Back to School Edition! 7 Stories About School Shopping and First Day Clothes

A child in a bedroom holding new school supplies
Photo courtesy of Christina Owens

Dismantle is back from summer break with a new look, new clothes (check out our new logo tee’s, totes, and more!), and big goals for the year. To celebrate, this edition of After Party features several of our contributors reflecting on the American ritual of back to school shopping. For many of us it was an exciting, tense, confusing process. It was a chance to reinvent ourselves, to learn about who we were and how we were shaped by the world around us, to decide how to use the — often limited — resources available to us to create the version of our identities we wanted the world to see. In short, it encapsulates everything we love and hate about fashion. So, enjoy seven stories about what we wore on some pivotal first days, and the complicated processes of acquiring and living in those clothes.

Madeleine Barbier: Chameleon Casual

Maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the year where you wear the clothes you actually want to, where you bring your true wants and desires closer to the surface.

For me, back to school shopping through late elementary school and to the ends of high school always revolved around one integral question: how can I best blend in this year? In Santa Cruz, where I was raised, casual is key, and surf or skate brands show wealth and social belonging. But because I wasn’t interested in surfing or skating and had no knowledge of either, if I was getting new clothes, my mom and I would go to places like Mervyn’s or Macy’s and look for graphic tee’s, black hoodies, jeans and van’s. This basic uniform did not achieve a high level of branding, but it allowed me to be a chameleon. My vans, jeans, and t-shirts showed that I had no interest in being outside the perceived norm.

On a deeper level, back to school shopping represented a challenge for navigating the expression of a heteronormative self, as I was closeted through out all my pre-college schooling. Considering this, there was a plethora of longing in back to school shopping. Whenever fall rolled around and the opportunity to reinvent myself came with it, often a dissenting voice spoke up in my ear and said, “Maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the year where you wear the clothes you actually want to, where you bring your true wants and desires closer to the surface.” But ultimately, I never gave in to this dissenting voice. Not until college, where I slowly started to untangle the space between my outward facing heteronormative self and my queer insides. Finally, back to school shopping and the fears that came with it, ceased in mattering. I was reinventing myself on a constant basis. My fashion choices were not centered around fear, but centered around how I was feeling and who I saw myself as. Still, even to this day, fashion alone remains as my single most treasured tool in deciding how much of myself I choose to reveal and how much I choose to hide.


Dawn Lee Tu: Made by Mom

I hated the first day of school in elementary school because everyone would show up with new clothes, whereas I would show up in clothes my mom and grandma had made me. At that age, my mom ran a sewing company in Chinatown that produced clothing for pre-Forever 21 “fast” fashion companies like Byer California. I grew up with the smell of fabric, and the sound of sewing machines running, and playing with fabric scraps. Byer never asked my mom to return the fabric leftovers so she often figured out how to efficiently cut patterns on fabrics she liked to yield enough leftover material to make me clothes.

I grew like a weed during elementary school days and hit 5 feet in height well before any of the taller boys did. By making me clothes, my immigrant, hustling, entrepreneur mom saved money and time away from work to take me out shopping. For many years I had all these handmade pieces like the overalls in the picture. I remember the feel of the fabric of the overalls; a padded cotton with a parallel quilted synthetic fiber fill. Mom piped the edges of the fabric to finish it and made a large square pocket in the middle with dark blue buttons that held the entire thing together. I remember wearing that thing until the crotch became too tight and I couldn’t play rubber band high jump rope in Chinese school anymore.

Dawn in the overalls her mother made


Anna T. Bernstein: Capitalist Nostalgia vs Poor Millennial Guilt

It’s not a specific item or outfit that stands out, but the whole Back To School Shopping experience. Sometime in late August, I would get to spend a day shopping; just me and mom. We would pick up the list from the display at the store, I could choose the coolest supplies (I assume Trapper Keepers were involved), and, at least, a First Day outfit. Afterward, we probably had some sort of treat together; coffee or ice cream or something. I looked forward to it. Maybe it lessened the blow of summer coming to an end. Maybe the careful planning of the First Day outfit, and the organization of the supplies, helped to distract from the anxiety of meeting new teachers, seeing a lot of kids, who after months apart, may or may not be nice, and waking up early. Maybe it’s just fun to have new things.

My parents were far from rich, but every year, they managed to provide this not inexpensive traditional western capitalist experience. As a parent, I want to provide the same experiences, the same memories, for my child. But I can’t. I have to choose between food and new clothes, and when he has plenty of clothes, that choice is pretty clear. I still bought him the fancy Trapper Keeper (using that most insidious of capitalist devices, the credit card). The First Day outfit was still carefully planned, but it wasn’t new. And I feel guilt and grief for that. The kid, however, does not care. I’m sure that means something.

