isn’t an original idea. The Tupperware version, in signature Tupperware pale apple green, has been around since the 1960s. And you can potentially find either - or both - at an op shop.

image via Tupper Diva
That’s the thing about op shops - the product range might be unpredictable and unreliable, but it can span decades.

I was recently in the market for a new leather belt. I went to an op shop that had a good selection of belts and stood there, trying various ones on. Most of the belts were far too small. Some of them wouldn’t even go around my waist.

When at last I came across a belt that both looked good and was a good fit, I felt as if I’d finally stepped out of the past and back into the modern era. In the modern era, you see, the average woman is a size 14. Not a wasp-waisted, 1950s… Tupperware party hostess.

TOO MUCH CHOICE: Can a Brotherhood be too big? Maybe not a Brotherhood of Man, but a Brotherhood of St Laurence can. I recently visited the BSL store in Brunswick. It’s a cavernous place with racks and racks of clothing, a dozen tightly-packed shelves of CDs, and a large section of floor space devoted to furniture. I could have spent hours in there, but I didn’t. It was all too much.

When faced with a single shelf of CDs, I can flick through the lot in under a minute and maybe come away with something. Faced with a dozen shelves, I started to get a sore neck and mild nausea from squinting at all those spines. And my enthusiasm for working my way through the racks of clothing started to wane after one or two racks. I felt I couldn’t do the store justice, so I barely did the store at all.

There are a number of independently-owned bric-a-brac stores located throughout Melbourne that seem, from the outside, to be endless treasure troves. But at some point the endlessness of it starts to feel like a sort of sickness, possibly even evidence of compulsive hoarding behaviour.

I like small to medium-sized op shops best, the kind where you can take in most of what is on offer from the doorway, with only one or two sections that have to be rummaged through in a fastidious fashion.

The idea of choice is often presented to us as one of the boons of modern life, but there is such a thing as too much choice. Being “spoilt for choice” in a typical suburban shopping centre is one of the reasons I turned to op shops. I found I was never satisfied after being “spoilt for choice”. I would buy something, but then the next shop along would have something better, something cheaper, something more.

But I rarely leave an op shop feeling unsatisfied with what I bought. Instead, I feel fortunate to have found it.

PARTY FAVOURS: Two dollar shops and their ilk can end up being strangely expensive places to shop. A friend once went to a local two dollar shop to buy an assortment of party favours and ended up spending over $60. You see, really cheap party favours generally look really cheap, so you feel obliged to put at least three or four items into each party bag just to make the whole thing look half-decent. And it all adds up.

Many of the items don’t even do what they’re supposed to do. The recorders play only one note, the erasers don’t erase, the yo-yos aren’t possessed of enough weight to roll themselves back up their strings. It’s as if the manufacturers never even intended for these products to work, let alone last. And this -more than the cost - is what strikes me as obscene. It’s just a quick buck for them, a passing thrill for the kids, then a lifetime in landfill.

But you can bypass the waste and embedded energy costs of all this by buying your party favours from op shops. One year, I came across an assortment of glass sea creatures hanging from delicate glass bubbles. They were beautiful and priced at just $1 each. I suspended them in a tank of water and as each child left the party they were blindfolded and treated to a “lucky fish dip”.

Another year, I found a batch of polka-dot, glow-in-the-dark cardboard bow ties and put one in front of each child’s plate in lieu of a party hat. It wasn’t until many months later that a parent said to me, “Are you aware that those polka dots were actually little sperms and condoms?” So yes, do buy your Party Pieces (that’s right – bring on William and Kate’s wedding!) second-hand. Just maybe not the surplus stock from an old safe sex campaign.

SLOW AND STEADY: I can be the worst when it comes to impulse buying, especially if a local op shop is having a fill-a-bag-for-$5 day. On these days, I find myself guilty not only of buying things I don’t really need, but of buying things I don’t even want. After all, it’s hardly value for money if I leave the bag half-empty!

But I have learnt restraint when it comes to waiting until something I want appears in an op shop before buying it. There were a few false starts. After years of wearing silver I decided, one day, that it was time to make the switch to gold. Suddenly, I was desperate for a pair of gold sleepers. For months I checked out the jewellery cabinets of op shops and pawn shops, to no avail. So I gave up and bought a new pair from a regular jewellery store. Wouldn’t you know it? I then saw gold sleepers in three different op shops over the next few weeks.

By the time I decided I wanted a nice fire tool set, I had the waiting game down pat. The only heating in our new house was a wood burner, and I made do with kitchen tongs for over two years. There were plenty of unattractive contemporary fire tool sets in op shops, and plenty of beautiful but very expensive ones in antique stores. I held out, and held out, and held out. Finally, I found the perfect brass set for $15 in a Salvos store. It was bliss.

If my daughters want something, they ask for it and I tell them I’ll buy it for them if and when I find it in an op shop. They waited six months for roller skates, a year for a paisley-print dress (I have one, you see) and nigh on two years for a video of the third Swan Princess movie. What goes around comes around, so the girls generally get what they want in the end, but they have to wait indefinitely.

One of the unexpected fringe benefits of all this is that whenever my mother-in-law gives the girls back to me after a sleepover she says, “Your girls are so good. At the shops they never ask for anything.” This is not to say that the girls can’t be bad-mannered, self-centred and unkind. But they’re not particularly image-conscious and they’re not particularly materialistic. So far.

GIFT-GIVING: It’s not that some people are more deserving than others, merely that some people are a darned sight easier to buy for. So the contents of my present cabinet is weighted very much in favour of those family members who are possessed of an identifiable aesthetic; a sense of personal style.

I keep a well-stocked present cabinet because I do most of my shopping in op shops. In op shops, you can’t always find what you want when you want it. Instead, you have to keep your loved ones in mind at all times, and when the right item presents itself you snap it up and put it away until you need it.

Needless to say, stylish things are much easier to find in op shops than fashionable or faddish things. I’m yet to come across a Masterchef cookbook or Susan Boyle CD, and by the time I do it’ll probably be passé.

But things that were never really “in” will never really be “out”. I have a brother-in-law whose interests include band T-shirts, wooden masks, tiki mugs and cane furniture. I have so many things for him in my present cabinet at any one time that some of them languish in there for years. After all, just because he is more fun to buy for doesn’t mean he ought to get more presents than everyone else come Christmas.

For other family members, I have to be alert to whatever little titbits of information I can glean from conversation. For instance, my father-in-law recently revealed that he hadn’t even heard of the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. I happen to know he enjoyed Bleak House and most of the recent Austen adaptations, so I’ll be on the lookout for a second-hand copy of the Little Dorrit DVD between now and his birthday in June. If I can’t find one in an op shop, Dixons and Cash Converters stores or Ebay will be a good bet.

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