I realize that summer is only over in the academic sense. Weather’s still decent, and I don’t have kids so it’s summer for me constantly. But every year at this time the whole ‘Back to School’ thing is like a nostalgia clock that’s permanently set to 1986. My brain is hardwired to stop screwing around and get out of the pool already. So even though I’m wearing shorts and walking my dog in the sunshine, my inner child is at school. Who am I kidding, I was never really a child so I must have an inner short-bus driver, or inner cafeteria lady yanking my emotional school bell which would account for all the metaphorical tater-tots being hurled at the back of my head. Either way, I may be on the sidewalk picking up poop but my heart is in a classroom, sitting at a desk on a beautiful day, looking out the window at some poor woman picking up poop.
All this to say that this time of year makes me want to shop.
I’m an adult. I can buy pens any time of year and, not to brag, I don’t have to wait for a sale. I don’t need a snazzy binder with velcro flaps and zippered compartments and dividers. I want one. But I don’t want one in February or July, only in September. I used to love back to school shopping because I used to love school and that’s why I knew September would be a toughie in this challenge because I am so susceptible to both suggestion and nostalgia. If summer’s end is a death then September represents the promising start of something new. It’s the kind of rebirth that deserves cute boots to go with my Trapper Keeper. If you don’t know what a Trapper Keeper is, it’s what held our ‘Seven and the Ragged Tiger’ cassettes and copies of ‘Sassy‘. If you don’t know what a cassette is go ask a grown-up for help.
Sometime around sixth or seventh grade I became irrationally concerned with finding the perfect hue of denim that might best accentuate my perm. Did I want the blue striped mini-dress or the red, those being the two options in the Sears catalogue that I pored over as if it were ‘Vogue’, which in a way, for a small-town girl of limited means, it was. The only time I had a chance at buying anything different was on our back to school shopping trips that we’d take to Vermont and upstate New York. The factory outlet was a relatively new experience but one tailor made (pun intended) for my frugal Scottish Mum who translated our clan motto as ‘ye shall ne’er pay retail’. That was around the time the 80′s brand/logo craze was amping up to redefine cafeteria seating rituals in schools across North America when “who are you wearing?” became a not only a question that could make or break your fragile status, but a more subtle way of determining between cool and uncool.
Cool: It’s the most ephemeral and nebulous of all states and a fleeting and fickle mistress. Her ever-changing rules and definitions are too much for a young mind to navigate, so the easiest thing to do just act like everybody else. Blend in until it’s time to stand out, which, based on my experience, usually occurs somewhere between tenth and eleventh grade. For me it was when I started listening to The Doors, wearing an army jacket and peace sign earrings and flaunting my irony like the Boomers were flaunting their smugness. I questioned everything, refusing to listen to any opinion that might reside in the grey area. Life is either black or white to teenagers which is why they are assholes. It’s their job. That and deciding what is and isn’t cool. No wonder they’re so bitchy.
The responsibility of establishing what people wear, read, watch, listen to and consume in general shouldn’t be left to a demographic who don’t yet have fully formed hippocampi lest we be subjected to another Bieber or High School Musical sequel. Yes, my generation of teens were responsible for bike shorts and Milli Vanilli (blame it on the rain, I was listening to The Doors, remember?) but now that the damage is done I realize that the ‘cool’ each generation seeks is really just something they can all get together and reminisce about years from now at weddings and reunions and facebook groups or whatever their adult version will be that can ultimately embarrass their kids. In essence, what today’s teens are buying is their generation’s hoop skirts, love beads, and parachute pants we’ll see for sale at Value Village at a fraction of the price in approximately 13.4 years. Teens are busy building their nostalgia. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to buy a pair of jeggings.
Part of the impetus for this project was to better understand my own personal reasons for being so enamored of the latest, coolest thing. Why do I get seduced by the slick ads featuring people too beautiful and confident to be in high school wearing outfits that I just might be able to pull off with a nip here and a tuck there? Because all this ‘Back to School’ marketing reminds me of the blank slate that was a new year of school where I had the chance to reinvent myself. I was a fairly popular kid. I was funny and goofy and smart , but I was never cool. I found a way to manoeuver through the complex teen strata and come out fairly unscathed because I trusted myself and I liked myself. But it’s harder to do that as an adult when you have a lifetime of experiences that can paint a muddled picture of who you are in the universe. Teen Di would probably say something like “Stop mixing the black and white together, you’re like totally ruining the perspective. Oh, and also, Mr Mojo Risin is an anagram for Jim Morrison.” Man, she’s an asshole, but she’s right.