The Kid, Not Caring

Elise M. Chatelain: Super Wal-Mart to the Rescue…Kind of

Oddly, even though I always loved putting together my first-day-of-school outfits, I can’t really remember any of them – except for the one I wore to start 9th grade. It was a significant year, but not because I would be moving on to a new school like most U.S. freshmen. Instead, in our rural Louisiana school district this was our final year in junior high, a time when finally my fellow classmates and I were going to rule the school.

So when imagining the start of this new, exciting time, I pictured my mom and I out shopping together at the mall, just as we had done for many summers before. It was never an elaborate shopping trip; places like The Limited or Macy’s were too expensive, so we’d usually go to Mervyn’s or one of those newer, generically named mall boutiques. I would always pick out one extra special first day outfit and a few more choice items. These, combined with the few things in my closet that still fit, and some hand-me-downs from my sister, would be what I would wear for most of the school year. This year, though, I dreamed I would find those clothes that would set that perfect tone for my extra-special first day.

But none of that happened. Instead, one day before I began, my family and I were in a town five hours away from home, dropping my sister off at school. And when it hit my mom that I would immediately have to start school upon our return, and I had no new clothes to wear, we rushed to the nearby Super Wal-Mart (the first one I had ever seen!).

I have no idea what else I got, but I know I picked out shorts that looked a lot like these; I loved the block-ish hip hop style and bright colors. 

I remember being a little disappointed that I wouldn’t have a ‘real’ shopping trip, and that with the limited items I got at Wal-Mart, I wouldn’t really have much new to wear. But looking back, even though I was a little embarrassed to be wearing clothes from a place to which some classmates referred as a joke, I also remember that I was incredibly appreciative to have at least something to wear on that first day of school. And I genuinely liked those ’90s striped shorts.

Wal-Mart is, of course, very often cited as the kingpin of the world’s evil clothes empire, their cheap-as-possible products made in questionable circumstances the greatest example of the terrible conditions of global capitalism. It is experiences like my own – where my fashion day was saved by being able to purchase affordable, accessible clothing of decent style and quality – that have always made me cautiously approach these kinds of blanket assertions. They are why I love the cultural studies perspective that always maintains an awareness of the way globalizing forces – as evil, terrible, and anti-human as they are – directly affect our lives in complex, often pleasurable ways. Therefore, it is a memory that helps me remember that to resist, we must change not simply our individual habits, but the larger system that makes these habits and pleasures possible.

Jennifer Saxton: Fashion vs Style vs Dress Codes

It’s karma, probably, for all the school clothes shopping I did with my mom

I’m the mother of a teen attending public high school, so school clothes are a bit of a hot-button issue right now.  The three-way conflict between any teenager’s personal style, a typical public school’s dress code, and what’s available for purchase at the local mall makes for some interesting discussions and a drawn out process. Torn jeans and bare midriffs are forbidden at school? That’s all that’s available. Skirts have to be no more than four inches above the knee? The mini skirt returns! It’s not school clothes shopping, it’s a scavenger hunt.

It’s karma, probably, for all the school clothes shopping I did with my mom. My kid is great company and a clever shopper, but she is dealing with forces beyond her control. I, however, was indecisive and unrealistic. I wanted high fashion or historical flourishes, invisibility and uniqueness. What we could manage circa 1986, was Outback Red, or maybe Units. My poor mother!

I’m excited to see what sartorial surprises this new school year brings and how teenage style evolves throughout the year. Maybe modular clothing will return?

Christina Owens: Sky City, Clearwater, SC, circa 1985.

Sky City was a discount department store in a downtrodden strip mall in the even more downtrodden factory town that I called home during elementary school. A google search tells me that it was a chain based out of North Carolina, but where I grew up there was only one Sky City, located far from the fashionable shopping centers in the nearby cities. It was the place where I got my ears pierced, where I bought my first cassette tapes, and where we would do all my back-to-school shopping. I use “we” here, but in truth almost all of my memories of Sky City feature only me – as an 8, 9, or 10 year old – shopping alone. I was being raised by a single father during these years and he fully embraced free-range parenting well before that was actually a nomenclatured thing. Maybe he was somewhere in the vicinity – perhaps back in the automotive section or a few stores down buying groceries.

In any case, by the time I was 9 or so, he had taken to telling me how much money he could spare for back-to-school purchases and then letting me loose to figure out what I wanted to buy within our budget. These were thrilling adventures, filled with responsibility. In my memory, I can still feel my child-sized body weaving in between the carousels of clothing, calculating fashion choices, pairing pieces for outfits, and keeping a mental tally of how much money I had left. Some story in a Sweet Valley High book had taught me the importance of being able to mix-and-match pieces so that I could create an array of outfits out of fewer articles of clothing. And a whole childhood of my dad’s compulsive, stream-of-consciousness musings about how he might, just might, manage to pay the next round of bills had definitely taught me the importance of frugality. As an only child I was captive audience to his monologues and had learned to silently reproduce the constant strategizing. Sky City provided free range (pun intended) to put all this knowledge, all these skills, into action.

Looking back now, I know this: it was in Sky City that I learned to find joy in the bittersweet balancing act of working-class consumption. There was never enough money for all the Lisa Frank stationary that I dreamed of owning and when I finally managed to buy a Trapper Keeper, I could only afford a plain red one that was on sale, not one with fantastic, colorful designs. I don’t think Sky City even carried the kinds of shoes that my more well-off classmates preferred – no Keds, no Sam and Libby ballet flats. And, even with my constant strategizing, sometimes I just didn’t quite make the right choices for my growing body. In the middle of 4th grade, my favorite teacher pulled me to the side and suggested that I tell my dad to take me to the store to buy a training bra. And so we made another trip to Sky City—one that was filled with a series of slightly embarrassing questions for the shop clerks. I had no idea how to shop for a bra, after all.

Sky City – the one that I went to, at least – closed in 1990. By then, I had moved away from the mill town and moved “up” to those angry teenage years of self-righteous complaint and cynicism during my back-to-school shopping sessions. The Wikipedia page on Sky City says that the store couldn’t withstand the proliferation of Wal-Marts across the Southeast. When I was visiting the area this past summer, though, I noticed that a live music venue just across the river in Augusta, Georgia has reclaimed the name. It seems appropriate that the new Sky City should cater to hipster nostalgia – nostalgia for the not-quite-hip, the questionably fashionable, the corporate underdog. Well before all my middle-class friends started embracing hipster working-class aesthetic, I was learning the ropes in Sky City – shooting for the stars but learning to make do in my little corner of consumer heaven.

Christina with her red Trapper Keeper

Sara Tatyana Bernstein: My Imaginary Tenth Grade Look-book

Growing up, the one bright spot of summer ending (aside from an end to the sweltering Southern Oregon heat) was getting to select new clothes for the school year. It was a chance to transform myself, at least a little bit, and try out different versions of who I hoped to become. Somehow, I was never teased about my clothes, despite having a very fuzzy grasp of the line between dress and costume. In third grade, I was known to appear in full-on sailor suits, complete with hat; in fourth, drop-waist Edwardian-looking dresses; poodle skirts with crinolines in fifth. For most of middle school, I just tried to be normal, but the experiments and transformations returned in eighth and ninth grades.

And yet, my favorite back to school memory actually happened in the least outwardly transformative year: tenth grade. I’d outgrown my dyed-black hair, bruise palette, and vintage everything phase, but hadn’t settled into the AP stoner/drama kid, flannel shirts and 501s, neo-hippie-grunge style that emerged my junior year. In tenth grade, I didn’t know how I wanted to look.

My family didn’t have much money and the closest fashionable city was over four hours away. But those problems seemed solvable because going into tenth grade I had a new best friend: Amy. Over that summer, the world around us almost disappeared. We hardly socialized with anyone else, even though we had plenty of friends. We just forgot. Our world was more interesting. We were living in Earthsea and Narnia, Florence and Prince Edward Island circa 1910, Jane Austen’s drawing room and John Hughes’ suburban Chicago. We were commuting from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. How does one translate all of that into a new “look” for a high school sophomore in 1990 small-town Oregon? Through Amy, who was a year older and cooler, I also now knew that it was important not to change too much over the summer. People will think you’re cheesy.

Amy and I dealt with these challenges by sitting on my bed with a notebook and cataloging ideal wardrobes. We made sketches. We crafted outfits that complemented each other’s but were distinct. We both wanted pleated plaid skirts, so we’d have to sort that out. A black turtleneck was a must for me, but Amy didn’t think it would work with her paler complexion. Forest green was generally very important. We incorporated vintage, but less obviously than I had the year before. We wanted to be…almost preppy?…but not like small town preppy. Like real preppy. With a dash of Princess Bride. We wanted Victorian lace collars. It was a lookbook of things that weren’t actually available given our location and funds.

So we tried to approximate our list with what we could find at Goodwill and the mall. I don’t remember what first day outfit Amy settled on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved a 1950s beaded cardigan and Levis. I put together a second-hand men’s suit jacket with rolled up sleeves, a maroon t-shirt, cut off 501s, black tights, and “China flats.” It boldly said, I am not a “mall” type…I just shop there sometimes. I’m not afraid to create my own look…but I’m not sure what that look is.

Amy and I eventually emerged from our bubble, figured out how to be friends within a slightly larger ecosystem, and developed styles that worked for us. By the end of the year, that outfit already made me cringe. I was so different. Thirty years later, it makes me smile because it’s those in between spaces, and times when nothing is clear so we’re open to everything, when the most interesting things emerge.  

Amy and Sara the summer before Amy’s Junior/Sara’s Sophomore year

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